Antique dealer Kunihiro Iida, 66, specializes in tea ceremony utensils. His tiny corner shop, Iidakojitsudo, is just 500 meters from Tokyo Station’s Yaesu side, in the historical district of Kyobashi. Built in 1971 by the famed carpenter Kisaburo Fujii — who studied under Ogi Rodo, the grandmaster of sukiya architecture typical of traditional Japanese teahouses — Iidakojitsudo’s building stands on legendary ground. It was here, in Iida’s father-in-law’s house, that Maeda Nansai (1880 — 1956), the famous Edo craftsman, created his sashimono masterpieces: furniture and objects with mortise and tenon joinery. Iida is such a perfect fit for this shop, so saturated in the atmosphere of the past and frequented by legendary figures, that he himself is becoming a personality. Acclaimed as a walking-talking history book, other antique dealers often turn to Iida in their search for knowledge and the true sense of wabi-sabi.

It’s easier to recognize our own culture’s worth when we see foreigners appreciate it. Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), the great art collector, often visited Japan. On one of these trips, he traveled to Kyoto to pay his respects at the grave of Honami Koetsu, one of his favorite artists. Back then the Japanese had neglected Koetsu’s grave, which was, like a nearby teahouse, in disarray. After seeing that an American would travel all the way to visit it, though, Kyoto’s residents not only cleaned up the site, but they also created the Koetsu-kai, a tea ceremony event in Koetsu’s memory.

Kansai dialect is perfect for business. People in Osaka say hello with “Mokarimakka,” which means “How is business?” “Bochi bochi,” meaning “Not bad,” is the reply. These expressions keep one’s mind on the money.

In the past, business could be as slow as a tea ceremony, but nowadays most transactions are as speedy as a take-out. At the Tokyo Art Club, about 300 members would bid on items. We used to publish a book with photos and details of the antiques that members had for sale. We each got a copy and we’d choose the pieces we wanted to buy. We would write our bid on pieces of paper and then collect them. The highest bidder would get the artwork. Of course, there was no dango (price fixing). I guess we did this about 5,000 times, but the process was so relaxed and lengthy that nowadays auctions are conducted in similar ways to those at Sotheby’s or Christie’s.

If a businessman has dinner at home, not only is he not working, he’s also not doing a good job for his company. That’s what I was told when I was young. We got married in 1970, but I had to go drinking with clients every night — partying was a large part of my work. I enjoyed it a lot until I saw one of my daughter’s drawings. It showed me with a bright red face, smiling at the entrance hall. That’s the only way my family saw me! Soon after that I quit drinking.

For Japanese, the realms of business and the personal are connected. We wrap our pieces into a furoshiki (wrapping cloth) and bring it to our clients’ homes. First we get to know their faces, then we become friends, and finally we do business.

You can be happily surprised when you don’t expect much. We don’t get much foot traffic. The only one time I sold an article to a foreigner who just walked in was in 1972. A British man from Hong Kong asked about an incense box on display. I explained its history and craftsmanship and he said, “Jolly good, I take it.”

Always be ready to run! Next to my pillow is a pair of old sneakers, a helmet, salted beans to snack on and a bunch of coins to make phone calls. In case the big one hits Tokyo. Who am I going to call and from where? Not sure.

Being forgotten for a long time allows you to survive and, ultimately, it grants you the privilege to be rediscovered. Kyobashi has been overshadowed by its neighbors Nihonbashi and Ginza, both famous as business and cultural centers. This was lucky for Kyobashi, because while those two districts gained attention and underwent major urban development, Kyobashi stayed closer to how it appeared during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Kyobashi was not a place for daimyo but one for chonin (merchants and artisans), so houses were small and each city block included all the necessary shops — a fishmonger, vegetable stand, bath house, shamisen school and mini fire station. Although Kyobashi now has some tall buildings, just off Yaesu dori, there are still about 270 individually owned small houses, like ours.

Art flourishes when the economy is good. Takashi Masuda, the founder of Mitsui Bussan, devoted much of his time, energy and money to the tea ceremony. Wealthy patrons like him supported artisans by purchasing their masterpieces. Masuda read a lot, too, including The Japan Times.

Art dealers are historians, art connoisseurs and conduits between collectors. The same antiques have been circulating among a small number of families for centuries. A daimyo might present a teacup to another. Then one day that cup is given as a gift to someone else. Since tea ceremony instruments are treasures, their movements are traced, and their value increases by the touch of famous people who owned them the past. Dealers know all this and they help pass the cups around.

As one ages, the past comes more and more alive. Kyobashi is full of history and art. Ukiyoe master Hiroshige (1797-1858), master potter Rosanjin Kitaoji (1883-1959) and painter Taro Okamoto (1911-1996) all lived in Kyobashi. Chiba Sadakichi’s dojo, the Okecho, where revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma studied kendo, was just a few blocks away. I can almost see Ryoma walk by. Or see Maeda Nansai carve. Or hear the clip-clop of hooves from the horses of John D. Rockefeller III’s carriage making its way to a nearby famous antique shop. They say John Lennon and Yoko Ono walked around here, too. Luckily, 150 antique dealers still remain here. Every day, layers of the past build up into a very interesting present.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/ Twitter: judittokyo

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.