Japan: Where and How to Buy Your Photography Equipment at the Best Price
Updated: Oct 15
This question naturally comes to the mind of every photographer sooner or later. It is indeed a possibility, but it's not always as advantageous as it seems, at least from an economic standpoint. Let's explore the options.
If you are traveling to (or residing in) the United States, China, or even Switzerland, there's a high likelihood that Japanese photography equipment will be, if not cheaper, at least the same price. This is paradoxical when considering that Japan produces some of the most popular brands in the imaging market. But it is the reality.
In fact, the appeal of the Japanese market lies elsewhere. It is more about the wide variety of equipment and accessories, their availability, and the comprehensiveness of the offerings.
Three major retail chains dominate the electronics market in Japan. Naturally, photography equipment is part of their product range and is likely their main draw. Depending on where you will be staying, you will inevitably come across one of these large shopping centers.
Here are some considerations to guide your choices if you plan to visit Japan and engage in some photography shopping.
Officially known as Yodobashi Camera Co. Ltd., the company was founded in 1960 by Terukazu Fujisawa. Today, it employs over 5,000 people across 21 stores throughout Japan. Its corporate headquarters is located in Tokyo.
Undoubtedly the market leader in electronics, Yodobashi is present in all major Japanese cities and some smaller ones. Their massive shopping centers are veritable supermarkets for electronics, appliances, computing, audiovisuals, and even food, spanning 8 to 10 floors depending on the location. Each floor is dedicated to a specific category of products.
It's obviously the Photo and Video floor that you will want to visit first. Spanning several thousand square meters, it serves as a true sanctuary for any photographer. You will be amazed by the variety of equipment available. All brands are represented, from the latest camera bodies to the rarest and most expensive lenses.
Whether you go there to buy a specific product or simply out of curiosity, plan to spend both time and money. It's not uncommon to stay half a day there if you tour all the sections.
My equipment (purchased at Yodobashi): GITZO Mountaineer S3 + GITZO Ball Head S3. This is the best carbon-steel combination for field photography.
Looking for a particular accessory?
No problem, just ask one of the many salespeople who actively staff the store throughout the day to assist and serve customers. They are all highly specialized in their departments and know the thousands of products they sell by heart. Within seconds, they will guide you to the right section where you'll find a plethora of options for your desired item. You are free to test and handle all of these products without any issues.
The Japanese sense of customer service places the client above all else. Some salespeople also speak a few words of English. However, it is advisable to be accompanied by someone proficient in the language if you have the opportunity, as it will significantly ease the process for you.
My equipment (purchased at Yodobashi): GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack for adventure and landscape photography.
If you're hesitant about purchasing a product you've spotted, that's not a problem either. Take some time to go eat or have tea on the top floor for some reflection. You'll find a variety of delicious and affordable restaurants there.
Don't worry about the time; Yodobashi is open until 10 PM every evening and operates seven days a week!
2. Bic Camera
Bic Camera was founded in 1968 by Ryuji Arai. The company operates 82 stores across Japan, with its corporate headquarters located in Tokyo.
Bic Camera is a direct competitor to Yodobashi. Primarily located in major urban areas, it offers similar products but perhaps in slightly smaller retail spaces. This is not particularly significant for our purposes. Do not hesitate to visit both shopping centers (Yodobashi and Bic Camera) to compare prices. You may sometimes be surprised, even though Bic Camera is engaged in a relentless price war with Yodobashi.
If Kyoto is your first destination, you'll have plenty of options. Yodobashi is situated a few hundred meters away from the railway station. Just cross the street and proceed straight ahead; you will come across the large store entrance on your left. As for Bic Camera, it is immediately to the left as you exit the railway station, also just a few hundred meters away.
Feel free to spend some time exploring the other floors of these two shopping centers as well. You will discover incredible devices that you may not even know exist.
My equipment: URTH Filter Kits. High-quality filters for landscape photography and long exposures.
You'll be tempted to return home with the latest trendy and futuristic-looking vacuum cleaner. The floor dedicated to computing also leaves nothing to be desired. You'll find all the desktop or laptop computers you could wish for, complete with a dedicated Apple product section worthy of an Apple Store.
3. Yamada Denki
Yamada was founded in 1973 by Noboru Yamada. The company currently employs over 11,000 people and operates more than 250 stores throughout Japan. Its corporate headquarters is located in Takasaki.
This store has been my saver on numerous occasions. When you engage in field photography and sometimes take inconsiderate risks with your equipment, breakage or loss often lurks around the corner.
Yamada Denki stores are generally located on the outskirts of cities. If you've chosen to stay in the city during your photography trip to Japan, chances are you'll pass by a Yamada store on your way back to the hotel in the evening.
However, don't expect to find as wide a variety of equipment as you would at Yodobashi or Bic Camera. Yamada stores usually have only one floor. You can at least find all the necessary accessories to continue your photography work under good conditions while perhaps planning to visit Yodobashi again later. And sometimes, you'll find some unique accessories that can make your photographer life significantly easier.
Protective case for DSLR camera. Microfiber cloth sleeve for scratch resistance.
Yamada stores are particularly useful for purchasing additional SD cards, cleaning supplies after a snowstorm, protective gear for handling the heavy rains Japan is known for, or simply after having dropped your camera in water (no comments necessary..).
So, you'll never be caught unprepared during your photography journey in Japan and will almost always find the equipment or accessories you need along the way.
4. Buying your gear while reducing (a bit) the bill
All the above-mentioned stores (and many more in Japan) offer tax-free shopping for exports. You simply need to inform the salesperson and provide your passport. They will quickly complete the necessary paperwork and staple it to your passport. Just like that, you've saved 8%.
Wet and dry cleaning kit for camera sensor and body.
Don't forget to present your items in their original packaging (don't throw away the boxes at the hotel) at the Export counter at the airport just before immigration control. The officer will often give it a disinterested glance without saying a word, but it's a necessary step.
This is a simple formality that could become troublesome if you do not meet the conditions set by the Japanese tax administration.
There is no export limit as long as it's reasonable and you can easily justify the personal use of your purchases. Don't try to export five DSLR bodies; even if you acquired them legally, it will inevitably be considered as material intended for resale, which is likely your intention.
If you plan on frequently traveling to Japan, be aware that Yodobashi also offers an interesting loyalty card system. With each purchase, you accumulate 10% of the amount in points. This can quickly become advantageous if you are buying a new device or lenses on each of your trips. In this case, you will have to choose between the -8% tax exemption or the loyalty points (cumulative) equivalent to 10% that you can use next time to substantially reduce your bill.
I hope these practical tips will be useful for your next trip. If you have any questions on this subject, feel free to ask them in the comments below.
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