A walk through the Kyoto antiques district

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KYOTO — Long a Mecca for fans of Japanese antiques, Kyoto is more enticing than ever these days. Unscathed by the bombs of World War II, old family storehouses continue to yield a small but steady stream of somewhat dusty delights, while a host of new shops plying the antiquity trade promises something to satisfy every taste.

Kyoto antiques fall into three basic categories: Buddhist artwork, tea ceremony utensils and items once used in everyday life. Unless you are a serious student of Japanese art or a devotee of cha no yu, the third category is the one most likely to appeal to your interests.

The city’s main antique district has long been centered around Furumonzen and Shinmonzen, two streets running parallel to each other just southeast of Keihan Railway’s Sanjo Station. While some of the shops here specialize in items from one of the above three categories, most offer a combination.

Among the many reputable names in the area, Kawasaki Bijutsu (075) 541-8785 (formerly Kyoto Screen), at the east end of Shinmonzen stands out for its exquisite collection of byobu (screens) and tansu (chests).

Renkodo (075) 525-2121, at Shinmonzen’s west end, is another shop where, although you’ll find no bargains, you can rest assured that everything is of excellent quality. The shop is famous for Imari blue-and-white porcelain. If you’re thinking of purchasing a piece for display, this would be the place to look.

Also on Shinmonzen, just east of Hanami-koji, is Nakajima (075) 561-7771, with an eclectic assemblage of items that reflect owner Gentaro Nakajima’s shrewd eye.

A newcomer to the district is Yakata (075) 533-1955, on Nawate-dori, just north of Shinmonzen, which recently moved here from Teramachi-dori. Yakata’s goods, which mainly come directly from old family storehouses, run from late Edo to Taisho.

On the south side of Furumonzen, east of Nawate-dori, is Kadendo (075) 531-9501. Most of owner Kenji Nakayama’s intriguing stock of antiques was assembled during his days as a collector. When he spotted a “For Sale” sign on the building that now houses his shop, the Osaka native gave up his company job, relocated to Kyoto, and took up the life of a dealer.

Nakayama grins when asked about the effect of Japan’s economic doldrums on the antique trade. His customers, he says, would rather give up food than antiques.

Those bitten by the bug will want to be sure to visit Kyoto’s second major venue for antiques, the stretch of Teramachi-dori extending from Nijo north to Marutamachi. The past year has witnessed the birth of several new shops here, many of them run by relatively young dealers. By happy coincidence, the city has just spruced up this block with new sidewalk paving and solar-powered street lights. Teramachi looks set to give Furumonzen-Shinmonzen a run for its money.

Typical of the new breed of shop is Nagata (075) 211-9511, located on the corner of Teramachi and Ebisu. Satoshi Nagata obtains all of his wares directly from old family kura (storehouses) instead of at auctions, which no doubt accounts for his reasonable prices and the somewhat serendipitous nature of his stock. The ceramic dishes here are especially worth a look. Occasionally the shop also has small chests, wooden hibachi, bamboo baskets, and other Meiji/Taisho items. Nagata-san’s wife speaks English, and payment can be made in dollars.

Just south of Nagata is the recently remodeled shop of Shigeo Tazuke (075) 231-1407. The soft-spoken young owner of this elegant shop admits to a fondness for Momoyama-Period pottery, but a look at his wares makes clear that Tazuke is attracted to anything of value and beauty, regardless of whether it will fetch 3,000 yen or 3 million yen. The selection here is slim, but choice.

On the other side of the street is Teramachi Kurabu (075) 211-6445, another new addition to the street. Once a mahjong parlor, the old structure has been restored by Teramachi Kurabu’s owners and makes an impressive setting for antiques. Most of the shop’s items fall into the “everyday life” category and come mainly from the Meiji and Taisho Eras.

Between Teramachi Kurabu and Nijo-dori, on the east side of Teramachi, is Kyoto Antiques Center (075) 222-0793, a collection of independently owned shops gathered together under one roof. The attractively refurbished space is the brain child of Hideo Kaneko, who claims to have gotten the idea from similar ventures he came across in Europe and Australia. The wealth of antiques on display encompasses European as well as Japanese items.

Two of Teramachi’s older residents include Sakai (075) 221-2785, south of Marutamachi on the west side of the street, and Daikichi (075) 231-2446, located just south of Nijo-dori also on the west side. Sakai specializes in tea ceremony objects, but the shop has other items as well, all of which reflect owner Sakai-san’s excellent taste. Daikichi was a restaurant until owner Sugimoto Tatsuo tired of the hassles of that business. It now offers its patrons a tasty selection of coffee, cake and old ceramics.

Lovers of old lacquerware are in luck, for Kyoto boasts one of the few shops specializing in that item. Located on the south side of Marutamachi a block and a half west of Teramachi, Uruwashi-ya (075) 212-0043 began life in Nara and then took up residence in Kyoto. Presided over by Akemi Horiuchi, Uruwashi-ya offers a lustrous selection of late-Edo, Meiji and Taisho lacquerware.

One of Kyoto’s best antique shops is neither in Furumonzen-Shinmonzen nor on Teramachi. Hirooka Antiques (075) 721-4438 is located in Kyoto’s north, just off Kitayama-dori, a boutique-lined street better known for “ladies who lunch” than antique hunters. Still, the shop, owned by Soji Hirooka, is a good example of the new generation of Kyoto antique stores.

Hirooka started out selling to the dealers of Furumonzen-Shinmonzen and knows the business inside out. His merchandise, including tansu, Imari, and bamboo baskets reflects a skilled eye. Hirooka credits Kyoto’s long-term foreign residents with helping to develop it; he says that they, rather than the tourists who shop at Shinmonzen, were the ones who really taught the Japanese the beauty of ordinary Japanese antiques.

Hirooka’s selection of Imari is impressive, and his tansu are only rivaled by those at Kawasaki Bijutsu. He does not discount. His prices reflect an item’s true value, he says, and he will happily explain how he arrived at that price. From the Kitayama subway station, take Exit 1 and walk two minutes east. At the first street on the north side of Kitayama, turn left and you’ll see the shop on your right about 15 meters up.