In a nation of craftsmen and perfectionists, it’s no wonder that the quality of Japanese antiques is high. Collector’s items can, of course, be prohibitively expensive. But there are plenty of small items you can get your hands on without spending your life savings.

The best antiques here are usually practical in origin, having developed into decorative items along the years. Examples include bowls used in the tea ceremony and the ornate (but functional) parts of a samurai sword. Read on for five suggestions of Japanese antiques to look out for — all with interesting histories and available for affordable prices. And they’re small enough to fit in your suitcase! We’ll also tell you where you can find them.

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Netsuke

根付

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Some netsuke were made from ivory. Best to avoid those. | Photo by istock.com/dpetrakov

A common find when rooting around at Tokyo flea markets or antique shops, netsuke are small sculptures, intricately carved and worn with kimono. Specifically, they acted as toggles on sagemono — the bags worn around the neck by those wearing kimono. Similarly, okimono are simple and purely decorative versions made by the same artists. Depending on the detail and quality, they can be picked up pretty reasonably.

The word netsuke means “root” and “attach.” They were invented in the 17th century, and popular throughout the Edo period.

Caution: One thing to keep in mind with these trinkets is that they were often made of ivory. Though antique ivory arguably doesn’t threaten animals alive today, the global ivory trade is dark and deadly. If you’re looking to take a netsuke out of Japan, you’ll typically need to be able to prove that it is an authentic antique.

Our suggestion? Give ivory items a wide berth and opt for ones made of wood, ceramic, bamboo, or bone instead, or go for other antiques entirely. Ask, “zōge desu ka?” if you want to ask the salesperson whether it’s ivory (honesty not guaranteed) or “hone desu ka?” if you want to ask whether it’s bone.

Tsuba

鍔 or 鐔

Tsuba – still attached to the sword. | Photo by istock.com/Chanawat Phadwichit

A round guard designed to protect the hand of the sword-holder, tsuba also contribute to the balance of the blade. During the Muromachi and Momoyama periods they were mainly practical and made of stronger materials. But as peace descended in the Edo period, they became more decorative, made of softer metals like gold, and with intricate designs and family crests adorning them. If you keep an eye out, tsuba can be found in most antique shops in varying levels of quality and come in a wide range of metals, from steel to copper to brass.

Fun fact: That famous moment in a sword battle when opponents lock swords is actually known in Japanese as tsubazeriai, which in modern use means ‘to be in fierce competition’ (the more you know).

Kiseru

煙管

Assorted kiseru | Photo by istock.com/ma-no

Kiseru, a traditional pipe used to smoke a fine, hair-like tobacco called kizami, can be seen in plenty of traditional paintings and designs. With a much smaller bowl than Western pipes, the mouthpiece is usually metal with a tube of bamboo or wood stretching in between. Their decorative appearance was used as a sign of wealth and longer ones could even be used as weapons in some circles.

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The word kiseru is now used in reference to skipping train fares by buying cheap tickets at either end of the journey to get past the machines, reflecting the metal at both ends and nothing in between.

Ceramics

陶磁器 (tojiki), 焼きもの (yakimono) or 陶芸 (togei)

Japanese pottery
Porcelain on display at Nogi Shrine market | Photo by Gregory Lane

Home to one of the oldest pottery traditions in the world, Japan has been making earthenware since the Neolithic period. And the ceramics associated with the tea ceremony are among the most prized in the world.

There are two main streams of pottery: 1) the simple and un-glazed earthenware that relates to the simplicity of Zen Buddhism and the partly decorated tea ceremony ware, and 2) the brightly colored, complex designs which stem from Chinese influence and are, in recent times, often factory made.

While many artists are famous for their styles, in Japan the area is often a great signifier of quality. Locations such as Hagi, Arita, and Satsuma are all famed for their unique styles and considered some of the best quality in the country.

