My Favorite Places in Japan: Small Shops

Private shops and restaurants run by families or owners

By Elena Lisina    - 4 min read

There is an enormous number of shops across Japan, and at these shops, customers are greeted with polite attention. My favorite are small shops usually run by an owner or a family selling special goods. In such shops, I could take my time and talk with the owners who explained their products to me and helped me make a choice.

On my very first trip to Japan I visited Yajiro Kokeshi Mura – a place that contained a small kokeshi museum, a gift shop, and a few workshops where masters made kokeshi dolls. The shop had a great choice of dolls and the owners helped me to choose the best ones. Since the price for each kokeshi doll was very reasonable – about 1000 to 2000 yen for a piece – I picked 7 or 8, and got one as a present!

I made a very special bond with the owners of the shop Bell Ami, in Matsumoto. The shop doubles as a studio where the owners, the Mimura family, have produced paper and cloth dolls in the oshie technique since the 1950s. Besides various dolls displayed in glass cases, the shop is full of interesting items such as pictures, patterns, Japanese silk, small souvenirs, and so forth. There is also a great collection of antique oshie dolls collected by the Mimura Family. Since I was the very first doll artist to visit from Russia, they were interested to talk to me with the help of my Japanese friend. I purchased some dolls and took a photo of the owners who were happy to meet me. Three years later, I visited the shop again with some gifts and found that Mimura-san had passed away. His wife Kazuko-san remembered me and was happy with my gifts. The shop is still run by their son and his wife.

Kazuko-san was happy to see me again
Kazuko-san was happy to see me again

Another small shop I remember is Rondo Antique in Nikko. On the day of my visit, some old kokeshi dolls were displayed outside. I was interested and went inside the shop where I found a great number of really good old dolls and other items for very reasonable prices! It took me about an hour to choose, and the owner was very patient and nice. As I was the only customer, she talked to me and then went out to see me off. Another nice owner I met was Nakamura-san – the owner of a small workshop in Ito. He was a wood master and used to give classes to kids. We could talk and he kindly signed two of his works purchased by me.

Nice owner of the Rondo Antique
Nice owner of the Rondo Antique

Small art galleries are quite common in Japan, and I was connected with one such gallery – Arabiq in Osaka. It is a place where customers can read books and view pieces of art such as paintings, artist dolls and other collectibles. The owner of Arabiq also suggests drinks – tea, coffee, beer, or stronger drinks. The atmosphere of Arabiq is home-like and comfortable. I visited that gallery twice and was well received by the owner. I’d like to visit such a place often if there was one nearby.

Arabiq gallery in Osaka is very cozy
Arabiq gallery in Osaka is very cozy

Besides shops, I also like restaurants in small places. After many years I still remember the hospitality of one restaurant in Ito, where the owners tried their best to make conversation and ensured I enjoyed their food. In Yudanaka I went to the same restaurant every evening and the owners already recognized me and greeted me happily. On my last evening they gave me sweets – it was very nice!

Very hospitable owner
Very hospitable owner

Such communication seems possible only in small towns – in big cities it doesn’t feel the same.

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Elena Lisina

Elena Lisina @shiroi.tenshi

I love Japan very much! I like small towns of Japan where I can watch people doing their business and talk to them carefully. They're always friendly. I like Japanese gardens where I can just sit or walk and take my time. Also I like Shinto Jinja as being there I feel in peace. I like to watch sunsets and then to dine in some small local places. I like to soak into onsen after a long day of wandering. I like Japanese crafts very much as all items are made with great taste and skill. Nihon wo daisuki desuyo! My photos from Japan I also place here: Matane!

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Sander van Werkhoven 5 months ago
It's kind of interesting how on the one hand the prominence of chain stores everywhere in Japan seems even worse than here in Europe, but at the same time there are so many tiny stores of which you can only wonder how they can survive. But luckily they do, it's indeed one of the things that make Japan such a fascinating destination.
Elena Lisina Author 5 months ago
Such special Japanese goods can't be purchased in any chan store where most of the products are made in China! Japanese people appreciate their culture and support such shops. For instance, when they go for a visit to another place they always buy sweets and souvenirs from their place - it's a custom! :)