Tokyo's Oedo Antique Market: Encounter Amazing Treasures and People

Many people love Japan for the "new" parts of its culture like modern architecture and scientific innovations. Others, though, are attracted to the "old" Japan and its clothing, cuisine, folk art, and other traditions. Our Taiwanese editor and author of the day is in the second camp, and often goes to antique or flea markets on their days off. In this edition of "Area of Japan," they'll go into detail about one particular market they love, the Oedo Antique Market. If you're an antique lover or even just like taking strolls to savor the local atmosphere, read on to learn more about this amazing spot!

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* This article has been written in collaboration with the administrative office of the Oedo Antique Market.

Oedo Antique Market: The Largest Outdoor Antique Market in Japan

The Oedo Antique Market is held on the first and third Sunday of every month at the plaza of the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho. It is said to be the largest outdoor antique market in Japan. The market is well known not only domestically, but has also been covered by international media. It continuously attracts antique lovers from all over the world who go out of their way to visit this place.

It All Started with the 400th Anniversary of the Edo Shogunate

According to Asano from the Oedo Antique Market's executive committee, this mecca for antique lovers began in September 2003 on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Edo shogunate (1603 – 1868), with the aim of creating a place for cultural and artistic exchange and celebrating all things antique-related.

While looking for a place to hold the event, the market’s organizers talked with the Tokyo International Forum and decided on its plaza, which was not being used by anyone else at that time. In addition to Yurakucho, the event had also been held at Yoyogi Park on an irregular basis before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Unique Place Where East Meets West

Japanese antique markets have existed for a long time and are held throughout the country. But most of them stick to just one category and serve just one function, focusing on either Western or Japanese antiques.

In contrast, the Oedo Antique Market is not limited to one theme, allowing booths selling both Japanese and Western antiques to exist next to each other. Besides Japanese heirlooms, you’ll also find many European goods and historic items, as well as all kinds of antiques from all periods and countries gathered together. With such a wide variety, the Oedo Antique Market is “like a jungle,” according to Asano.

One booth might have Japanese kimono while another might have Western antique tableware. One moment you might be looking at 18th century English items, and the next you’ll be staring at 20th century Taisho era goods. You’ll find many young people among the Oedo Antique Market vendors, some of whom speak simple English or Chinese.

I once saw an elderly business owner doing their best to communicate with a foreign customer using just gestures. Vendors and visitors work together to create a lively atmosphere at the market, and even if you know nothing about art or antiques, you’ll be able to move about this place freely as if you were walking through a market in your home country.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Oedo Antique Market

Pick the Right Time

The Oedo Antique Market normally starts at 9:00 am and runs until 4:00 pm. Since this is an outdoor market, though, these hours are easily affected by factors such as the weather. In case of rain, whether or not the market will be held, plus its new schedule, will be announced on the official Oedo Antique Market website.

In my experience, many fans of antiques get to the market as soon as it opens and immediately start treasure hunting. By noon, more and more people arrive and the place becomes more hectic. The market officially closes at 4:00 pm, but many booths begin cleaning up around 3:00 pm and stop serving customers. To avoid the crowds, but also to avoid having something special fall into the hands of others, I recommend getting to the market as early as possible.

Bring Cash With You, In Yen

Most of the booths at antique markets are operated by private owners, and the Oedo one is no exception. Since private booths usually deal only in cash, I recommend that you bring plenty of cash with you, in yen. How much is “plenty”? It depends on what you want to buy. You can find anything here from antique tableware costing several thousand yen to clocks and wall decorations costing tens of thousands of yen and even antique furniture going for hundreds of thousands of yen.

But let’s say that you find yourself at the market without any hard cash. In such a case, you can thankfully withdraw money at the local convenience store (Family Mart), located on the basement floor of the Tokyo International Forum, or at an ATM on the first floor of the nearby Shin-Kokusai Building.

How to Talk to the Vendors

Besides being a place for selling goods, antique markets are also great for meeting other antique enthusiasts. Beginners who’re still testing the waters of the world of antiques may initially not know how to interact with vendors at antique markets and fairs. We asked Asano how to strike up a natural conversation with antique sellers. He said that it’s always a good idea to talk to the vendor before touching their wares. “Can I hold it in my hand?” or “I like this!” are great phrases to establish a friendly rapport. After that, the conversations tend to develop naturally.

