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March 1, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

A house full of hidden treasures

Tansu that had been discarded, and Meiji-era sumi-e rescued from friend's trash

Tansu that had been discarded, and Meiji-era sumi-e rescued from friend’s trash

(March 28, 1996)

I’ve been sitting on a gold mine. That’s the thought that ran through my mind as I wandered through the flea market in Harajuku.

It was the first time I’d gone to a flea market in Japan. I was in the company of two friends who collect, seriously and methodically, and they knew what they were looking for. Although I don’t collect anything (if it can’t be used, it’s probably not in my house), I’d been excited about going to the flea market thinking I would find all sorts of things I just had to have.

But when I saw what was for sale, what I thought was:  I already have this stuff.

Old fans, lacquer trays, prints, children’s toys, wooden abacus, bowls and dishes. I’m not saying the things I have are valuable – but at that market they were even selling dishes that were broken.

I also have what appeared to be the prize item, tansu. Four of these bureaus had been left to rot in our old farmhouse. I salvaged one, cleaned it up and restored it. (The others are, I guess, still in the farmhouse, rotting.)

Another item left to the elements in the farmhouse was the low table I use for calligraphy. That table would fetch a good price, I thought when I saw one being sold that wasn’t nearly as nice. Just out of curiosity I asked the price. Though I responded politely, to myself I said: “Hmpfh. Mine is made from a solid piece of hinoki (Japanese cypress). The craftsman’s name is written with a brush on the side of one of the drawers, he also wrote the date it was completed (September 1947) and the cost (¥500).” The vendor wanted a hundred times that for his table.

Also on sale were old farmhouse baskets, the kind I’ve been using for my knitting and patchwork. I could put that stuff in something elseand sell the baskets for a bundle. And I still have the large kimono basket my children slept in when they were babies — later I used it for laundry, after that the kids played with it as their make-believe shinkansen, and now it holds old dolls. It’s still in good condition. What would it be worth?

Now my mind started to race:  There’s the old tea chest up in our bedroom that’s put together entirely with whittled wooden ‘nails’. That might bring a pretty penny.

And what about my old sake cups? When we came here in 1975, we lived for a year in a yoga dojo. There was a room in the dojo full of things no one wanted, mostly old clothes and junk, and other things such as sake cups. I chose about 10 hand-painted ones I liked and left the rest (there must have been a hundred), which were eventually thrown out.

When my children’s school cleaned out their storeroom, they sent home notices asking if anyone wanted the tiles from the former school’s roof. I think I’m the only one who said yes. “Mama, what are going to do with these?” my son Mario, then a fourth-grader, asked. He had a right to know — he’d been given the task of carrying the heavy tiles, two at a time, up the hill to our house.

I didn’t have the slightest idea what I’d do with the them. I just figured something as substantial as tiles could be put to use. I ended up using them to shore up a garden wall. As I walked through the flea market and saw old tiles for sale I thought, I can shore up that wall with something else.

Have I missed the boat or what? I thought to myself as I continued through the endless display of stuff I’ve been living with (or seen in the trash) for the past 20 years. I could’ve opened an antique shop by now. It’s not too late, my friend seemed to suggest when she said, “Why don’t you ask your old neighbors? They probably have stuff they don’t want.”

Hmm. Not so easy. I mean, I can hardly drop in on my old neighbors in the village, inquire after their health, and then offer them money for their belongings. Or, make some innocuous comment about the weather an then hit them with:  “Say, do you happen to have any old lacquerware/kimono/furniture I can buy from you?”

According to my friend, that’s just what the people who sell in these markets do — comb the countryside and buy up everything people are willing to part with.

Hmm again. I know the Ooishis are tearing down their farmhouse … the shoji and fusuma could be salvaged … and the pots that fit in the kamado … and … the kamado itself. Since these brick stoves are built into old farmhouses, I’d probably have to take a piece of the wall too.

By the time I left the flea market I was exhausted with the effort of taking a mental inventory of all my belongings – as well as things that belong to other people.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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