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If you’ve ever made pottery at a traditional Japanese kiln, you may have learned about wabi-sabi — the preference for imperfection that reminds you of natural deterioration. Perfect creations are considered cold and lacking this quality, so if you craft something excellent, you may be encouraged to add a spot of wabi-sabi (like denting one side slightly). Therefore if you see this trend in some of the antique pottery, take it as a good sign, rather than an unfortunate mistake.

Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi

金継ぎ or 金繕い

Tea vessel repaired with gold
Kintsugi tea ceremony cup | Photo by istock.com/riya-takahashi

The art of golden joinery or golden repair, respectively, the careful and delicate process involves using lacquer mixed or dusted with a fine gold powder to heal the cracks. As much a philosophy as a technique, it considers repairs part of an object’s history, rather than something to be disguised and hidden. Also used in Vietnam, China, and Korea, the technique became increasingly popular with people going so far as to intentionally smash beautiful items just so they could be repaired.

There are three main styles of this technique: the crack method which joins original pieces; the piece method which fills in the missing space entirely if the piece is not available; and the joint call, which uses gold to attach a similar piece creating a patchwork style.

The concept has been widely used in modern artwork and jewelry design due to the appealing image as well as the philosophy. While these are definitely on the pricier scale, they are a nice one to look out for and make a very special souvenir or gift.

Hands on: You can experience the art of kintsugi for yourself in Tokyo.

Where to look for Japanese antiques

Antique market at Tomioka Hachimangu near Monzennakacho. | Photo by Gregory Lane

So now you know what to look for, where do you look? There are two main options: you can either go straight to the antique shops dotted around the city or wait for the antique and flea markets to pop up for some rummaging.

Tokyo shops that sell Japanese antiques

Wasendo

A nearly 60-year-old antique shop in Asakusa, a few minutes from the landmark temple, Sensō-ji and in the Nishi-sanjō arcade. They have plenty of small items like coins and medals, as well as stamps and netsuke, too.

2-7-13 Asakusa, Taitō-ku, Tokyo
03-3841-6525
Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Thursdays
A few minutes from exit A4 of Asakusa Station

Antique Life Jin

A cute little antique shop with plenty to explore, Antique Life Jin also has a sister shop called Antique Life Jin (2). While the stock is a little hit and miss and more vintage than antique, if you’re on a tight budget this can be a great place to find a small treasure of your own.

35-15 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
03-3467-306
Open noon to 7 p.m. (weekdays); 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (weekends).
A few minutes’ walk from Shimokitazawa Station

Akariya Antiques

For the more serious shopper, Akariya has a great collection, but the prices are high. They have two sister stores, one is called Akariya 2 and rents and sells pretty amazing antique kimonos. The other is called Seibon Gallery and is more of a curios and antique furniture option.

4-8-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
03-3465-5578
Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
A few minutes’ walk from Sangubashi Station

Tokyo flea markets for Japanese antiques

A stall at the Nogi Shrine market
Antique markets are very common in Tokyo. | Photo by Gregory Lane

While times and dates are more fickle flexible with antique markets, they can be some of the best places to find a bargain. These are some of the top ones to check out if you have a chance, but be sure to double-check details and weather policies.

In Japan, a market is one of the few places where haggling is acceptable, but be reasonable — also bring cash, nothing else is accepted. As with all markets, it’s best to arrive nice and early before the dealers nab all the best items, although haggling is usually more effective at the end of the day!

Oedo Antique Market

One of the most popular antique markets, held once or twice a month at Tokyo International Forum or in Yoyogi Park.

Akasaka Antique Market in Ark Hills

A great open-air market with plenty of stalls open from 9 a.m.

Hanazono Shrine Antique Fair

Held almost every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (it’s outdoors).

Ohi Flea Market

This market takes place at Ohi Racecourse almost every weekend, with up to 600 sellers.

Boroichi Market

A 400-year-old market held twice a year, once in December and once in January from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

While we do our best to make sure everything is correct, information is subject to change. Originally published in June 2017. Last updated in December 2022 by Maria Danuco.

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