In addition to using your eyes, actually touching and feeling the texture of an antique is also a good way to judge its quality, so please ask the stall owner for permission if you’re interested in something. The vendors also tend to be happy to tell you everything they know about their wares.

How to Bring Purchased Antiques Back Home

Some vendors selling tableware and fragile objects will provide cushioning material like newspapers to help you bring your purchase back home. For relatively large items, some may even provide paper boxes for additional protection. It all differs from stall to stall, but everyone wants to ensure that your new treasure gets to its new home safely. If you’re an overseas tourist and don’t have appropriate cushioning material, you may want to bring a plastic bag and a jacket or two with you to use instead.

Now that we’ve discussed the origin of the Oedo Antique Market and how beginners should navigate it, it’d probably be a good idea to put theory to practice. So, let's take a look at the day I spent antiquing there!

The Day I Visited the Oedo Antique Market

A Select Shop Specializing in English Antiques

There are many booths selling European tableware at the Oedo Antique Market. The store called “menu” from Kanagawa Prefecture that we visited that day was selling items from England, including English tableware from the 1950s to 1970s. Their stock also included delicate and pretty glass bottles and furniture such as armchairs from the late 19th to the early 20th century, making it at least 100 to 150 years old. I once bought some silver tableware from this vendor, and the owner was very kind and eager to show me how to properly care for it.

An American Toy Booth That Looks Like a Massive Private Collection

This booth run by one elderly couple looks like a toy store or as if the owners brought their private toy collection to the market. The booth is decorated with American objects and products, from eye-catching, finely crafted American dolls from the 1960s to American tableware, retro iron signs, and buttons of various shapes and colors. The impressive selection of goods attracts customers from all walks of life, including young women, elderly men, and international visitors.

A Japanese Shop That Breathes New Life Into Traditional Accessories

While looking around the antique market, I couldn't help but stop at this booth. It was full of simple yet warm, earth-colored Japanese-style goods. What quickly caught my eye was a rattan woven basket with a beautiful arch.

The owner, an older gentleman, was eager to show off his wares. He said that most of his antiques were from between the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) and the early Showa Period (1926 – 1989). The beautiful rattan woven basket in the picture above is a fishing tool from 80 – 100 years ago. In the past, people used to wear it around their waist and carry the fish they caught inside it. Today, some people like to thread a string through it and use it as a wall-hanging vase. It made me realize there can be various uses for something that only looks like decoration!

A Painting Store That “Frames” the Good Old Days

At this store, paintings were placed randomly on the ground all stacked on top of each other while the occasional visitor looked them over. In addition to Western-style paintings hanging on the walls, the vendor also had a collection of various paper art, including A4-size silhouettes of geisha. Out of their entire inventory, one item in particular caught my eye: an abacus so large, you could hardly hold it with one hand.

According to the owner, these large abacuses were once actually used by school teachers to teach mathematics by holding them in front of the blackboard and showing various calculations to students. You rarely see them nowadays. Pointing to the beads of the large abacus, the owner told us that while older abacuses had five beads, this one had four beads because it’s a newer model that was created during the Showa Period to increase efficiency.

A Diverse Antique Market That Also Sells Kimono and Accessories

A quick look around all the booths revealed that the Oedo Antique Market is truly diverse. It has everything from specialty stores to those selling miscellaneous goods. More importantly, it’s also a popular place for buying and selling used kimono and related items such as haori jackets, obi sashes, zori sandals, and hagire scraps of cloth. You often see people in kimono shopping here.

Whether you’re an antique lover, a bargain hunter, or are simply curious about what an antique market looks like, the Oedo Antique Market is a great place to meet people from all walks of life, forget the passage of time, and lose yourself in the magic of the past.

Oedo Antique Market: Basic Information

Oedo Antique Market: Encounters That Transcend Time and Borders

At the Oedo Antique Market, visitors can transcend time, age, language, and national borders to encounter antiques steeped in history. The market is not only a place to buy and sell heirlooms, but also where you can rediscover the beauty of things that hold the magic of history and culture within them. You never know what discoveries and opportunities await you at this relaxed yet lively place. If you ever get the chance, visit the Oedo Antique Market and experience all of that for yourself.

 

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Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.


About the author

Fuchi
Fuchi Pan
Tokyo based Taiwanese writer/ editor. Passionate about Japanese food culture, culinary traditions and local/seasonal quality ingredients.
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