How to Buy Astro’ Gear from Japan
Have you ever found yourself at the end of the English search results, curiously clicking on a Kanji link to discover a Japanese gear website – all bright colours, flashing symbols and enticing thumbnails of exotic gear? It’s tempting, but how do you go about ordering and importing something?
I recently bought a few things from Japan, in particular from a store called Kyoei in Osaka (they have a store in Tokyo too, but it seems less accessible to foreigners). Here’s how it worked. The specific process below applies just to this shop, but the general stuff on exchange rates and duties applies wherever.
Why do it?
Astro stuff always used to be much cheaper from Japan. That’s no longer always true, but you can still expect to save from 5% to 20%, once you’ve paid the VAT and duties. But not always, so check carefully. Don’t assume similar gear will attract similar savings. Takahashi telescopes currently run at anywhere from 0-13% saving after all costs, with accessories often 20% cheaper (especially if you add them to a larger order).
An honestly better reason is that you can get stuff you can’t here (Takahashi luggage?), or gear that you would have to wait months for. New models may also be available before you’ll find them here.
Then again, if you want classic equipment - such as hard-to-get older Takahashi, Pentax, Nikon scopes, mounts and eyepieces - Japan is the best place to find it.
Few of these websites have explicit English sections, so Google translate is your friend (some other browsers don’t automatically translate). As you load pages they should quickly re-appear in a rough English translation. Safari on your iPhone, for example, doesn’t do this.
The translation isn’t as good as for European languages, but you can usually get the gist, though be aware that some western words translate phonetically not semantically. For example, ‘Fluorite’ becomes ‘Flow light’. ‘Dall Kirkham’ becomes ‘Doll Caracam’ but also ‘Doll Kakham’, ‘Doll Cirth’, ‘Doll Carham’ (on the same page!)
The search works reasonably well, especially with codes rather than names (you’ll get hits from ‘FSQ-106’, but not from ‘Mewlon’). You can also click on the logo for a manufacturer and work your way down from there.
The Kyoei website lists on-stock items as ‘instant delivery’ and these are more likely to be discounted (and more likely to elicit a quick response when you enquire).
Costs and Payment
Before you commit, you will need to figure out what your item will cost in total, incl VAT and duty and for that you need the actual exchange rate you’ll pay (not the fantasy theoretical bank exchange rate).
If you shop at Kyoei the easy and default method is PayPal and the charges embedded in the exchange rate don’t seem much worse than Mastercard or Visa. You can find the exact exchange rate from PayPal like this:
Click the ‘Details’ link next to your balance in account view.
Click ‘Manage Currencies’
The currency converter is on the bottom right.
To work out what you’ll pay, add shipping (Y10,000 for a small OTA, for example). Then add 20% VAT and 4% duties.
Divide the lot by that exchange rate you got from PayPal, add a £25 fee to Parcel Farce [sic] and you know what your item will really cost you.
Once you’ve decided what you want, either click on the ‘Enquire about this item’ link next to the price, or just email:
The manager writes excellent English and is very efficient. He will get back to you within hours (or a day or two for non-stock items), listing your chosen items in Yen and quoting a shipping cost. He will also email you a PayPal invoice with a link to make your payment.
Kyoei will provide a link to track your parcel with Japan Post, who are as efficient as you would expect from a country where train delays are usually measured in seconds.
My items shipped within a few days and had made it to Blighty within a week or so. But then you have to wait for customs (in a country where train delays are usually permanent). In my case, the customs wait ended up being four weeks over Christmas, but I’ve read three weeks is common.
At some point you may receive a customs form to fill in and return, detailing the type of goods and the what you paid. Be honest, UK customs have more power than God.
A week or two later and you’ll get a weird customs charges invoice with perforated edges like a bank PIN. Open this (careful not to tear it) and you’ll find your total charges and a 17-digit number that allows you to pay online and choose a delivery date.
Note that I tried to game the system and pay in advance using various combinations of the shipping and tracking reference number. Nothing worked, you just have to wait for your letter (no they don’t use email).
Getting Your Parcel
Your parcel is delivered by the post in the usual way.
It’s an exciting moment. Beautifully wrapped and covered in Kanji-laden stickers inside, my parcel reminded me of a Bento lunch box. Kyoei thoughtfully included my invoice along with a couple of free calendars and a Takahashi brochure. Perfect.
Overall my experience was excellent, but there was a problem with one item and it rather came back to bite me, because to return it would have meant round-trip shipping costs and paying double duty would then have been a risk.
If you do this, be aware that you won’t have the easy returns of buying in Europe and you should cost that risk in to your calculations (to be fair, Kyoei point this out on their website too). And of course, that would apply to buying from America, Hong Kong etc too.
By Roger Vine, 2019