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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004


Crowds flock to city in search of rich pickings

Staff writer

It is a chilly Sunday morning. And it's pretty early.

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Shoppers and browsers throng the famous flea market that is held on the 28th of every month at Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin temple in Kawagoe.

Despite that, the precincts of Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin are crowded with traders and bargain-hunters brought together by the temple's monthly open-air market.

"I came here before eight this morning, but it wasn't early enough," says Kimiyo Mihira, a Kawagoe resident who is browsing a kimono stall with her two teenage daughters. The price tag shows that each garment is a mere 1,000 yen.

"Recently more people, especially young people, have started wearing kimono almost casually. What I'm looking for is a fairly modern design of kimono, which was popular in the Taisho Era (1912-26). The textile industry in Kawagoe used to be famous and I'm hoping to find good-quality items at a bargain price," Mihira says, assiduously checking each kimono. "I hope I'm not too late."

Her anxieties are well-founded: Those in the know about this famous flea market are sure to arrive early. According to Yasuo Sujino, a representative of the local merchants' association which organizes the market, trading begins when the sun rises and is finished by sunset.

Naritasan Kawagoe Betsuin temple was established in 1853 and is conveniently located not far from Honkawagoe Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line.

Its monthly market was established 30 years ago, and to this day is held on the 28th of each month, regardless of the day of the week. When the market falls on a weekday, it's usually not too crowded, allowing one to browse at a more leisurely pace, to examine items more closely.

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A doll and antiques stall at the flea market

The market's fame has spread far and wide in the three decades since it was established. "Antique-lovers and collectors all dream of visiting this market in Kawagoe at least once," says Tadayoshi Takehi, who has run a stall at the temple since trading first started, and who owns a Japanese-doll shop in Mejiro in Tokyo.

Other traders come from further afield, including Yamagata, Toyama and Niigata prefectures. Checking out their wares, organizers estimate, are some 15,000 bargain-hunters -- some of whom even charter a bus for the occasion. The market has resoundingly achieved its original purpose, to play a part in the economic revitalization of the local area.

It began modestly, with just 15 stalls, but today the market's organizers have to decline requests for stall-space from traders. The temple precincts are filled to capacity, says Sujino, the third generation of a family of tailors with a shop near the temple.

At this morning's market the stalls number about 50. On offer are antiques and curios ranging from washi paper products to pottery, woodwork items, textiles and glass.

"During the bubble economy of the 1980s there were more expensive items on sale," says Sujino. "You can still find valuable pieces, but fewer than before. These days, the pricey antiques are mixed in with less expensive items."

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It's this mix that provides the thrill of hunting for a bargain among the bric-a-brac.

So what catches my eye among the amazing variety of items on offer? I'm no expert, but as the morning wears on and the sun offers a little heat, I compile a mental shopping list: a Japanese suzuri (inkstone) at 15,000 yen with sumi (ink stick) at 1,700 yen; dolls for the Girls' Day festival at 500-1,500 yen; silk obi (kimono sash) at 2,000 yen; lantern at 2,500 yen; and a lovely cupboard made of paulownia wood at 18,000 yen. So many attractive things. But nothing that is just, well . . . perfect.

"This market is a symbol of Kawagoe," adds Sujino. "It's a place where people who appreciate old and unique things come to look for something special."

I nod, and continue my own search.

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