There are more vintage shops in Japan than anywhere else. Particularly in Harajuku, the fashion area of Tokyo, and in Koenji, a district about 40 minutes from the centre.
But elsewhere too – Osaka, traditionally a fashion centre in Japan, has high-end places like Acorn as well as scores of modern pre-owned shops. And even somewhere small like Kobe around the bay has better vintage than London.
Vintage has become so popular that it’s increasingly specialised. In Ginza, the posh area of Tokyo, there are multiple shops selling pre-owned handbags, one of the most impressive being Allu, which has five floors of Hermes and Chanel. In Harajuku, the Berbejin group opened a new store just to cater to the nineties fashion of authentic band T-shirts and black Levi’s.
People buy vintage for lots of reasons and they don’t necessarily overlap. These include price, access, historical significance, uniqueness, quality and character. The good thing is that in Japan you feel each segment is catered for; it’s a knowledgeable market, so finding an absolute bargain isn’t easy, but what you want will be there somewhere.
Below are the three areas we focused on during our visit – Harajuku, Koenji and Osaka – with the favourite shops in each, plus some observations along the way.
In Harajuku the vintage is mixed in among big brands and teen fashions, which is slightly confusing, particularly given the neighbourhood’s hectic pedestrianised streets.
Some like Berbejin are well known, others like Jumble less so, but it’s worth persisting – each often has a speciality, whether it’s military dead stock or grungier styles running from 1940s leathers to 1990s metal.
I should say that we owe a debt to Ethan Newton who showed us round some of his favourites. It turns out Ethan doesn’t just have a great eye, but is a great personal shopper too – some of the best things Alex [Natt, photographer] and I bought were his suggestions.
Berbejin – One of the best known, and usually busy. A range of Americana, military and sporting clothing, but a good, fairly high-end selection. The military stuff is at the back, the rare denim downstairs.
Fake Alpha – Part of the same group, but with more of a focus on older Americana and denim. Plus some deadstock on the right-hand side.
2nd Street by Jumble Store – 2nd Street is a chain of second-hand shops, most of which are more fashion-orientated and modern. But the downstairs of the Harajuku branch is really good, with nice pieces reasonably priced: I picked up a pale-pink rayon jacket for £90. As elsewhere, the most expensive and rarest pieces are the ones hanging from the ceiling.
Pigsty – Also a chain, and the one we went to in Osaka wasn’t great. But this one, in Harajuku, was better. Like Jumble, it’s slightly cheaper than the likes of Berbejin but with some nice pieces. I got an old faded yellow Harrington for about £65 (though bear in mind the exchange rate is good right now.)
Banana Boat – Good for dead stock: vintage clothing that has never been worn. There is some other vintage too, but it’s mostly high-end. The fact everything is in plastic wrapping (like a comic-book store) is a dead giveaway.
Laboratory – Good for band T-shirts, and quite a grungy selection overall – modern upstairs, older downstairs (as is often the way). A little cheaper than Berbejin and its kin, but the product isn’t as pristine either.
Vostok – I found some really good things last time I was here, back in 2019, but there was less this time around. There were some good Levi’s, though as with most categories that have become uber-popular, they were very expensive – £700 and over.
Koenji feels like a real Japanese neighbourhood – less prosperous, with the only tourists here for vintage (though even they don’t usually make the journey). More like a place for the purists.
Most of the shops are scattered around the area to the south of the train station, in the covered shopping area and the streets around. Though a surprising number, like Whistler, are also three or four streets away, almost as if they want to be hard to find.
There’s so much vintage here – particularly somewhere like Whistler – that it’s worth reminding yourself in advance what you’re there for. Personally I find it helpful to have a small hit list of (for me, 40s US chinos, a rayon jacket, some interesting sunglasses) and use that to focus, but also be open to inspiration, browsing and flicking and generally staying open-minded. As I’ve written before, I often find that the most enjoyable aspect of vintage.
Safari – Safari is the best known of the vintage shops in Koenji, but is actually six shops, each with different specialities:
- Safari 1, the best and what most people would call vintage
- Safari 2, more modern American, Ralph Lauren etc
- Safari 3, European classic menswear and tailoring
- Safari 4, contemporary, trainers and outdoor/hiking clothing
- Safari 5, European and designer labels
- And Safari Gallery, antiques, furniture and art
Whistler – A little bit of a walk away, Whistler specialises in American clothing and has an amazing range of footwear. As one shoemaker put it, he could learn the entire history of American footwear by browsing those shelves; Alex bought a great pair of unbranded demi-boot moccasins. Make sure you go upstairs too (separate entrance): that’s where I found my 40s chinos.
Trunk – Mostly European, real vintage to modern, so hunting jackets mixed in with Hermes leather. A really nice curation.
Suntrap – Quite high-end, with some new clothing alongside vintage Americana. Unusually, they have an online shop too.
Big Time – A chain, with branches around Japan. As their online shop shows, it’s also quite contemporary in most places, but the Koenji branch is more vintage and typical of places on the main strip here: large, rambling but worth sorting through.
Small Change – Similar to Big Time: men’s and women’s, a little patchy, but also cheaper and with a big range.
Oh and if you go to Koenji then do pop into Terry Ellis’ shop, Mogi, which mixes new and old clothing with folk art. Feature on that coming separately.
OSAKA and KOBE
Shopping in Osaka opened my eyes to how big pre-owned clothing is in Japan. In some areas there were almost nothing but second-hand shops, and there was one entire alleyway with tiny specialist places.
The way younger people wore vintage, too, was inspiring – mixing strange militaria with noughties designer labels for example. It brought home how much second-hand clothing allows people to express themselves, because there are so many eras and styles.
However, the vast majority of shops in Osaka sell what some call ‘new era’ vintage – broadly from the 1980s onwards. It’s mostly for style and uniqueness, rather than quality or significance, and while really interesting, it won’t be what most readers are after. What we list here are the exceptions.
Acorn – Simply the most high-end, curated vintage shop I’ve ever been to. Not a large number of pieces on display – perhaps 200 – but the most sought-after versions of everything. Three M65s, in three different sizes, all perfectly faded; five pairs of big-E Levi’s in unusually wearable sizes and condition; ditto three French moleskin workwear jackets; ditto sun-faded hoodies; and so on.
Nats – The opposite, almost. Across the street from Acorn, a huge place with thousands of items in the back (above). This still isn’t thrift, but the range is so much larger (in style, in condition, in price) and rewarded going through rack after rack.
JAM – One of the new-era places, but that does mean it’s cheap and there’s a big selection. If you’re interested in more modern pieces (made-in-America Carhartts for example) it’s worth a look.
Magnets – Kobe and Osaka are essentially one city, as the industry is so spread along the coast, but the streets of Kobe have a different, more seaside feel. This little vintage shop is run by an ex-McCoys employee and is really nice; not worth travelling for, but certainly popping into if you’re in Kobe.
XXX (from Alex) – A charming shop in Kobe, with multiple levels. The mid-level has an interesting mix of eras of outdoors clothing, nicely presented and curated. It feels like a regular outdoors shop until you notice most things are vintage. The top floor has a wider range – none of it pre-1960s, but again a good selection.
As to what I bought, apart from the two jackets and chinos mentioned, there were two pairs of jeans – one 90s and cheap, one 60s and expensive – a pair of Ray-Ban aviators and a forties suede jacket. The latter was from Safari and will need some repair work, but that meant it was half the price. And I know Cromford will be able to do it.
I’m sure all will appear on PS at some point, and we can talk then about the ins and outs of them.
In the meantime if anyone has any questions about this list – I’ve had dozens of messages already from people wanting tips – please just let me know in the comments below.