Twenty years ago some foreign wife friends coerced me into helping raise money by selling odds and ends at a flea market in Omiya, a sprawling suburb of Tokyo. The 20-foot-high banner spanning the blocked off shopping street splashed “Free Market” across the white cloth in red letters.
Hmmm…though I suppose it really should have been a "free" market, for all the junk that people were selling that day.
Ten years later, we began a year long house renovation project with the intention of moving out of the house we had built, to move into Tadaaki’s parents’ 70-year-old farmhouse. And so began a year of designing, scrubbing, and scavenging for old tansu (chests) and shoji (wood-framed paper and glass doors). And no they don’t use rice paper, the paper is called washi and literally means Japanese paper (nothing to do with rice). For several years, I had been hearing about a monthly flea market on the gateball ground next to the Japan Agriculture vegetable stand in our town. I didn’t think much of it, having already experienced that dubious “free market” in Omiya, but should not have been so quick to dismiss.From that time on, I have haunted the market winding my way through the rows on that dusty ground and have become pals with some of the sellers. And no matter what I say, they still think I’m a dealer. Maybe because I buy wisely, and in volume. It’s hard to pass up an intricately woven basket for ¥1000 ($9) that probably took someone several painstaking days to craft 50 years ago. Heartbreaking, really when you think how undervalued that basket has become. But then, I tend to buy big things: baskets, mixing bowls and wooden buckets; often affordable because Japanese today have little storage and houses are no longer designed for large pieces. Farmhouses have cavernous closets with few shelves, so oversized nesting baskets and wooden boxes were used to store clothes or papers. Sometimes the traditional storage style in our farmhouse is inconvenient, but at least we have space for my “finds.”
It’s mostly the wealthy Tokyoites or other antique dealers who see the value in much of what is being sold at our local flea market. Even in our old neighborhood, the typical modern couple will tear down their parents’ (or grandparents’) farmhouse and build a monstrous pre-fab house on the lot. While many Japanese may see the intrinsic beauty in old things, those objects have become far removed from their lives. Old is cool, just not in their house. Old is dirty.Also we have three sons, and I know if I don’t buy now, there will be nothing left to buy. I spent a summer antiquing with my mother in Vermont and New Hampshire while she was a professor at Dartmouth. Under tents set out in fields, we’d bid on the only ratty pieces we could afford. It was fun, but in a way depressing to see how little remained from our short American history.
In Japan, the dealers buy up whole kura (storage houses) from farming or merchant families, sight unseen. The older generation (as well as the younger), see no inherent value in the “junk” stored from the past and are happy to unload the stuff and have someone to haul it away. So, when I haggle, I have that in mind. Also, I look for unusual or well-crafted wooden boxes, ceramic serving bowls (often cracked), lacquer miso soup bowls with lids (sometimes hand carved with shell inlay) and baskets. Glorious, glorious baskets. And I also buy tansu (Japanese chests of drawers)—though less now that one of our old chicken coops is storing about twenty tansu scavenged from old houses due to be demolished.
In the end though, the dealers at our flea/antique market are not getting rich, so there is a limit on how much I try to get the price down. And it’s all about the relationships we form. I trust their pricing and they know I value the things I buy because I have an eye for humble artistry over flash.
I’ve got my favorite guys at the flea market, though they’re not always there. Some have given up, while others hang in there despite encroaching age and shaky health, but their stuff seems to deteriorate along with their health. My favorite vendor has a dyed black comb-over, and stutters when he speaks. And he always puts together a great package for me. Of course I come away with way more than I intended to buy, but the prices he offers me are too good to pass up. And he is sweetly sincere. Last time I bought an alligator purse for $25 dollars and an antique round wall clock for $45. I still haven’t figured out where I’ll put the clock or carry the purse, but they were great buys.
f someone is selling swords, I know his wares are too rich for my blood. There
But if someone is selling swords, I know his wares are too rich for my blood. There is a crotchety old guy with swords and beautifully crafted trinkets such as inro. When I ask him the price, he deadpans, “takai” (it’s expensive), and says no more. Vendors who deal in katana (Japanese swords) tend to be dismissive of gaijin and scruffy people (like me) who don’t have the prerequisite bulging wad of cash in their wallet. And I can spot those customers a mile off, either their skin is well-inked (semi-yakuza) or they’ve got slicked back hair and are sporting sunglasses and golf clothes.
