What is Tenso?
Tenso is a forwarding service based in Japan, so this guide works for any online store in Japan. Basically, they act as a middleman – you order with Tenso’s address and they receive the package, work out the international shipping costs and send it on to you. They charge a small handling fee for this service but it’s very reasonable. I have only used Tenso myself but there are many other Japanese forwarding services (and companies that offer the same service for other countries) that all work in a similar way.
What do I need to be able to order from Japanese shops?
You will need a credit card that is accepted internationally (this includes most of the big companies – Visa, American Express, Mastercard etc.). Some sites may also allow PayPal. If in doubt, check with the site you want to shop with before joining Tenso. You also need an official ID to verify your details – here’s a list of what they will accept.
What could go wrong?
There are a few risks with using Tenso (or any forwarding service). You may find it difficult to work out how to cancel or change your order if you make a mistake or change your mind. If the shop sends you the wrong thing or it doesn’t fit, you have no way to return it. There’s also the possibility of your package getting lost or damaged in shipping, either between the shop & Tenso or from Tenso to you. Shipping and customs fees are also difficult to predict in advance, especially if you don’t know what the packaging will be like. For individual and similar items, I’ve generally found it’s not much bigger than the item/s but orders with products of different types can be packaged in a box with a lot of empty space.
Step 1: Register with Tenso
This is pretty easy to do. Tenso have an English website so have a read of the information and then click on the sign up button when you’re ready. You need to first verify your email and then complete a simple form with your personal details. To make things easier later, enter these exactly as shown on official identification as you will need to verify your identity. You can change it later but it will delay shipping. For example, I didn’t think to include my middle name, as I rarely use it, but it is on my passport.
Step 2: Get your Tenso address
Once registered, Tenso will give you a Japanese address to use. This includes a unique user number – mine is blurred above – never forget to include this or your parcel may be rejected by Tenso. If they are able to connect it to your name, you will have to go through a process to confirm the package is yours (by providing email receipts etc.), which will delay shipping.
Step 3: Go shopping!
You can order from any Japan-based website. That includes the Japanese stores for brands like San-X, Sanrio and Disney (with exclusive products not available outside Japan), Japanese companies and shops that only sell in Japan, auction sites (Tenso can help you place bids), Amazon Japan (for sellers that don’t ship internationally) and directly from artists/makers. The best thing about forwarding is that you get to shop yourself so you can set an alarm for a sale or limited item and place pre-orders or custom orders. If the site is only in Japanese, use a browser like Google Chrome that can translate the text automatically. You may also want to register with the site for special offers through email to get free shipping or access to pre-sales.
Step 4: Double check your order
Since you’re not really a Japanese customer, you can’t return items or easily make changes to your order, so be sure that you’re ordering the correct size/colour and quantity. Use a currency converter to check the costs, Tenso’s shipping fee calculator to estimate the shipping fees and your country’s government website for possible customs fees/import duty (here is the UK guide for example). It’s easy to get carried away, but don’t spend so much that you could have booked a flight to Tokyo instead! It’s best to start with a smaller order and see how it goes.
Step 5: Checkout
Once you’re happy, continue to checkout and fill in your details. This can be a little confusing but Tenso have a page with how to enter your address that shows the kanji for various fields (you may need to switch between English & Japanese a few times to figure it out), the full-width/half-width characters (as required in the San-X checkout above), plus the format for specific websites like Amazon. Make sure you’ve entered every part of the address supplied by Tenso, including your Tenso user number, your registered name and your own email address.
It may ask for your phonetic name in katakana and you can simply type your name into Google Translate to find a rough Japanese translation to copy and paste in. If you know katakana, you can adjust this to be more accurate to your pronunciation and add Japanese in your computer/device’s languages/keyboard settings to enter it. Mine is スミス まさりん (su-mi-su ma-sa-ri-n). This is also a helpful thing to know if you plan to travel or work in Japan as it can make your name easier for locals to pronounce or write.
Step 6: Payment
For payment, enter your own credit card details (or PayPal if available) as usual. Do not try to use any of the local payment options. It’s fine that the billing address is your Tenso address – it shouldn’t reject your card for that. Have a last check of your order and submit it.
Step 7: Delivery to Tenso
You’ll receive emails from the site you shopped at confirming your order and notifying you when it ships. Check these emails as it’s possible there could be a problem or delay. If there is a problem, good luck! You can try replying using Google Translate and ask if anyone speaks English. Once your package arrives at Tenso’s warehouse, they will email you. If it’s your first order, you’ll need to verify your identity by photographing ID/paperwork. This takes around 24 hours to be checked.
Step 8: Arrange Forwarding
Tenso will hold your mail for a short time and can consolidate multiple packages into one parcel so that’s worth doing if you have a few things to buy from different shops. With larger or heavier packages, shipping will probably be cheaper if you keep them separate. Tenso will offer you a range of different shipping services from express tracked to surface mail. It all depends how quickly you want the package and how much you want to pay. Surface mail is more likely to get lost but express is more likely to incur customs fees. I tend to use standard airmail and have had no issues so far. If your items are expensive or fragile, always choose an insured tracked service in case of damage or loss.
You also need to add a description and value for each item inside for customs – and insurance cover if chosen. This is one of the reasons I prefer Tenso over a Japanese reseller as sometimes they use words like electronics or jewellery that always incur high fees when the item is really more of an accessory or toy. Of course, I certainly don’t recommend changing the value or description on non-insured packages to avoid fees 😉
Here’s the costs for my San-X package. As you can see, Tenso only charge a small fee and the overall costs for shipping & handling are reasonable for an international order. I’ve since ordered many more times and only once have the shipping costs been much higher than I hoped, and I’ve never had to pay customs fees. It really depends on what you’re buying though – mine are usually small plush, lifestyle items, books, accessories etc. As I update this ins 2022, shipping costs are generally now a lot higher worldwide so think carefully before ordering large or heavy items or you may be in for a shock!
Step 9: Receive Your Parcel!
Once you have paid for shipping, Tenso will usually ship it out on the next working day. If you choose an express or airmail shipping service, you can usually expect your parcel within a week. One thing I loved is that it’s the original shop packaging and Tenso just put a new label on top. How cute is the Sumikko Gurashi packaging? You can see what was inside here.
Leave a comment if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer!
- Buyee – Tenso’s service for bidding on Japanese auction sites
- Mary Bear video on ordering from San-X Japan
- Emii-chan guide to ordering from Liz Lisa & other Japanese fashion brands
- Other ways to buy kawaii from Japan
Marceline is the co-founder and editor of Super Cute Kawaii and author of The Super Cute Book of Kawaii. She also designs cute character goods as Asking For Trouble. Having visited Japan five times, Marceline is enormously inspired by all things Japanese and especially loves bunnies, space and any kind of food object with a happy face.