Department stores have been a mainstay in North American culture for decades, but department stores exist in some form around the world.
In Japan, department stores or (デパート, depāto) are an entity in and of themselves and have become not only a constant in the lives of locals but a tourist destination of sorts for those traveling through Japan.
The History Of Japanese Department Stores
The first official Japanese department store was created in the early 1900s, though the company that started this department store had existed since the 1600s.
Not long after these Mitsukoshi department stores began serving Japan, Matsuzakaya would also change from being kimono shops to offering more items to shoppers.
This company also started allowing people to wear their shoes inside to create a more casual atmosphere. Various railway stations in Japan would also follow suit, giving shoppers more opportunities to pick up miscellaneous items they needed on their commutes.
Department stores in Japan were often reserved for shoppers with the biggest wallets and weren’t as accessible to the general public as they are now.
Since the items they kept in stock were so expensive, most people couldn’t afford to shop in department stores even if they wanted to. While some department stores can still be expensive today, they are more welcoming than they once were.
In Japanese, a department store is known as a hyakkaten, though they are sometimes referred to as depato as well.
What Sets Japanese Department Stores Apart
Japanese department stores have not forgotten their roots as kimono stores, with many of them still having a section that honors this tradition.
Since department stores have been a staple in Japan for many years, they are often regarded as an aspect of Japanese culture. Department stores can be compared to malls in how large and filled to the brim with shops and stores they often occupy five to ten stories of large buildings in urban areas.
Even though Japanese department stores are endlessly large, how items are displayed and packaged is something to be admired.
Many things sold here, including treats, snacks, and homewares, are packaged beautifully, making them suitable gifts or souvenirs. Even when you make a purchase, your purchases are bagged nicely.
While their popularity has recently dwindled due to retailers like convenience stores expanding their offerings, they are still celebrated and frequented due to how much they offer consumers and tourists.
The array of food is perhaps one of the highlights of these stores above everything else offered.
Popular Japanese Department Stores
Some Japanese department stores can be found across Japan, with a few locations outside the country. Others are unique to specific areas in Japan.
Department stores unique to Kanto area include Keio, Odakyu, Tobu, and Tokyu Department Stores, as well as Lumine and Mariu, which are known for their fashion offerings.
In the Kyushu region of Japan, department stores worth visiting include Ryubo, Iwataya, Tamaya Department Store, and Tsuruya Department Store.
The Chubu region also has Entetsu and Meitetsu Department Stores, Kansai has Hanshin, Kintetsu, and Keihan Department Stores, and Chugoku has Fukuya and Ichibata.
Where To Look For Japanese Department Stores
Department stores in Japan tend to be found mostly in larger cities, as well as in some railway stations. Since the transportation system in Japan is so extensive and sophisticated, railway stations in and of themselves tend to be incredible experiences.
In larger cities, department stores can usually be spotted in the hubs of the cities or the city centers.
Tokyo is one such hotspot for department stores with all the shopping districts in the city. Most shopping districts highly frequented by both tourists and locals will have a department store within them.
Ikebukuro is an example of a railway station surrounded by department stores, with Shibuya being a modern shopping district frequented by the most fashionable in Japan.
Kyoto Station has department stores in the area as well, as does the Shijo-Dori shopping district.
What To Look For At Japanese Department Stores
Japanese department stores are often massive, spanning multiple floors with organized sections for each commodity offered. Many will have one floor dedicated to various grocery items and prepared food that can be enjoyed in-store.
One can often find traditional sections with kimonos and Japanese pottery, among other culturally significant items.
Department stores also offer clothing, shoes, accessories, gadgets, toys, and homewares. Some stores will also have items for sale on their roofs, such as items for pets, gardening sections, and sometimes, even a play area for the kids.
The Typical Hyakkaten Layout
While each department store company will do things a little bit differently, there is a general layout that many department stores will follow.
A general understanding of the typical layout can be important to ensure you don’t get lost in the sea of offerings.
It can also help you organize a strategic game plan to navigate your hyakkaten of choice, so you don’t miss out on anything.
Starting in the basement, most basements will have a food court and various other Japanese foods and snacks.
Above the basement is where cosmetics and toiletries are often set up, including some of the most well-known international brands and Japanese brands.
The next couple of levels will often be dedicated to clothing, with men’s and women’s clothing often having their own floor.
Next is usually sporting goods, then a few floors with various home decor and other homewares, as well as toys and other miscellaneous items. On the very top floor, most department stores will have restaurants.
The Unique Experience Of Japanese Department Stores
Regardless of your purpose for visiting Japan, seeking out at least one department store during your travels is highly recommended.
Japanese department stores offer a unique shopping experience compared to other department stores worldwide. One can easily spend an entire day exploring the many floors of a hyakkaten.
Despite the seemingly endless options for things to purchase at a department store, items are curated so that everything is of sound quality.
One can even find various big Japanese brands in these stores. While shopping at department stores in Japan can be somewhat pricey, the experience is worth budgeting for.
One of the interesting benefits for tourists who shop at department stores is the ability to get a refund on taxes paid.
The Hyakkaten Customer Experience
Outside of what you can find at a hyakkaten, which is pretty much anything you could ever want, the staff working at these stores are also known to be extremely friendly and helpful.
They are always around to professionally greet customers and ensure they find their way around the store well. Staff will often bow and smile as you make your way inside your store of choice.
Should you find yourself getting lost or wanting to make your way to another floor, make your way to one of the elevators, and, you may be greeted by an elevator girl.
These staff members are there as a resource for those who have questions about navigating the department store while also tending to the elevators themselves.
Elevator girls used to be more prominent in department stores, but now only a few stores have them. Regardless, you’ll be impressed by how well-dressed, and kind the department store staff is no matter which chain you decide to visit.
When To Shop At Hyakkatens
Japanese department stores are usually open throughout the week from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. They will often be closed one day per week, which usually falls on a weekday instead of a weekend.
Many will also stay open on some of Japan’s holidays, as they tend to draw in big crowds on these days.
Restaurants in department stores won’t always open in the morning, with some opening around lunchtime and staying open later than the stores.