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A Weekend at Tokyo's Flea Markets
For all those Japanese who are obsessed with the 21st century there are just as many passionately nostalgic about the past. In response to this growing demand, antiques and vintage items are becoming increasingly valuable as tangible reminders of a traditional culture designed with aesthetics in mind. With antique dealers scattered throughout the city a day of shopping can become a major undertaking and a hefty tab in taxis.
If you are in the market for souvenirs, gifts for friends or simply appreciate the unusual or like collecting junk there are few places that can satisfy like a flea market. The popular souvenir shops don't seem to cut it.
Next time you're searching for a momento with-a-difference to remind you of you're stay in Japan head for one of Tokyo's outdoor antique flea markets, the perfect hunting ground for the original, genuine and bizarre.
Considerably more fun, and probably more productive, is a one-stop-shop at the city's outdoor flea markets. Gathering from all over Tokyo dealers offer a wide variety of merchandise at very competitive prices. No doubt hardened antique buyers would probably argue that flea markets are a collection of "household junk," as one expert eloquently put it, but I disagree. Not everyone has the excess cash to spend on pricey Meiji antiques that often run into thousands of dollars.
For a lot less, with just as much authenticity and appeal, flea markets offer attractive pieces of furniture, ceramics and a whole gamut of goodies you probably didn't even know existed. After-all where else could you find such treasures as old mahjong sets, wooden abacus', endless piles of blue and white china, stacks of 1950's movie posters, kitsch plastic prints of Jesus Christ in lurid colours, decorative woven baskets, wedding kimonos, carvings of bears, gods and buddhas, endless chests, wooden boxes, tin toys, old bento boxes, lamps, clocks, vases, dusty old coins, marbles, woodprint blocks, calligraphy sets, lanterns, wrinkly faded prints, giant godzillas, sake sets, green-glass float balls wrapped in knotted fishing rope and even ancient, worn samurai armour and ornate swords? Perfect memorabilia for the collector of unusual curio's.
Flea markets are held on the weekends, at the same site each time which is often on temple or shrine grounds, the setting for festivals, fairs and side shows in the pre-modern period. So what westerners might consider hallowed ground is actually just carrying on an age-old tradition, in very pleasant surrounds. Vendors usually begin setting up around dawn so the best time to arrive is no later than mid-morning when vendors have finished unpacking. Generally speaking the flea markets display a similar mix of merchandise.
Prices are usually cleared marked, although some good natured, if not unsuccessful, haggling can be well worth the effort. If you're not too good with you're Japanese numbers it may help to take along a notepad and pencil for jotting down your counteroffer. Beware the number of zeros, they can be misleading.
The first weekend of each month is the best with three major flea markets - on Saturday at Iidabashi and on Sunday at Togo shrine and Arai Yakushi.
Whet your browsing appetite by beginning your weekend on Saturday at Iidabashi's Antique Market at the Central Plaza Shopping Centre. Located on top of an old portion of the Imperial Palace's outermost moat, first built in the 17th century, the flea market wraps itself along a length of the moat. Beside the lapping waters about 60 dealers gather spreading their wares out on the pink brick terraces that surround the plaza. More a memorabilia market than an antique market, the sunny day I went several vendors had extensive collections of Japanese army gear, 1950's wind-up tin toys - old export products originally destined for the U.S.A, period jewellery, a collection of second hand cotton kimonos and several vendors selling some interesting pieces of furniture, probably about 60 - 80 years old.
The next day, on the first Sunday of each month, two flea markets take place - at Togo Shrine and Arai Yakushi Temple. Head for the grand-daddy of all flea markets first, Harajuku's Togo Shrine, the biggest and most popular. Dedicated to Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who inflicted a major defeat on the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese war, on sunny days over a hundred vendors may gather in the large spacious gardens of the shrine. With an excellent range of goods this market is always well patronised by Japanese and foreigners.
Entering through the main entrance's massive torii gate just off Meiji Dori regular vendors assume their favourite location beneath trees, hats and umbrellas. Spreading their goods all over the pavement, up the winding path, over the bridge, up to the Shrine's steps and spilling down to the back entrance of the shrine a good rummage through the displays can take several hours.
One stall that is virtually always located in the same area, up to the right from the entrance, is the used wedding kimonos stand. Unlike the simple kimonos worn everyday, wedding kimonos are brilliantly ornamented with traditional motifs of cranes, flowers, leaves and other patterns in rich colours. Kimonos make a particularly dramatic wall hanging, much better than sloppping around the house in, especially when you consider the price. In this large selection of vividly coloured of elaborate designs prices start at around Y10,000 to Y70,000.
Several of the regular vendors also maintain warehouses in Tokyo during weekdays, one such dealer is Toshio Ajiro of Aji-art who specializes in tansu, traditional Japanese chests. Made of richly grained hard woods such as keyaki or the laquered wood kuri they're characterized by multiple drawers and compartments with hinged or sliding doors of varying sizes, all accented with elaborate wrought-iron hardware. His work is obviously his passion as he lovingly describing each one's history and explains in detail how he scours towns for the finest tansu. The best sources being the northern seaside areas of Tohoku and Fukui which have the best quality wood and wrought-iron work in Japan. Kyoto, with its many talented artisans is also a great source for good pieces.
