I've been in Nagano for about a week at the Winter Games, and before that I spent a week in other fascinating parts of Japan.
Although I came specifically for business - including meetings in Tokyo and reporting on Japanese lifestyle and culture for "CBS This Morning" during their coverage of the Games - I have spent much of my free time visiting the unusual and varied shops everywhere.From the biggest department stores where "window shopping" takes on an entirely new meaning, to bargaining in little out-of-the-way antique "junque shoppes," my shopping has been an interesting experiment.
I've learned many things I'd like to share with anyone planning to visit this exotic country.
First, I must point out that I've been traveling with a rather strange entourage and not like an ordinary tourist.
The first week when I went from Tokyo, to Yakushima, to Kyoto to Nagano, I was with Susan Magrino, my public-relations person, and Maggie Hallahan, a San Franciso-based photographer who has been taking photos that we've been posting on my Web site (www.martha
We had to travel fast although encumbered with a lot of luggage and equipment. And everywhere we took pictures it seemed as though there was something that we had to buy to take home to show everyone.
Momoko Sano, our very close Japanese friend and adviser while we are in Japan (she translates, researches and smooths the way for us everywhere), is the go-between. Without her I certainly would never have attempted some of the purchases that I ended up accomplishing.
And sometimes buying something - anything - in a strange country, where one doesn't speak the language, can be frustrating, difficult and no fun whatsoever.
With Momoko in tow as a teacher of sorts, we all learned how to be polite shoppers in a very polite and inflexible shopping atmosphere.
And our politeness paid off. We all were successful in carefully choosing and purchasing some lovely and useful things that we will be able to cherish for our lifetimes.
The Japanese still make many of their traditional household and decorative items in the very same way that they have for centuries. Cutlery and kitchen utensils are good examples.
There are craftsmen in shops in every prefecture who fashion local pots, pans, knives, strainers, cookie cutters and bowls in exactly the same way, with the very finest materials, as their grandfathers and great grandfathers did.
We visited the Aritsu shop in the Kyoto market as well as the Kappabashi section of Tokyo and stocked up on some staples for the kitchen that are still not commonly found anywhere in America.
Because most of these manufacturers are small family businesses, their production is limited and the products quite expensive. However, this kind of kitchen stuff is useful forever. It's an investment and must be considered as such.
Every time I come here I try to add to my collection. This time I found some shapes of strainers I didn't own and a new copper tea kettle that was a work of art.
I bought some special Japanese knives for friends and had their names hammered into the blades - something done in just a few minutes right in the shop in Kyoto.
None of these shops take credit cards or American dollars, so be prepared to carry Japanese yen wherever you go. I make it a habit to visit a bank every morning to change money if I'm planning to do any shopping.
Shopping for fabrics was another fun adventure. Hand-woven silks, cottons and obis are still readily available in Japan. The prices are astronomical, but worth it, if you consider the labor, materials and longevity of the products.
Most silk, hand-painted or specially decorated fabrics are a once-in-a-lifetime purchase for the Japanese, and out of the question for the rest of us. But in the old, established kimono shops I found some striking hand-woven and printed cottons and some extraordinarily finely woven woolens at very reasonable prices.
I bought three lengths of cotton, each unique and very beautiful, and one of wool at an average price of $60. For an additional $80 each I had the shop make me four everyday kimonos with fabric ties at the waist. These will make really nice gifts for my daughter and son-in-law and two friends who will be able to wear them forever.
I still have a cotton handmade kimono that was a gift to me 20 years ago and enjoy wearing it as a bathrobe.
In kimono shops you can also find really lovely silk handbags and handkerchiefs. If you like to sew, you can buy kimono fabrics that you can fashion into scarves for unusual presents for your friends.
I bought one roll of silk. (Each kimono silk comes in a roll of 12 meters and will make six or seven long scarves.) I plan to make six scarves with silk fringes for gifts.
Hunting for antiques in Japan is difficult and very time-consuming. We went in and out of many stores - most of the antique stores specialize in a specific type of antique and most really old things are scarce and extremely expensive.
There are few if any bargains to be had, but most dealers are very trustworthy and knowledgeable and if you really want to buy something that has age, provenance and value, dealers will help you with your purchases and with shipping and customs.
I did find one or two "treasures": a piece of pottery of indeterminate age that looks like an antique and a paper scroll that has some age, but more important for me a subject matter that fits a room in my house. It's a painting of colorful carp.
The department stores are an excellent place to look for children's toys - including very expensive, Maurice Sendak-like woodland creatures called Totoro created by Naizaki Shun.
There are also lunch boxes that are insulated and layered like old-fashioned Japanese bento boxes, Thermos jugs, unusual clothing that children would love and cozy towels and blankets.
You will also find unbelievable arrays of pottery, lacquer, foodstuffs, candies, chopsticks and teas on various, very well organized floors.
Department stores take credit cards, so shopping is easier. Gifts are well wrapped and carefully packaged for travel.
If you come to Japan, do not miss the food halls of the Japanese stores. There is nothing like them on earth. Located in the basement levels of department stores, they sell fresh, dried and preserved foods from all over the country.
The variety and quantities are mind boggling as is the noise of each and every one of the polite but vociferous "hawkers" who man every stand.
The floors are organized according to the type of food displayed and there are samples available at every booth. It's a place where one can eat a meal without paying, but one finds oneself buying a little of this and that here and there.
I ended up with an assortment of Japanese crackers or snacks, soba noodles, teas, candies, vacuum-packed oshinko pickles and lots of other stuff. All of it is expensive, so beware. Small things add up.
One wonderful product of local flavor and design is the beautiful paper and paper goods available in every city. I bought "wooden" paper in Yakushima (it looks just like wood), hand-printed wrapping paper in Tokyo and very organic paper and note cards in Nagano.
Have all paper rolled together and either insert it in a tube, or have it wrapped in corrugated paper so that it will not be damaged during transit.
Electronics stores are also very fascinating places. If you are knowledgeable, you can find new products that are not available elsewhere.
I could go on about what I've found, but I want to end with a few words of advice for shopping in Japan:
1. Most stores accept only yen.
2. Bring an extra suitcase to carry purchases.
3. Take some bubble wrap and tape with you to wrap the goods. Small stores have no protective wrapping.
4. Be prepared to spend quite a lot of time doing the transaction - don't be impatient.
5. Look everywhere for the unusual and the local: There are really wonderful things to discover everywhere.