How to make a mint at Japan's antique markets

How to make a mint at Japan's antique markets

We walk the stalls with an expert buyer to learn how the pros go shopping and come out on top
Kawagoe antiques market
Kawagoe antiques market swings into action on the 28th of every month.

If you’ve been to an antiques market in Tokyo or one of the area’s many shrine sales in the past few years, it’s likely you’ve come across Jacqueline Wein -- or Tokyo Jinja as she’s known to her dedicated band of online followers.

She often draws small crowds waiting to see what gem she will pick up and examine. Selections made, it’s not unusual to find her making several trips between the market and her car, loading up purchases she’s made on behalf of her customers around the globe.

Kawagoe antiques marketJacqueline Wein runs the numbers at another sale.Wein’s fascination with treasure hunting started at a young age in flea markets and garage sales in the United States. This fascination led to Princeton where she studied history and art.

From there she went on to deal in 19th-century silver -- a period directly influenced by the “opening” of Japan -- and spent several years in the 1990s in Hong Kong studying Chinese and Japanese antiques.

Helping clients integrate the quintessential piece into their home, regardless of their particular style, is her specialty. Wein prides herself in finding the one valuable object in a crowd of junk.

“One of the best deals I have encountered is the recent purchase of two Chizuko Yoshida butterfly prints from the 1970s,” she says. “They are in beautiful frames from Kato Galleries -- very expensive and high-end.

“The prints themselves are worth a few hundred dollars each, without the framing, although I paid less than ¥10,000. But my favorite purchase is a French drinks cart I bought at Kawagoe.”

Sounds like a place worth checking out, then.

The Kawagoe shrine sale, held on the grounds of the town’s Narita-san temple, 40 kilometers north of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, is one of Wein’s top picks.

“Kawagoe is unique as it’s positioned outside Tokyo with a broad range of dealers and great pricing,” she says.

“The town is historic and well worth a visit. I routinely make my best finds there.”

Expert advice

We recently spent the day there and as we walked the aisles she gave me a quick Japanese antiques primer; she was also full of advice.

Depending on the day, she’ll either do a rapid scan, assess and then go back to buy or if the market is crowded and people are buying, she will start at one end and walk the market, buying as she goes.

“Things will most definitely get away if you don’t,” she warns.

What to buy

Kawagoe antiques marketA collection of Kawagoe's finest wares.

“Locals collect differently than visitors -- they are more likely to buy nostalgic items; treasures that have referential value, like kokeshi dolls, maps or tansu chests,” says Wein.

“Right now, fishing floats and glass senbei canisters are very popular and the prices reflect that popularity.”

Visitors to Japan, on the other hand, are looking for furnishings to fit into their homes; pieces that have a history and a place of origin, like lanterns, milk glass lamps, architectural ornamentation and fine porcelain.

“Locals most likely live in apartments that won’t allow for remodeling and many of the items for sale are too large for a Tokyo apartment,” says Wein.

“And the Japanese tend to have more of a fascination with Western items – things you might find in your grandmother’s attic back home.”

More on CNNGo: Obata Antiques -- Tokyo's collectibles

Fake or real?

Kawagoe antiques marketTsuba sword hilts make amazing gifts or collectibles.

“The Japanese culture is one of honesty and truthfulness,” says Wein. “I would say 95 percent of dealers give you the best information they have on a piece.

“There are reproductions but a lower price will reflect that. The things that are faked tend to be small and valuable -- for example, tsuba sword hilts and the small netsuke containers hung from kimono sashes.

Can I bargain?

“You can -- politely. Don’t start the negotiations at half of the asking price. This will insult the dealer. Instead, let them make you a better offer,” says Wein.

“The magic words ‘best price onegaishimasu’ will probably yield a 10-percent discount and that’s about as good as you’ll get.

“However, if you’re buying multiple pieces from the same dealer you can push a little more on the price. And if it's the end of the day, or it’s raining, you may find dealers more motivated to sell.”

Getting it home

“Ask the dealer you bought it from to arrange for takkyubin home delivery. If they are unwilling, walk your piece to the nearest convenience store and they will most likely be able to send it from there,” says Wein.

“And while you’re shopping the market, if you buy something large, you can ask the dealer to hold it for you until you are finished shopping.

Take a photo of the booth to remember where it was, as it might not be so easy to find again at the end of the day.”

Do the dealers speak English?

“About a quarter of the dealers speak some English, but the international language of gesture works quite well,” says Wein.

Swag bag

Kawagoe antiques marketDidn't we do well? Our antique haul at the end of a fruitful day.

Our visit proved quite fruitful for both of us. What I first thought was a strange-looking abacus (¥4,000) was actually a commercial ordering system for beer, shochu and juice that will look perfect hanging above my bar at home.

I also bought, among other gems, a zabuton armrest for ¥500 that I will use as a footrest in my living room, a picture frame that Wein thought was Chinese in origin (¥5,000), three battledores (¥2,000) and a sake cup that’s more than 100 years old (¥1,000).

Next time you visit a shrine sale in Japan, look out for Jacqueline Wein -- she’s the busy New Yorker on a mission.

You never know -- she just might point you in the direction of the find of a lifetime.

Getting there: The Kawagoe Shrine Sale takes place on the 28th of every month from around 7 a.m. It’s a 10-minute walk from Hon-Kawagoe Station on the Seibu Shinjuku line. There’s parking for ¥500, but it tends to fill up early in the morning.

For more information on shrine sales in Japan visit Jacqueline’s blog, Tokyo Jinja.

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