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If you’re on a shoestring budget, shopping in Japan, one of the world’s most expensive countries, can be a nightmare.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Thanks to a boom in “recycle” shops, Japan can also be a bargain hunter’s paradise.

“Recycle” means secondhand in Japan. While America has its garage sales, Japan has thousands of franchised and mom- and-pop shops selling everything from used furniture to watches.

Hard Off chain stores are well known in the Tokyo area and in South Korea. Hachinohe, in northern Japan’s Aomori Prefecture, has Oki Doki and more than 30 other recycle stores. And in Okinawa, there’s Thrift Shop Row.

In the wake of Japan’s long economic recession and the recent emergence of environmental awareness, more than 30,000 recycle shops have sprung up throughout the country, according to some estimates.

Some of the best recycle bargains are Japanese ceramics, from rice bowls to sake cup sets. At TUC in Hachinohe, a set of five rice bowls retail for 500 yen (about $4.75), likewise for a white, shiny teapot.

Recycle shops can be a great place to pick up cheap souvenirs for family and friends back home. Most stores have a shelf or two cluttered with boxed gifts, such as dishes, tea sets, towels and soaps that have never been opened. Often, these are ochuugenn and oseibo, gifts given to people who were kind or performed a service.

Check out these prices: A miniature tea set in its original box at Hachinohe’s Oki Doki sells for 800 yen (about $7.60), while a seven-piece cutlery set, its plastic wrap intact, is 600 yen (about $5.70).

Americans who lost kitchenware in a permanent-change-of-station move can stock up on glasses ranging from 50 to 100 yen (about 47 to 95 cents) and small plates for a fraction more at many recycle shops.

That said, shoppers still need to be discerning, as not every item is a bargain compared to on base prices. A Snoopy beach towel, for instance, though still in its box, was 1,500 yen (about $14.30) at Oki Doki. And a plastic clock sprouting synthetic flowers retailed for 2,500 yen (about $23.80).

Electronics also tend to be a bit overpriced. At the TUC store in Hachinohe, a pair of small, used Sony CD speakers was 2,500 yen (about $23.80), and an unopened package of Sony cordless headphones was 4,800 yen (about $45.70).

But, like a garage sale, half the fun of recycle shop hopping is checking out other people’s junk. Hidden on a dusty shelf upstairs in TUC, for instance, was a stuffed seal for 24,000 yen ($228.60), while Oki Doki proudly displays vinyl records from the likes of WHAM!, Van Halen and Cheap Trick.

One of the larger recycle franchises in Japan and South Korea is Hard Off corporation. Ten years ago the company started out buying and selling computers and audios, and now carries most household items from furniture to women’s clothing, says Tsuyoshi Nagahashi, general manager of the president’s office at Hard Off corporation.

Nagahashi said the company has seen a marked increase in both sales and profit for eight straight years, a trend he attributes to Japan’s shift toward environmental awareness. For instance, a 2001 law made it illegal to dump major appliances and last October, it became mandatory to recycle personal computers, he said.

At Hard Off and other recycle shops, getting a few hundred — or thousand yen — for secondhand treasures is relatively easy. Most customers drop off items they want to sell at the store counter. Hard Off searches a price database, Nagahashi said, a process that takes from 10 to 15 minutes. If the customer agrees with the price, the store agrees to the purchase. It is harder to sell older items, but Hard Off will take anything that can be sold when put on store shelves, Nagahashi added.

In Okinawa’s row of thrift shops along Highway 58 in Ginowans’ Oyama district near Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the selling process is especially easy, since many of the stores cater to American sellers.

“We buy used American furniture from the military when they have sales, but we also buy from individual American families on the island,“ said Jun Chida, owner of the Graceland thrift shop. Graceland sells everything from dining table sets to dressers, china cabinets, bookshelves and lighting fixtures.

Among the store’s collection of secondhand furniture were a nearly half-a-century-old refrigerator and a round-shaped washing machine.

“These are antiques that I found in the United States,” Chida said.

But most of Chida’s merchandise was purchased on the island.

“Because of a large American population on Okinawa, it is much easier than any other places in Japan to buy directly from American people,” said Chida, a native of Iwate, who moved to Okinawa and opened the shop six years ago.

Besides individual customers, buyers from the mainland come and buy in bulk to resell them in their mainland stores, Chida said.

“The prices then jump up over there,” he said.

“The lure of American furniture is its high quality and durability,” he said, showing a dark color maple chest.

“For instance, this was made in 1960s and more than 40 years old but still it is in such good shape,” he said.

Customer Eiko Izena has a passion for American furniture.

She’s been a frequent visitor to Thrift Shop Row for the past ten years. Recently, she stopped visiting them and started working for one of the stores.

“I love the design and the atmosphere that American furniture has,” she said.

One thing to keep in mind when secondhand shopping: There is no return or exchange policy on most items. The exception: Hard Off gives a limited warranty for home appliances — if the product breaks, a customer can bring it in to get fixed.

— Chiyomi Sumida and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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