Antique Shopping in Japan. A brief guide

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I recently returned (reluctantly) from an 18 day holiday to Japan.  This comprised of a 4 day stay in Tokyo, 2 nights in Takayama, 2 in Kanazawa, 3 in Nara and 4 in Kyoto (plus one in the airport hotel at Osaka which isn’t worth discussing further).  The purpose of this trip was primarily a holiday planned around interesting sights and michelin star restaurants.  High on my personal agenda throughout the holiday was antique shopping and museum visits to hunt for netsuke and urushi work though almost anything old and well made will grab my attention.  Before going on my trip I couldn’t find any short guides to buying antiques in japan so here are some of my essential tips.

Antique shopping in Japan

First off I will give a bit of a general overview of my experience when antique shopping in Japan which was mainly positive.  My experience ranged from vintage open air markets, little junk shops and more professional dealers.  Almost everybody I spoke to was willing to entertain the idea of me buying something (I think one or two stores in Kyoto were not but I can’t be sure of this, I was just politely but firmly ushered out) and everyone I spoke to was willing to negotiate on prices.  The strength of the exchange rate at the time of my visit probably helped with this but having a few key phrases really helped too.  A few cheap phone apps can help with this. there are many on the market which provide key phrases.  It really took people by surprise being able to ask a few things in Japanese when browsing and negotiating.  Key phrases I would learn are:

    • Hello, good morning, afternoon, or evening (the right greeting at the right time of day goes a long way)
    • Excuse me (when wanting to ask for assistance or wanting to say sorry for saying or doing something wrong or stupid)
    •  How much is it? (absolutely crucial)
    • Can you give discount? (don’t be frightened to ask as I can’t remember one person who said no)
    • I’ll have to think about it.  (this phase is an absolute as you always need a get out clause when negotiating and this will give you time to think)
    • Thank you, thank you very much (or any other variation of this, be as polite as possible when buying or browsing.  Not only should people do this just because it’s nice to be nice, but people are more likely to give you discount if you are not rude to them)

In addition to the phases above know the name of what you are looking for and how to pronounce it such as netsuke is not pronounced net-suck-ay, but is pronounce net-ski or net-ske.  A lot of time was saved by walking into shops and saying, Hello.  Excuse me, netsuke? inro? to which most responded ‘no’ and then I could say thanks, goodbye.  I also had a list of word relevant to the item I was looking for such as material names for netsuke.

I watched an american man barge into a small store and basically shout net-suck-ay! at a very confused old lady who spoke basically no english.  Not only did I feel sorry for her but I felt embarrassed for him as this lady had some of the nicest netsuke I handled during the trip and if he had only taken the time he could have found that out without all the shouting.

Another must have item was a notebook and pen.  This is the easiest way of asking how much something is and then negotiating on prices and all each person has to do is write down numbers.  Many shopkeepers will have a calculator to do this but pen and paper are a good backup.

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Prices

The main items I searched for were netsuke and inro whilst on holiday.  Prices for these items can vary massively from one to another but there were price differences from one city to another.  Kyoto was by far the most expensive but it also had the most antique stores and the area I shopped in is well known for its antique stores so there was probably a higher premium.  It also had the better quality of netsuke and inro that I encountered.  The open air market in Tokyo had a huge range of prices.  I made the mistake here of buying something I had not set out to buy, a tsuba and fuchi.  I realize now I probably over paid for them both as I had done no previous research on these item types.  If you are looking for certain things then stick to what you know or you’ll get stung.  Nara and Takayama had a good range of shops and prices were overall reasonable but be careful of overpaying for low quality goods in inexperienced antique stores.  I didn’t find many antique shops in kanazawa but was there during a public holiday.  I think most bargains to be had were in Tokyo and Takayama.

 

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Item Quality

Buying anything an a whim can be a poor idea but in antique shopping it’s a terrible idea.  If you are looking for netsuke or related items do not presume that just because you are in Japan all the netsuke you see are genuine.  I saw more chinese ivory and wood fakes (netsuke like object, tourist pieces, what ever you want to call them) in Japan that I have seen anywhere else.  For every one genuine netsuke I saw I probably saw 4 or 5 fakes.  I don’t think shop owners were trying to deceive unwary travelers but I think many antique dealers had no idea about netsuke themselves.  This is why knowing what you are looking for is crucially important.  Visits to museums to see the genuine article, taking photos and examining the fine detail is a must.  If possible go and see a reputable dealer first and ask them to give you a quick lesson on what to look for.  If you fail at this stage you’ll end up spending large amounts of money on items which just aren’t worth anything more than sentimental value, so in other words worth nothing to anyone else.

I hope this helps anyone going to Japan and wanting to bring back something more than tourist tat. A few google searches when in Japan helped me locate shops but just keeping a eye out when shopping is a must.  For Japanese phrases there are a few good apps out now which really helped.

A Star buy. Unfortunately I can’t read it…..

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Background 

My recent exploration into the world of carving and netsuke has seen me take a far more in depth interest in Japanese art than I had previously ventured.  This is an effort to understand the motivation behind many famous netsuke artists from the Meiji period and earlier which should in effect influence my own work.  I often pondered how many of the artists developed their style and very Japanese interpretations of their subject matter.

After reading a lot and thinking on it further the whole style of the netsuke, especially the more abstract ones makes a lot of sense.  In the context of a world where there was no, or very little photography and travelling places took extended periods of time, seeing new things or exotic animals was difficult for the majority of people.  Netsuke artists would often use prints from other artists and illustrators.  These artists would have been constricted by the same restrictions so their prints were based on other artists prints or from descriptions in books or from people.  There was no google images so finding out what stuff looked like could be hard, or seeing what aspects of a common animal looked like still had to be done through direct observations as there was no photography.  This combined with artistic flare led to the art we see today.

The point

I decided that if my carvings were to feel authentic then I need to take a similar approach so I have been compiling many Japanese prints.  I recently found in my favorite second hand book store, Barter Books, a great book of Japanese bird prints.  Only problem is it is an original (for only £6.60) and is in Japanese so i am unable to read it. A bit of research has revealed this to be one volume of a 3 volume set of 100 Japanese birds by Bairei dated to around 1890.

 

enjoy these wonderful prints.

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