Japan Week 9: Crafts, Antiques, and Temples

Flea markets in Kyoto are important social events offering a variety of goods from antiques and handmade crafts, to native plants and the ubiquitous street food. They draw together the young and the old, fill the air with smells and conversation, and provide the hardy traveler some very unique souvenirs. But beyond gifts and novelties, these events allow the open-minded foreigner to connect with Kyoto culture and residents in a more intimate way.

The first thing to note is the location: many of these markets are located at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines. This adds an artistically stimulated backdrop complete with the iconic high-arched, curvilinear-slopping temple roofs, orange and white Chinese-inspired colonnades, and detailed stone carvings of animals, monks, and sometimes samurai. 

Softening all this hardscaping are sponglike moss, plum, and cherry trees just beginning to flower, azalea bushes, red-tipped pieris with white flowers, and numerous evergreens.

Packed among these features along stone paths, tides of people move in a surprisingly orderly fashion up and down rows of vendors. Some stand off to the side haggling for antique ceramics, while others try on jewelry made that day. Others still sit below great stone lanterns eating snacks and watching the procession.

When heading to my first market, the exponential buildup of foot traffic along the sidewalks was a good indication my destination was near. Soon, outlier peddlers started popping up, attempting to lure some coins from the unwary before the market’s full potential could be recognized – I didn’t fall for it, and soon realized that often those on the outside had suspiciously elevated prices.

An antiques vendor with baskets of old photographs caught my eye. This is something I see often at antique shops in the U.S., but usually ignore. However, in Japan these photographs feature early pictures of men in samurai gear, Kyoto, and other parts of Japan before being completely modernized, and stern-looking WW2 officers. These views into the past fascinate me, and I flipped through the whole stack before settling on a picture of three men standing with their naginatas.

Ambling further down the path, I came across an old man selling fishing equipment. Pursing the many blades, sharpening stones, and bamboo poles, I happened across a collection of hand-tied flies. As I examined the delicate creations, another old man approached and began pointing out different patterns and explaining – in part-English, part-Japanese – what they are for.

Pointing to small green flies he said brown trout, to a smaller white one he said Japanese trout, he said Tenko River, and good for mountains in the south pointing to the horizon. He finally pointed to a tiny barbless white and pink fly and said…well he said a Japanese name that I cannot for the life of me remember. But the name of the fish is not what was important, it was the interaction.

Fishing is something I love and try to do everywhere I go. It helps you learn the lay of the land, teaches you versatility and adaptability, and brings you into contact with local knowledge you would not otherwise be privy to. Here, it was something I had not even considered, but because of my investigation of locally made goods, I was given my first lesson in fishing in Japan.

Since this experience, I have gone to flea markets whenever possible. I have learned more about spinning yarn, wirework with jewelry, and the delicate painting of postcards. I was even approached by an old monk after watching a chanting ceremony in one of the temples – he wanted to know if I spoke Japanese and how witnessing the event made me feel.

These experiences are worth more than a Kyoto hoodie or even the samurai picture I bought at the first market. They allow you to develop the self-confidence to interact across cultural and language barriers, to practice speaking their language and if you know none of the language, to practice nonverbal forms of cultural appreciation – like bowing at the proper time.

I think of it like this: you are a dignitary, an ambassador of your people. I may not know all the right words or the right cues, but when you act with respect, you receive respect. I believe the same goes for curiosity, so next time you are in a foreign country, go to a flea market and just be open to the experience.

By Anthony Vitale