“Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination. Take a look, and you’ll see, into your imagination. What we’ll see, will defy explanation.” – Willy Wonka

Don Quijote

Unlike Mr. Wonka’s devilishly delicious Chocolate Room, everything you see in Don Quijote, Japan’s bizarro chain of discount stores, isn’t edible. Check back in 10 years, though: considering the company’s braintrust has already built a rooftop rollercoaster half-pipe at one of its locations in the heart of Tokyo’s Roppongi district, lickable wallpaper and rivers of chocolate might not be totally out of question.

Don Quijote stores are spreading like wildfire across the country. Debuting in 1980 as the Just Co. before changing its name in the mid-90s, Don Quijote now has over 120 branches around Japan, including almost 40(!) in Tokyo alone. With its popularity soaring there are almost certainly more on the way, and it just might be the next big Japanese import to hit the States, too: there are already a few stores open in Hawaii.

It’s easy to get lost in these shopping funhouses, which are stuffed with an amazing hodgepodge of useless junk, everyday practicalities, food, electronics, designer handbags, sex toys, you name it; think .99 Cent Store meets Wal-Mart in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Perhaps best of all, branches in Tokyo stay open really late—like 2 – 5am late—and many are open 24 hours. A few sips of soju at the hotel, fresh pieces of gently blowtorched salmon at a stand-up sushi bar in Shinjuku, bar snacks and a few bottles of Kirin somewhere in “Piss Alley“, and a stagger around the nearest Don Quijote before calling it a day: that’s my idea of a quality night on the town in Tokyo.

A Store of Pure Imagination

Like most Japanese storefronts, the signange on Don Quijote stores is only in Japanese. Look for for the company’s distinctive logo, a blue duck (penguin?) with big, googly eyes and a red cap; addresses and maps are also found on the English website.

There’s little rhyme or reason to what’s stocked across the four or five levels that make up most branches. Ground floors usually function as mini-markets: all kinds of candy, snacks, cheese, dried foods, canned foods, instant noodles, packaged fish, gourmet imports, cold beer, boxed wine, top-shelf liquor… it’s insane, and actually one of the more affordable options in Tokyo for stocking up your hotel room.

Don Quijote

Elsewhere it’s an offbeat clearinghouse of anything and everything under the sun packed into an unforgettable shopping labyrinth. One aisle might be filled with common household goods like vacuum-cleaner bags and waste baskets, the next with dildos of all shapes and sizes and pornos of every imaginable variety. Need a refrigerator, set of miniature Dragon Ball Z figures, iPod, or cheerleader/maid/schoolgirl costume? Browse and ye shall find.

But my favorite item of all, one we have way too many pictures of and way too many ridiculous poses with, was the g-string butt pillow. Priced at just US$10 or so, we were tempted to haul a few of these appropriately soft and impossibly classy finds back home for birthday presents friends and family would forever appreciate; sorry, guys, maybe next time.

We found those pillows during a late-night shop at one of the Shinjuku outlets, which was a short walk away from the straight-laced Hotel Sunroute Shinjuku-Higashi, our home for the last few days in Tokyo. Back in our cramped little room, cold and dripping wet from a steady springtime drizzle that made the city feel somewhere between cozy and miserable, we flipped through our latest round of Don Quijote photos and caught up on our journals.

On TV, talking Japanese cartoon dogs taught must-know English phrases to the audience such as “why don’t you give me a nice smile?” and “how do you feel about me going shopping with her?”

Who needs Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory when we have Japan?

Photos © Brian Spencer

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.