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HARD-OFF: The Magical World of Japanese Second-Hand Stores.

Your guide to thrift shopping in Japan.

eco town Hachioji

There are a few things you should absolutely plan to do on your first trip to Japan: Cross Shibuya Scramble, Visit the country’s ancient capital of Kyoto, and bathe in an onsen, just to name a few. However, there’s one activity many first-timers seem to leave off their itinerary, and I’m here today to convince you otherwise, probably.

‘Off’ stores are one of Japan’s greatest treasures and so many people miss out on seeing them. Electronics, clothing, homewares, antiques, bicycles, toys – that list incorporates everything you could possibly imagine, and that’s what makes it so fantastic! 

So! Forget about climbing Mount Fuji, or taking the bullet train to Osaka, let’s talk about second-hand shopping in Japan!

Japan’s Relationship With Second-Hand Goods

Japan has a fairly interesting relationship with second-hand and used products. Though things are changing a little more now than they used to, buying second-hand is still relatively new. A good portion of society would prefer to buy the latest and greatest items instead of buying something that’s used. 

In part, I think this is deep-rooted in Japanese society and is actually propping up the economy. You only have to visit Japan once to understand its, once again, interesting relationship with advertising. It’s a lot more visual than in other countries and nearly impossible to get away from.

I think for some people, like in most countries, it also comes down to status. I’d hesitate to suggest Japan was more materialistic than other places, but there are a few things that make me consider it. If we take shopping for example, as in actually getting out of the house and going to a shop, it seems far more popular than it is in the UK. 

Walk into any major town in the UK, and 3 out of 5 will probably be run down or deserted, or it’ll be clearly evident that not enough money has gone into it. Do the same in Japan, and it’s a completely different story. In my local city, there’s music playing from the street speakers, shops taking a huge amount of pride in customer experience, and always a bustling atmosphere. That hypothesis has held up for all the other towns I’ve visited as well.

When the customer experience is that good in the shops and outside, it’s not hard to see why so many people enjoy shopping, and in turn buying new things.

Why is Japan’s second-hand market so good?

Well, similar to what I mentioned above, if people trade in their things so frequently (especially relevant to the electronics market), they don’t really have much time to sustain any significant wear and tear. 

Another point worth mentioning is that people in Japan generally seem to take better care of their things from the get-go compared to other countries. Though, that’s not surprising when you think about how responsibility and taking pride in keeping japan clean are taught to them at schools from a young age.

What are “Off” stores and where can I find them?

“Off” stores sell everything from clothing, electronic hardware, books, and musical instruments. They’re the one-stop shop for anyone who loves a good bargain, and on the whole, great quality items. 

Where can I find them?

You’ll usually find at least one ‘Off’ store in just about every major town and even some smaller ones. However, almost every time I’ve decided to go thrift shopping at Hard-Off has found me walking at least 20 minutes out of central town (or from the station) to find it. While that’s obviously not the case all the time, if you don’t find yourself in one of Japan’s big cities then you might be in for a bit of a walk.

That said, I quite enjoy the fact they’re a bit spread out. It all feels a little more like a treasure hunt with the exciting anticipation of whether I might find something in great condition for an incredibly low amount of money. I like to search out retro games consoles and film cameras on my trips, but we’ll get into that a bit later on.

Simply type “off store in x”, replacing x with where you’re going or where you are, and google maps should popular itself with a number of your closest options. If you’re after a specific off store, just type that in instead. If that’s the case, let’s take a look at your options!

List of ‘Off’ store chains

Book Off – Quite self-explanatory, and incredibly overwhelming even if you know what you’re walking into. Thousands upon thousands of cheap, second-hand books that are almost all in fantastic condition. You’ll also find Book-Off Plus stores that sell electronic devices, clothing, alcohol, and pretty much most things, though books are still the main focus.

A quick side note: When you’re on the train in Japan, you’ll likely see a lot of people on their phones or some other type of electronic device. What I didn’t expect to see was such a lot of people reading books. Not only that, but 99% of people who I’ve seen reading them are using a book cover. Probably the biggest reason so many of the books in Book-off are in such great condition!

Hard Off – My favourite store by a mile. Audio equipment, TVs, DVD players, games consoles, cameras, instruments, and even a dedicated ‘Junk’ section. Call me a nerd, but in every new place I visit in Japan, I slap one of these bad boys on the itinerary. Am I cultured, or what!?

Off House – They hold a huge supply of furniture, perfect if you’ve moved to Japan and are looking for a cheap way to fill your house! As such you’ll almost definitely find them on the outskirts of town because they’ll need access to a much bigger shop, normally a warehouse of some sort. You can still expect to find electronic items, books, and most of the stuff you’d normally find in a thrift store, just to a lesser extent.

Hobby Off – This is the shop you’ll want to come to if you’re after any kind of toys, trading cards, models, or figurines. Just to put things into context, I’m 26 and a full-time writer, and visiting a giant Japanese toy shop was still one of the most fun things I’ve done in Japan. Granted, I don’t need any of it but there’s nothing more productive and life-changing than a few hours of window shopping… right?

