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Treasure hunting in Japan

Flea markets cater to fortune hunters, souvenir shoppers

by Kevin Rea

If you happen to be bit of a pack-rat, are looking for a unique souvenir from Japan, or just enjoy “window” shopping, then a visit to a Japanese flea market is an experience not to be missed.

Flea markets of one form or another have been held in Japan for hundreds of years now, very often held in the grounds of temples or shrines. Toji Temple in Kyoto, for example, has been hosting such markets since before the Edo Period, a history of over 400 years.

Traditional temple flea markets were more like fairs, with food vendors, craftsmen selling household goods like baskets, pots, chopsticks and toys, and, of course, the ubiquitous snake oil salesmen. Used goods were there — mostly clothing, but also scrolls, books and ornaments for collectors of the day.

Visit Toji flea market today and you will find the same fairlike atmosphere — and the same snake oil salesmen, or their descendants at least.

One difference at Toji and other temple markets throughout Japan these days is that antiques and collectibles now predominate.

During the postwar period and the rapid economic reconstruction, the Japanese people had little time or patience with relics of the past.

“Dirty” and “inconvenient” were words used to describe things that are now considered “charming” and “quaint,” not to mention “worth a lot of money.”

Not that the Japanese people didn’t like art — the massive outlays of cash during the “bubble era” on various Van Goghs and Matisses prove their appreciation — but there was scant regard for or knowledge about much beyond the well known woodblock print makers or major ceramics producers.

Humble, homegrown, everyday items from great-grandma’s old house were very often just thrown on the junk pile.

Then the recession set in. Money was just not there to be thrown away by the fistful anymore. People began to have second thoughts about spending 10,000 yen on the first melon of the season, or 100,000 yen on a Gucci handbag. Excessive spending was out, thrift was in — hence the appearance of the 100 yen shop (unthinkable a decade ago) and the now ubiquitous secondhand shop. The contents of great-grandma’s house took on a new value.

The Japanese version of Britain’s “Antiques Roadshow,” (“Nandemo Kanteidan”) where people bring in their old treasures to be appraised on television, also boosted interest in the everyday items of Japan’s past. What if that old vase in the closet turned out to be a Ming? Could that cheesy print in the garage actually be a Hokusai?

In consequence, antiques and flea markets have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity.

But the word “antiques” has broad parameters that can encompass anything from dusty old tat to items that belong in a museum. In any flea market you may encounter Edo Era ceramics rubbing shoulders with humble wooden buckets from the Meiji Period. Samurai armor competes for space with comic books from the 50s. Piles of exquisite silk kimono sit next to old movie posters from the golden age of Japanese cinema — something for every taste and every budget. As the saying goes, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Legally speaking, however, when it comes to assessing something at customs, an item is considered to be antique if it is 100 years old or more.

Apart from being able to spot a jewel hidden among the gewgaws, a skill that will come with research (check out “Flea Markets of Japan — A Pocket Guide for Antique Buyers,” by Theodore Manning, Kodansha 2003) and time, another handy skill is the ability to bargain. Unlike antique shops, where prices are usually written in stone, flea market dealers are often willing to drop their prices a bit. And it is usually a friendly haggle.

Whatever your interest, be it ceramics, textiles, prints or furniture, it pays to know as much as possible about the item before you buy. Talking to the dealers, who are often very knowledgeable, about the provenance of an item that has caught your eye can be very interesting. Examining the item closely for wear and tear is also advisable. Ceramics can have near-invisible cracks that can often be detected by flicking the item with a finger (gently does it) and listening to the ring; prints may be mildewed and torn; kimono may have small stains; and the rice-based glue used in wooden furniture is irresistible to termites.

Whether the treasure you find is priceless or worth only a few hundred yen, the thrill of the hunt is infectious and as Indiana Jones-like as an urban desk jockey is likely to get on a Sunday in Japan.

Major markets/fairs

TOKYO

Arai Yakushi Temple, Arai Yakushi-mae; 1st Sunday

Hanazono Shrine, Shinjuku; every Sunday

Iidabashi Ramura Antique Fair, Iidabashi Central Plaza; 1st Saturday

Nogi Shrine, Nogizaka; 2nd Sunday

Togo Shrine, Harajuku; 1st, 4th, 5th Sunday

Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine, Monzen Naka-cho; 2nd Sunday

Yasukuni Shrine, 3rd Sunday

Tokyo Dome Prism Hall, Tokyo Big Sight, Heiwajima Ryutsu Center hold regular fairs

KYOTO

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto; 25th of the month

Toji Temple, Kyoto; 21st of the month

Kyoto’s Pulse Plaza also holds regular antique fairs

OSAKA

Shitennoji Temple, Osaka; 21st of the month

Osaka Dome has annual fairs.