A few months ago there was a news story about a painting bought at a flea market in France for around 200,000 yen that turned out to be by Vincent van Gogh and worth upward of 300 million yen.
That was an extreme case, but the suspense of browsing with the chance of something similar happening certainly spices up the joy of bargain-hunting at flea markets the world over.
Nowadays, flea markets are sprouting up throughout Japan, and are attracting both people looking for something out of the ordinary, and others drawn to them as bargain-price shopping centers. But do beware, because many of these markets are closed when it rains — so be sure to check before you go.
One of Japan’s most famous open-air markets is Setagaya Boroichi in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, which is held on just four days of the year — the 15th and 14th of December and January (for details, call  5432-1111).
Dating back 425 years, this market’s ancient origins are revealed in its name. Boroichi means “rag market” and refers to the time when many vendors sold old cloth to be used as bindings for straw sandals called waraji. In those bygone days other stalls also dealt in used clothes, farm tools, food and other daily necessities.
In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the market took on a carnival air, with entertainers appearing in show tents and actors performing under canvas or in the open air. As a result, by the early years of the Showa Era (1926-89), there were more than 2,000 stalls, with hucksters almost outnumbering vendors. This all became a bit much for local residents who, in 1964, formed a group to preserve the market in its traditional form — run primarily by and for local residents.
Typically, it now attracts around 200,000 people a day to its 700-odd stalls, many of which are run by professional vendors selling everything from old kimono and used clothing to bric-a-brac, antiques, potted plants, toys, kitchen utensils and foodstuffs. In September 1994, too, the event was designated an intangible cultural asset by the Setagaya Ward Office.
According to Hideo Aikawa, a representative of the local merchants’ association, in recent years about 30 percent of the stalls have been selling antiques. Ones selling used clothes and kimono account for about 20 percent. “As a result,” he said, “many foreigners are among the crowds of customers hunting for bargains.”
One of those there last month was Darlene Maravilla, who came from the Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture with a 60-strong group on three buses. “I always look forward to going to flea markets,” she said. “It’s fun just to browse, but I usually go home with something.”
Maravilla said she was quite satisfied with her trophies from the market this time. She purchased obi and an incense burner, both for interior decoration — and at reasonable prices. “I don’t speak Japanese, but I enjoy price negotiations with the stallholders,” she said. “They are, by and large, friendly, and they are willing to write down prices for me.”
Foreigners’ appreciation of the goods differs from that of the Japanese, observed one antique dealer. “Foreigners seem to find it interesting to purchase old or obsolete items such as hibachi or obi that can be used in ways not originally intended,” he said.
If you decide to go to the event, which runs 9 a.m.-9 p.m., prepare yourself for throngs of people and a powerful buzz of excitement, with everyone seeming to forget the winter cold as they push and shove to get at the bargains. Because of the lack of parking, it’s recommended that you leave your car at home and take the Tokyu Setagaya Line to Setagaya Station and walk from there — then arrange home delivery for any massive pieces of furniture that you just can’t resist.
If you can’t make it to Setagaya Boroichi, though, not all is lost, as there are many other interesting flea markets in and around Tokyo.
For instance, Nogi Shrine Antique Flea Market ( 91-3572), Japan’s first full-scale antique market, is held every second Sunday of the month at Nogi Shrine in Akasaka, Minato Ward. With the current antique boom, the market is crowded from its opening at around 7 a.m., and the many foreigners it attracts give it an international atmosphere.
Then there’s Roppongi Antique Fair ( 3583-2081), which is held, regardless of the weather, on the patio outside the entrance of the Roi Building. With its location ensuring brisk business and many foreign faces among the crowds, this is held on the fourth Thursday and Friday of each month from 8 a.m. until evening.
Another well-known Tokyo flea market is the Yoyogi Flea Market ( 3226-6800), which is held once a month on Saturday or Sunday in Yoyogi Park in Shibuya. Because this event was started by people involved in the recycling movement, most vendors are not professionals but ordinary people who bring used items from their homes to sell cheaply.
In western Japan there are also several large open-air markets, many with a history going back centuries.
In Kyoto, Toji Temple’s so-called Kobo Ichi ( 22-3992 or  691-3325), for example, is one of the biggest and best markets. Held on the 21st of every month, this is a feature of local life with numerous stalls selling seasonal foods and everyday merchandise alongside those selling craft goods and antiques.
Whether you go to a flea market in Kanto, Kansai or anywhere else in Japan, though, your treasure-hunting will probably be all the more successful if you have grasped a few basics, including bargaining techniques. According to “Flea Markets of Japan,” a pocket guide for antique buyers written by Theodore Manning, there is a “shopping protocol” to observe. So, drawn from Manning’s experience, here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you negotiate a flea market’s unwritten rules.
First of all, when you get there, allocate plenty of time to look around. This especially applies to large markets, where you may well find the same items in a wide range of prices.
Whatever your budget or tastes, go for what appeals to you and don’t be afraid to buy something you are not sure of — it’s the best way to learn.
Always check carefully for damage or defects, remembering that repairs can sometimes be well camouflaged. Also, bear in mind that in Japan items such as dishes and lacquer bowls generally come in sets of five, so any in sets of four or less will likely be bargain-priced.
Remember, too, that markets at temples and shrines usually start early in the morning — but this doesn’t mean it’s best to arrive too early. Rather, later in the day is a good time for shopping when, around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., many sellers start offering their goods at ridiculously low prices to avoid the hassle of taking them back home.
But finally — and most important of all, enjoy hunting for bargains — and good luck!
Some of the country’s other leading flea markets are:
Togo Shrine Flea Market, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo (1st and 4th Sunday;  3425-7965)
Hanazono Shrine Open-air Antique Flea Market, Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo (every Sunday;  3200-3093)
Kitano Tenmangu Tenjin Ichi, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto; (25th of month;  811-3685 or  461-0005)
Shitennoji Daishi-e, Tennoji Ward, Osaka (21st of month;  6771-0066)
Suma Temple Flea Market, Suma Ward, Kobe (1st Sunday, except January;  361-1361 or  731-0416).