Mode Off CHEAP clothing. This place is a haven for those of you who want to find bargain bin clothing prices all in one place. The selection is often pretty decent (not always), and as I’ve just mentioned the prices are incredible. There are a few of these dotted around Japan, but I’d recommend visiting a Mode Off in one of the more fashionable areas in Tokyo to make sure your choices are as good as possible. Start off with somewhere like Shimokatazawa, or Koenji. Both are great neighbourhoods in their own right, and home to many recycling shops like Mode Off, perfect for finding second-hand clothing deals in Japan.

Liquor Off A slightly strange concept to most, Liquor Off is the place that’s after your unopened bottles of alcohol so they can sell it to customers at a discount. I’ve never seen anywhere like this outside of Japan, perhaps because I don’t research “second-hand alcohol shops” too frequently, but in any case, it’s a really interesting concept.

Eco Town: The biggest collection of “Off” stores

An example of my undying love for Japanese second-hand shopping is the 3-hour trip I took to the biggest collection of “Off” stores in Japan. Welcome to the wonderful world of Eco Town!

My girlfriend made a youtube video to document the whole experience. It’s probably a lot more interesting than the writing you’re about to read!

Hachioji Station
Hachioji Station – To be fair, the outside looks pretty cool.

Eco Town is located in a city called Hachioji and is about 30 minutes walk from the station. I’ll be totally and completely honest, it’s a very uninspiring journey. I’m not hating on Hachioji in its entirety, but the places I saw were nothing special. As such, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend venturing all the way out here (about 50 minutes from Shinjuku) unless you love second-hand shopping as much as I do, you’ve been to Japan before, or you’ve got a lot of spare time.

eco town Japan
Eco Town Sign – We’re getting close!

After an uneventful 30-minute walk, we saw the first sign (pun intended! ༼❒ل͜❒༽) that we were getting close to Eco Town. For reference, I usually spend about 30 minutes in any Hard Off I visit. Spoiler alert: I spent 3 hours here…

eco town Hachioji
Eco Town – Second-hand Japan Store – Hachioji

Ok so the first thing we thought about this place was how stupidly big it was. 5 floors, two separate buildings, and a confusing as hell floor map! The perfect recipe for staying as long as you can!

Do remember you’ll be able to find similar collections in practically any ‘Off’ store, it just so happens that Hachioji has 6 of them bundled together. Here are a few photos that show just how much stuff you can find here:

anime figurine Japan

We’ve spoken about this on the blog before, but action figures and anime models are super popular over here, normally without the extortionate price tag you’ll find overseas. Unless you’re using Solaris Japan of course! Take a look at 10 of my favourite places to buy anime figures online if you can’t get to Japan just yet.

second hand trading cards Japan

If you love collecting YuGiOh or limited edition Pokémon cards, you won’t have to look far to satisfy your cravings! Other than having multiple centers dotted around Tokyo, Japan’s love for pokémon is a deep and long-lasting one.

secondhand Japan electronic store

Does anyone remember these? Ooooh how I love retro tech ^_^

secondhand music instruments Japan
There were so many musical instruments, literally an entire floor full.

I could have edited the brightness of the picture, but it makes it look more like a vibey Shimokatazawa jazz cafe so I decided to leave it.

second hand Japan snowboards
Huge variety of snowboard and snow gear in general
second hand japanese skis
Honestly some pretty decent brands for sale here. Granted they aren’t the latest and greatest, but that’s not what you should be looking for in a shop like this.
skateboard second hand Japan
I truly thought these were just a fad when they first appeared, but according to this picture, I was wrong!
second hand toys Japan
The second-hand toy market in Japan is crazy. And I’m 100% in for all of it!

Should I add a visit to an “Off” store to my itinerary?

This is the all-important question, and especially relevant to you if your time is limited.

For me, recycle shops like these are a little like exploring a cave, sometimes you’ll find treasure (ok I’ve never found actual treasure in a cave, you got me), and sometimes you’ll come up empty. If you’ve got a big love for anime, trading cards, or pop culture in general, then you should absolutely visit Hobby Off. There are a few in central Tokyo so it’ll slot nicely into your itinerary and won’t take up too much time or money trying to get there. If you love cameras and retro electronics, I would suggest looking in Hard Off.

As is the case with each of these branches. I would never suggest taking an entire day to go to a specific one (like eco-town) unless you absolutely know you want to go there. You’ll find plenty of second-hand stores as you explore various towns and cities, and you’ll almost definitely come across one of the off-stores during your travels. If you do happen upon a second hand store, go in it! It’s an experience every first timer should have!

I’d also suggest setting an alarm if you’re anything like me. I can’t go into Yodobashi camera or BIC camera without putting one on because I’d honestly be stuck in there for hours!

So to sum up, Japan’s famous ‘Off’ stores are a charming place to go if you’re looking for something a bit different, or if you’re a hobby nerd like I am. The quality is unmatched for second-hand goods, and they’ve honestly got practically everything you’d ever need, or want! That said, if your time is limited or it’s your first trip to Japan, I’d recommend you only go to one if it’s on your route and don’t plan to visit one specifically unless it’s next to something else you want to see. But hey, it’s your holiday, so you do you!

Jonny Gleason

Photographer, Magazine owner, Matcha drinker. One of these is definitely the most important, just unsure which...

Instagram: @jonny.gleason

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