From his appointment only warehouse in Meguro he patiently restores, oils and repairs any damage until bringing them to the flea market for the inevitable side of the business - selling. But even this he seems to enjoy as he chats non-stop with us, patiently answering an endless barrage of questions. He laughs as he describes the varying tastes of his buyers, some have taste, others, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles, perhaps more interested in following the latest design fad and with more money that taste.
Often taking centrepiece in a room, tansu are the perfect sentimental memento epitomizing a stay in Japan. Sometimes, due to the delicate nature of the softer woods, the piece isn't even used, just displayed for effect as a striking item to complement the rest of the furniture. While money chests are relatively small other tansu can be the size of a substantial bureau. Although not the ideal hand luggage for carrying on a plane it may be worthwhile to arrange shipping since prices are about a half of what you'd pay overseas. Also since sea freight is charged by volume not weight you can fill the drawers with other aquisitions. Ajiro had a very nice money chest about 20cm square for Y30,000 and a striking keyaki tansu with elaborate iron work and a secret storage box for Y400,000, a stunning showpiece for any living room.
Passing tables overflowing with toy collections of Barbie dolls, godzillas, carved wooden Japanese dolls, Snoopy dogs, wind-up tin toys, radios, costume jewellery, plastic Disneyland figures and fluffy monkeys and a dealer with an extensive collection of antique books and scrolls I came to another dealer who's a regular face, Takashi Miyagawa.
On the cloudy day I visited he'd parked his van at the shrine's entrance and was crouching inside pulling out box after box of goodies. With a mouth full of shiny gold teeth, a pink towel around his neck and a little red cap perched on his head, surrounded by the van's blue awning he was a sight to behold.
His display of antiques can best be described as an assortment of ceramic plates, pots and vases, indigo-blue fabrics screen-printed with traditional Japanese patterns, brass candlesticks, traditionally woven decorative baskets and wooden chests, he even had a crystal ball. Not very Japanese or very old, still for only Y1,000 I had to have one. His wiry weathered face sparkled into life as he described to me his expeditions to the various auctions buying and collecting goods to bring to the flea market. Essential to becoming an antique dealer is a license which he proudly fished out of his satchel to show us. This piece of government bureaucracy is, he explained, the reason more Japanese don't become dealers, inhibited by the paperwork hassle of registering for a license. The idea of licensing dealers being that it ensures dealers register a detailed written description of each piece so that in the unlikely event of a robbery, it can be easily tracked down when it's resold.
Arai Yakushi Temple also holds a flea market on the first Sunday. The fact that it's a little more out of the way is made up for by the good quality of the merchandise laid out in the tranquil grounds of the temple, named after the Buddha Yakushi, the healing Buddha. More compact than Togo Shrine, its crowds are denser and with less foreigners. Even before you enter the grounds you pass by dealers spread out along the pathway leading up to the main entrance of the temple.
Browsing along the narrow pathway I passed one dealer always found near the entrance, Sumio Fugita, a specialist in antique fabrics. Standing in the middle of an enormous pile of fabrics he was surrounded by crowds of haggling women handing him money. As he rattled of details about each piece he madly wrapped up fabric, money flying back and forth while his display slowly shrunk around him.
Leaving him to deal with the crowds we entered the grounds, clouds of incense wafting up to greet us. As people tossed coins into the offering box and clapped their hands to attract the attention of the gods, we passed a stand selling refreshments. On this warm May day cool ice treats were being sold, to be replaced in winter by steaming bowls of noodles.
The quiet, small grounds of the temple are a charming setting with vendors displaying their goods around the temple's stone monuments, steps and central incense urn. Everywhere the merchandise is quietly being picked over by the gentle but demanding buyers, eager to discover a bargain.
Arai Yakushi is also an excellent source for period ceramics. Squatting amongst a sea of blue and white china one little man appeared to be a prisoner of his own fragile display. His selection of ceramic ware from the sea port of Imari, the original port on the island of Kyushu from where it was shipped, was especially extensive. Look for the hand-painted pieces from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, in soft grey-blue designs, they are immediately distinguishable from the later pieces which are characterized by stiff designs in navy blue. Several other vendors also had an extensive range of ceramics.
Flea market hours are from dawn to about 5 P.M, for the widest selection of goods arrive no later than mid-morning. Three of the best include:
Iidabashi. 1st Saturday, Central Plaza Shopping Centre, Ramla Square. Iidabashi stop on the JR, Tozai or Yurakucho lines.
Togo Shrine. 1st and 4th Sundays, Meiji Dori. Harajuku stop on the JR line or Meijijingumae stop on the Chiyoda line.
Arai Yakushi. 1st Sunday. Arai Yakushi-mae stop on the Seibu Shinjuku line, heading west from Takadanobaba.
If there are five Sundays in any month, no flea market is held on the 5th Sunday. The markets are cancelled in the event of rain.
photos Anatol Filin