From rags to riches

Setagaya's long-running Boroichi market offers bargains and bites

by Mark Schreiber

In 1578, the lord of Musashi Province (present-day Tokyo, Saitama Prefecture and eastern Kanagawa Prefecture) authorized a tax-free market in Setagaya, then a small castle town under a minor vassal of the Hojo clan, which ruled the Kanto region from its fortified base in Odawara.

In its location as a way station on the old Koshu Kaido road linking Musashi and Sagami provinces (most of present-day Kanagawa Prefecture), Setagaya became the center for a flourishing trade in boro (scraps of cloth), which could be used for patching farming clothes or for weaving the thongs used in waraji (straw sandals), the weaving of which was an important source of income for farmers.

Setagaya’s Rakuichi (Free Market), as it was then called, became the center of a thriving trade in farming implements and daily goods, and at one time it was held on six days each month.

In 1590, the Hojo clan capitulated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who, in 1603, would become the first Tokugawa Shogun. Setagaya’s castle was then demolished and the market lapsed, but it was eventually revived as a yearend affair. From around the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it became known as the Boroichi (Rag Market), and it gradually metamorphosed into a popular annual event held in December and January.

Now in its 431st year, the Setagaya Boroichi returns next Thursday and Friday, Jan. 15 and 16, to the street outside the thatched-roof Daikan Yashiki — the lord’s former residence — that still stands where it has since 1733, and is now a designated national cultural treasure.

Once a rustic hamlet, Setagaya today boasts 830,000 residents, making it the most populous of Tokyo’s 23 wards. And judging from the size of the friendly crowds, a good portion of them turn out simply to stroll through the Boroichi and gaze at the cornucopia of items on display.

Between Setagaya-Dori on the west and Komazawa Koen-Dori on the east, a distance of perhaps 500 meters, an estimated 750 vendors set up their stands, and if the weather is favorable, more than 200,000 people are likely to turn out to ogle at the goods, soak up the festive atmosphere, eat and shop.

While police, fire department and private security guards keep close watch on the crowds, the atmosphere tends to be more relaxed at this commercial and secular event than at festivals held at shrines or temples.

Most impressive is the sheer variety of items on sale. In addition to vendors from all over Japan, local merchants usually suspend their regular business to take part in the fair, hawking items from tables set out on the street.

The “rags” of yore have given way to old silk kimono, obi (kimono sashes) and other accessories at surprisingly low prices. There are also potted plants, including cactuses and bonsai; porcelain and other ceramic goods; wood carvings; dolls; carpentry tools; musical instruments; antique pieces of furniture; old black dial-type telephones; and appliances from the pretransistor era, such as console-type AM radios and gramophones.

Still other vendors sell their own original handicrafts, with a few even crafting items to order right there on the spot. In recent years, foreign vendors have started to take part as well, giving the Boroichi a more international flavor.

In addition to collectibles, local housewives drop by to stock up on such comestibles as shichimi togarashi, a spicy seasoning sold in small gourds closed with a wooden stopper. Other fare on offer might include miso (soybean paste, used in soups), konbu and nori (varieties of sea vegetables); pickles and preserved vegetables of all sorts. And let’s not forget all those traditional Japanese confections!

However, another great joy of this market is that many of the items are one of a kind. You might find such exotica as old military medals, unusual rocks and fossils, 78-rpm records, antique books, old magazines and cinema posters — almost any type of bric-a-brac imaginable, some rare and even valuable, but mostly just tacky.

The Boroichi is highly photogenic, so time should be allotted to picture-taking as well as browsing.

While next Thursday and Friday are working days, the market runs until 9 p.m., so there’s still time to get there after work.

The crowds usually increase as the weather warms up, and by noon almost up to 9 p.m., people of all ages can be seen strolling along munching on the many tempting snacks on sale, such as yakisoba (fried noodles), niku manju (steamed pork buns) and cotton candy, and sipping cups of hot amazake, a sweet nonalcoholic drink made from the leftovers of the sake-brewing process.

If you would rather sit down for a proper meal, numerous restaurants can be found behind the street shops, but many of them close entirely, or pare their menus, during the two-day event. With the huge influx of visitors, most eateries in the neighborhood are likely to be crowded.

After the sun goes down and it turns chilly, crowds continue to converge. The shops are illuminated by strings of bare light bulbs, and the market, while a bit more bracing, is in some ways more picturesque at night than by day. And then the snap, crackle and pop of firecrackers marks the 9 p.m. closing time in festive style.

If you visit the Boroichi between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., you can also stroll around the grounds of the beautifully preserved old Daikan Yashiki.

On the building’s west side is a shirasu (outdoor courtyard) where trials were conducted. Just behind it, in a modern two-story building, is the Setagaya Museum of History, which displays various artifacts showing evidence of human habitation in the area dating back more than 20,000 years.

Some flea markets at temples and shrines have been known to attract fly-by-night salesmen known as tekiya, who are said to have loose ties to gangster groups. I inquired about this with the Boroichi organizers, and was told that vendors undergo screening by police, and any applicant with a criminal record is barred.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that some of the goods on sale, especially used items, may not be as authentic as claimed, and the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) definitely applies.

Setagaya Boroichi operates from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 15 and Friday, Jan. 16. If you buy a heavy or bulky item and have a long way to carry it home, ask the vendor to arrange shipment if possible (for a fee). Getting there: Some pay-parking may be available at lots in the vicinity, but the street itself is closed to all auto traffic. From Shibuya, take a Tokyu Bus (¥210) heading to Kamimachi Station, Seijo Gakuen or Soshigaya Okura for about 20 minutes to Setagaya Kuyakusho Iriguchi-mae or Kamimachi Station. Buses also run to and from Tokyu Bus Co.’s Tsurumaki Eigyosho from JR Shibuya and Meguro stations. From Shimo Takaido on the Keio Line, Gotokuji on the Odakyu Line, or Sangenjaya on the Denentoshi Line, transfer to the two-car Setagaya Line (¥140) and get off at either Kamimachi Station or Setagaya Station. On foot, the Boroichi is about 15 minutes from Komazawa Daigaku or Sakura Shimmachi on the Tokyu Denentoshi Line.