Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Community and deals at the Oi Racecourse Flea Market

by Rebecca Saunders

Contributing Writer

Oi Racecourse Flea Market is a mismatch of stalls and sellers that is a surprisingly exciting insight into a different side of Tokyo. Rows of traders sit under the metal grates of the racecourse car park and each has something weirdly specific on sale, like antlers, or a wild patchwork of junk and treasures.

I first went to the flea market in search of a secondhand radio. I thought it would help with my Japanese and I wasn’t keen on forking out a lot of money for a brand new one. As I walked from Tachiaigawa Station in Shinagawa Ward, the sight of people walking toward me with cardboard boxes and old Ikea bags stuffed full of their flea market finds confirmed it: I had got off at the right stop.

The market is steadily busy. Customers browse and wander; stallholders beckon them with calls of “irasshai” to search their wares. The world of secondhand items is a wonderfully welcoming place, drawing in an eccentric mix of sellers and buyers. Computer games, dusty vinyl records and stacks of old Coca-Cola adverts intermingle with Japanese woodblock prints and vintage kimono. I’m sure you could find anything among the heaped stalls if you looked long enough.

Oi Racecourse Flea Market is a lot like a British car boot sale, in which locals pitch up their cars every Sunday morning and sell what they don’t need from their trunks. The same thing happens at Oi: The sellers back up their cars, sit in the backs eating their yakisoba lunches, gossip with their neighbors and show off their best used items.

I found the radio I was looking for on my first foray. It was sold by a man with deep lines across his face and rough gravelly voice. Every week he sits happily on a low stool at his prized corner plot, a mass of wires and electrical bits surrounding him — and my new Aiwa radio was among it all. I inquired about the power cord for the small grey retro radio and he produced one out of the dusty pile on the floor, asking where I was from, whereabouts I lived. His easy-going acceptance of me being part of the city felt good to me as a newcomer.

The sellers at the market are a curious mix of the individuals who make up Tokyo — the salarymen who storm through the train stations and the neat, heeled ladies with designer bags and perfect makeup. At the market, though, the mask of that homogenous Japanese society everybody likes to propagate slips and reveals a community of people made up of all different backgrounds.

There’s Africans with French accents; cool groups of young neo-hippies selling tie dyed T-shirts who are more interested in sitting at their stall and talking with their friends than selling anything; ladies selling clothes from neatly arranged racks, and others selling stupidly cheap secondhand clothes (¥100 apiece) from stacks on blue tarpaulin. The vibe is not slick and sophisticated. It’s tattered, dusty and laid-back.

These are Tokyo’s downtowners, a lot like the people who run the market stalls in and around London. The working class people who are welcoming and not so judgemental. Maybe that’s why there seems to be so many non-Japanese people selling and shopping at the market: Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, American — the market doesn’t care who you are or where you come from.

The mix of people here is accented by tourists who have found their way to this bastion of authenticity; a selection of lesser-spotted backpackers and people who have turned up to see what Tokyo is like away from the neighborhoods of Asakusa and Nakameguro. People who are on the hunt for real Japan, its glorious gizmos and antique oddities, can find it here among the cocktail of crowds at Oi Racecourse carpark every weekend.

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