he flea market in our little town of 15,000 has grown from once a month to a weekly affair, and now has spre
The flea market in our little town of 15,000 has grown from once a month to a weekly affair, and now has spre
The flea market in our little town of 15,000 has grown from once a month to a weekly affair, and now has spread out to an adjacent parking lot. I stumbled upon that annex the last Sunday in May. A wicker armchair caught my eye, but before I could scuttle away, the adept seller had me in his clutches. And yes, I did buy it, though I didn’t need it. It was hand woven and just too gorgeous to pass up (though probably not Japanese). I’m not sure why our little area has become a magnet for old things (and junk), but the gateball ground is mobbed on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month (the main markets) and new vendors seem to be pop up each time I go.
AAnd on that last Sunday in May, I ran into dear friend a
And on that last Sunday in May, I ran into dear friend and editor, Kim Schuefftan, who edited and ghostwrote most of the seminal cookbooks that came out of Kodansha International in the ‘80’s. Kim has been in Japan since 1963 and loves Japanese old things as much as I. He knows a lot more than me, though I introduced him to our flea market, to which he often drives 40 minutes each way. He knows a good thing when he finds one. And we foreigners hold one advantage over Japanese buyers, in that we can often discern intrinsic beauty in mundane objects that Japanese may well overlook.
Local vegetable stands are about the closest thing we come to farmers’ markets in Japan. And since our family produces a lot of our food, we don’t really buy much food at the vegetable stand, so the flea market has become the place I create connections with “purveyors” and where I run into Japanese and foreign friends alike. I always missed that while living here, and thought nostalgically about living in Menlo Park, perhaps running into old friends from childhood or Stanford at Draeger’s. But now, with Facebook and the blog, I “run into them” anyway, so suppose I have the best of both worlds.
Kamikawa Flea Market Finds: Edo period tray, lidded wooden baskets for sweets, lacquered miso soup bowl lids. Fontvielle Marché (Les Baux): antique linen napkin
Photo by Kenji Miura
Ohagi: Wash 500 cc glutinous rice (mochi gome) until water runs clear. Place rice in rice cooker receptacle. Add 500 cc (2 cups) minus 3 Tbsps filtered or spring water and let stand overnight. Cook in rice cooker on okowa (おこわ)setting. Or, wrap in thin muslin gauze or two layers of cheesecloth, place in steamer, and steam over furiously boiling water for one hour.
Transfer cooked rice to a large mixing bowl and mash with a large wooden pestle until the rice grains begin to adhere into a sticky mass. There will still be visible grains. Let cool 20 minutes for easier handling.
Set a small bowl of cold water by your side. Dip your fingers in the water to keep the rice from sticking to your hands. Shape rice into 10-cm (4-inch) by 5-cm (2-inch) oblongs.
Sesame: Toast 4 Tbsps sesame seeds in a dry pan over medium heat just until they pop. Grind roughly with mortar and pestle, add 1 Tbsp sugar and ¼ tsp salt and mix. Pour sesame mixture into a small plate and roll rice oblongs to coat. (substitute: walnuts or pecans)
Soybean powder (kinako): To 4 Tbsps kinako, mix in 1 Tbsp sugar and ¼ tsp salt. Follow above procedure for rolling ohagi.
Azuki Bean Paste (anko): Measure 250 cc (1 cup) azuki beans into a medium-sized pot fill pot to top with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, remove from flame and let sit one hour. Drain, return beans to pot, and fill with cold water to about 4 cm (2 inches) above beans. This is known as “surprise water” (bikkuri mizu); it shocks the beans and softens them. Simmer until beans just get soft. Stir in 50 grams (¼ cup) sugar and ¼ tsp salt and continue cooking and until beans start to fall apart. Mash roughly. The paste should be still about the consistency of mashed potatoes, but still chunky. Smooth anko around the rice oblongs instead of rolling in sesame or kinako.