A nation of craftsmen and perfectionists, it’s no wonder that the quality of Japanese antiques is high. But fear not, there are plenty of small items you can get your hands on without spending your life savings.
With simplicity at the core of Japanese design, the best antiques here are usually practical in origin, having developed into decorative items along the years. Be it a vital part of the samurai sword or a beautiful bowl from a tea ceremony, Japanese antiques can range from a few thousand yen to millions, without looking much different. Assuming you don’t have a few million yen to spare on your travels, here are five suggestions of things to look out for—all with interesting histories, affordable prices and small enough to fit in your suitcase!
Netsuke | 根付
A common find when rooting around at Tokyo flea markets or overcrowded antique shops, netsuke are small sculptures, intricately carved and used with kimonos. Invented in the 17th century, they acted as toggles on sagemono—the bags worn around the neck by those wearing kimonos. Popular during the Edo period, the name means ‘root’ and ‘attach’ and was a fastener, often carved with patterns or as an animal/figure. 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.
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, and 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. Say “Zouge 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
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. 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). If you keep an eye out these 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.
Kiseru | 煙管
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 increasingly decorative appearance was used as a sign of wealth and longer ones could even be used as weapons in some circles. 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.
Home to one of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world, Japan has been making earthenware since the Neolithic period. Combined with the love of the tea ceremony, pottery has long been a crafted art, with a higher level of respect than in most countries. 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 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. 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
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 as far as to intentionally smash beautiful items just so they could be repaired in this way.
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.
Where to go antique-hunting
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.
Wasendo – 55-year-old antique shop in Asakusa, a few minutes from the temple and in the Nishi-sanjo arcade. They have plenty of smaller items like coins and medals as well as stamps and netsuke too.
A few minutes from exit A4 of Asakusa Station | Closed Thursdays, Open 11am – 6pm.
Address: Asakusa 2-7-13, Taitoku, Tokyo. Phone Number: 03-3841-6525
Antique Mall Ginza – A large shopping mall dedicated to antiques, this place is a bit of a treasure trove and great for a browse. With different stores filling the spaces you can find a wide range of antiques from Japan and abroad.
A few minutes’ walk from Exit 10 of Ginza-itchome Station or Exit 2 Kyobashi Station | Closed at New Year
Website here. Open 11am – 7pm. Address: 1-13-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, 104-0061. Phone number: 03-3535-2115
Antique Life Jin – A cute little antique shops with plenty to explore, this place 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.
Akariya Antiques: For the more serious shopper, this place has a great collection, but the prices are high. They have two sister stores, one called Akariya 2 which rents and sells antique kimonos which are pretty amazing, and one called Kanarusha which is more of of curios and antique furniture option.
A few minutes’ walk from Sangubashi Station. Website here. Open 11am – 7pm.
Address: 4-8-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, 151-0053. Phone number: 081-3-3465-5578.
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 confirm details and weather policies. In Japan, this 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 and held once a month in Yoyogi Park. From 8am. Website here.
Oi Flea Market: Takes place at Oi racecourse almost every weekend, around 300 sellers. From 9am. Website here.
Akasaka Antique Market in Ark Hills: A great open market with plenty of stalls. From 9am. Website here.
Hanazono Shrine Antique Fair: Held 2-3 times a month on Sundays from 9am – 4pm. Website here.
Nogi Shrine Antique Flea Market: Held on the 4th Sunday of each month. From 9am. Website here.
Tokyo Nomi no Ichi Antique Market: Only held twice annually (next in August!). From 11:30am. Website here.
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