Things I’ll Miss: Flea Markets

As nice as it has been to live in Japan for five years, it’s time to say good bye. This year will be my last year here (at least living here, I’ll probably return to visit because this is such an amazing country). The reality is that my passions are taking me back west and as much as I love my present life, it is difficult, if not impossible to plan for a future here. That and I’ve run to the end of my visa game, so even if I wanted to stay, I can’t.

But farewell doesn’t have to be entirely tears. I’ve had some great, memorable experiences in Japan and I’d like to share them with you all in a new feature: things I’ll miss when I leave Japan. Starting with:

Flea Markets

Alex and I went to the Chionji monthly flea market today. Every big temple in Kyoto has a monthly flea market set out on a specific day, rain or shine. These are great community events where local craftsmen, artists, venders and anyone with some junk to move out of their attic can set up a stall for a modest fee and try to sell their goods to the hundreds of people who turn up. What you’ll find can range from traditional handcrafts and toys to glass jewelry to hand stitched clothing and so much more.

The crowds can get pretty intense, and in the tightly packed temple grounds as the day progresses it can become a challenge to even stop to see what the venders are selling, let alone buy anything. It’s best to go early. Most temples open their doors at 9am, so if you arrive at 8:30, you should have a good hour or two to check everything out before the crowds get too thick.

While the organizers try to set everything up in neat, orderly rows, the layout of the grounds can make this difficult, thus leaving it easy to miss out on whole sections of the bazaar. This makes going early even more important, so you can formulate a plan to traverse the broken grid as effectively as possible.

If the bazaar has food stalls, definitely get in there and grab some. Yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and candied fruit are flea market and festival favorites. I was a bit disappointed to see that Chionji really only had a couple bakeries and a coffee stand. I love getting some takoyaki and tayaki when I go to these big community events.

If you can, go with a friend. You’re going to need someone to help you hold your bags of purchases, and also someone to be the voice of reason when your wallet starts to feel a bit light. There are so many delightful things to purchase at the bazaar that it can be hard to say no. If you get there early enough, you can drift around and price compare before you make your final purchase. It’s very rare that the goods you’re looking at are unique in the market (but if they are, scoop them up!)

Absolutely talk to the venders if you can. Even if you think your Japanese isn’t so good, chances are that your rudimentary skills will be a big surprise to people who aren’t used to foreigners speaking any Japanese. You’ll find that people who appear to be cold or stand-offish to foreigners are usually just shy, because they don’t think they’ll be able to communicate [in English]. Put on your bravery cap and try your best with Japanese and you’ll be surprised how quickly people warm up to you. Older Japanese folks especially are keen to share their stories, their experiences and their humor with foreigners who take the time to engage them in their native language.

Finally, take the time to just soak up the atmosphere. Community events are a big deal in Japan where relationships with neighbors are so important that it’s an unwritten (sometimes it actually is written) rule that you must give your new neighbors a gift when you move into a new house. Knowing the people who live and work near you and cultivating those relationships is one of the little spoken of pleasures of living in Japan. When you go to a flea market, despite the crowds or the weather or losing out on an item you really had your eye on, take a moment to take it all in and feel the community vibrate through the stones and in the air. We had many people ask where we were from. Many were surprised to learn that we lived in Kyoto. They asked if this was our first time at Chionji, and invited us to live in Japan for as long as we liked. This is one of the things I’ll miss when I leave Japan.


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11 thoughts on “Things I’ll Miss: Flea Markets

  1. Today was super fun. I’m really glad we can share all of these experiences together, because it means they will never grow dull in memory. Though we’re going on a new adventure, we will always have this one, our little adventure in Japan. 🙂

    • Absolutely. It’s going to be really hard to leave. We’ve put roots down here and the change is going to be intense. Still, I have to keep telling myself that it’s for the best.

  2. What a wonderful flea market! So many beautiful things. I love those wooden houses, and the sign that said, “If you drink you’ll die, but if you don’t you’ll die,” or something like that, caught my eye. I wondered what drink they were referring to. I hope writing these posts will help etch things in your memory and ease the sense of loss for when you move.

    • Yes, the wooden houses were custom built for Sylvian animal figurines which are really popular in Japan. You can see them in one of the houses. The houses are huge! About three feet tall and all hand built. The artist was really proud of them, naturally, but we couldn’t stay long. Lots of people wanted to take photos.

      As for the sign, it was at a stall selling little sake cups, so it was a tongue in cheek “Whether you drink alcohol or not, you’re gonna die. Might as well enjoy it.” I told the vender, “Sono tori” or “It’s exactly like that.” 😛

  3. Sad that here in US we put up fences and “Boundaries” when we move in. Cultivating community and friendship brings people together. We tend to shut ourselves in and/or overbook our time and miss out on the types of community events you describe. Yes, I would/do miss them too. (As I write this we are in Taos, NM planning our days around the shops, events and walkable places to enjoy what the locals have to offer!)

    • I had an English teacher once who married a Japanese woman. He said it was sad that in Canada (and by extension America too) had lost the community mindedness that Japan still has. He said that the reason why Japan has so many more holidays that North America, some of them a week long, is that for the Japanese, holidays still mean being together with their communities, either current communities or the communities of their home towns. IN the west, we only really do this maybe around the Christmas season, but even then it’s polluted by the stress of the commercial aspect of it, and since it’s only a once a year thing it seems a bit strained, like too much needs to be crammed into too short a time.

      Anyway, it’s nice to get together with everyone here in our neighborhood. Despite meeting a lot of people for the first time we’re nonetheless welcomed with smiles and warm wishes, especially when we express that we’re members of this community too.

  4. My brother lives in Japan, too, and he always talks about how much he loves it there. I guess you have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving. But I wonder if the government will finally stop bugging you about your taxes.

    • Probably will because they’ll be owing ME money. Funny how it’s not all that much of a rush to get things done when I’m getting a $200 return, huh? 😛

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