The first days of the year in Tokyo are full of things to do, from the emperor’s speech to fukubukuro, to simply wandering around the city.
What are fukubukuro?
Fukubukuro are mystery bags full with goodies ranging from clothes, to anime merchandise or household anime and many more. The tradition of fukubukuro was born in the Edo period, when Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi began to sell leftover scraps of fabric. In fact, according to a Japanese superstition, traders shouldn’t start the new year with old products. Following Mitsukoshi’s example, many shopkeepers started developing innovative ideas to get rid of old products while still making a profit. This led to the creation of fukubukuro, filled with items from the previous season, excess merchandise or promotional products. The fukubukuro tradition spread into the Showa era, when most department stores adopted it as an annual event that marks the start of the new year.
VAT free if you’re on a tourist visa
Despite the anxiety of not being able to buy even one, I had managed to find a mall that simply opened after the others. Moral of the story, I went home with three fukubukuro (plus a fourth full of sweets). The problem was that I couldn’t open them until I was home in Italy, because I was able to get my tax money back. Many shopping malls in Japan, in fact, have an office where you can show your receipts and passport to refund your taxes (VAT). Being a foreigner is not enough: you must have a valid tourist visa on your passport and buy certain products for more than 5000 yen. The assistant will then ‘seal’ your purchases and put a mini receipt on your passport. The condition for the return is in fact not to open the items while you are in Japan. You can collect the mini receipts once you have passed the security checks at the airport.
Nesnad, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
How to buy a fukubukuro?
There are various ways to buy fukubukuro. In the past years, many pre-sales were made online to avoid crowds. Usually there are two main ways. The first is to line up to get a note which you will then present at the store once it opens. The second is to dash up the escalators when the mall opens (what I did). The shop assistants scream to lure you into the various shops and close the sale. I recommend checking first which brands are similar to your style and if you like the main objects in fukubukuro. In fact, although you don’t know what’s inside, you get at least one guaranteed item to be present and a general list of items inside. For clothes, for example, you usually get a coat or jacket and then a listing like “3 tops, 2 bottoms, 1 accessory”. I have loved practically every piece of my fukubukuro and, indeed, I have found things in them that I would never have bought, but that I keep wearing because I like them.
Reusing the bags
Especially if the bags are made of fabric and you don’t mind the big logo of the brand on them, then you can reuse the fukubukuro. They work well as weekender bags as they can be quite big! Sometimes they may sell fukubukuro that include a small trolley that will fit most airlines requirements and is easy to carry around.
You can also use the bags to store clothes when you change wardrobe for the changing seasons.
That day for us ended in line in front of the imperial palace to greet Emperor Akihito. It was the last year before his son, Emperor Naruhito, succeeded him, and we really wanted to be there. We weren’t the only ones! There had been a record of visits and it was later than the organizers thought, so when we arrived the emperor was already gone! The staff put the video of the speech on the screens. We were a little sad, a little disappointed, but still many were screaming “Banzai!”. I don’t know if it was the crowd continuing to stay there or what, but they decided to add a greeting, apologizing that not all members of the imperial family would be present. I can’t tell you the cheers of the people when the emperor appeared! We were all there shouting “Banzai!” and wave our hands.
It was truly a truly fantastic experience.
Cover photo: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons