Her hand gently fingers the indigo linen she has plucked from a small sea of beautifully colored fabrics. Akemi Nishikawa, hoping to find something lovely to have sewn into a kimono for herself, is in the right place - the Kobo-san flea market at Toji Temple. Here, hundreds of vendors have set up shop on this day, just as they and others have been doing for 700 years.
While Tokyo has its bustling gift shop filled Asakusa outdoor market, it's fitting that Kyoto - where old Japan gracefully coexists with the 21st century - is home to antiques-rich markets like Kobo-san and the slightly smaller Tenjin-san market (held four days later at the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine).
If you love old and unusual Japanese objects and you're planning a trip to Japan, try to orchestrate a stop in Kyoto on the 21st or 25th of the month, which is when these markets are held.
At booth after booth, tables are filled with remnants and swatches of vintage silks, racks are packed with flowing secondhand kimonos and the cotton robes called yukatas; tables brim with chestnut-size beads of red coral; tarpaulins on the ground show off handmade pottery and Japanese bric-a-brac.
There are hand-carved Buddhist altars; vintage sumi-e brush paintings; pickled vegetables; dried squid; bonsai - seemingly any and all varieties of otakara, "unexpected good things" in Japanese.
For flea-market fanciers like Nishikawa, Kobo-san is otakara in itself. It doesn't matter that she doesn't buy anything at the first booth she stops at. There are hundreds of others to shop, delicacies to eat along the way, like tako yaki (octopus fritters) and okonomiyaki (a pancake-like sandwich), and plenty of atmosphere to drink in.
And throw in, of course, the thrill of the hunt inherent in any good flea market. The tease that you may find something here that you will find nowhere else - a metal totemlike sculpture from an Osaka public garden, ornaments from Japanese barrel-tile roofs -and, perhaps, a find like this at a bargain price. We had this joy when we unearthed from a box of sashes a 50-year-old obi, dyed with the Japanese shibori technique, for about $40 (online, vintage sashes such as this run about $95 and up).
Daiki Kashitani, a 22-year-old student from Kobe, shopped both markets in July and came to the conclusion that, though prices are good at Tenjin-san, "they're much cheaper at Toji [Kobo-san]."
Used kimonos sell for $50 to $100; obis, $20 to $65.
Silkmakers sell no-ren - the silk-screened curtains hung in front of Japanese shops, restaurants and in homes - for about $10.
But what we found to be even more exciting was the opportunity to discover contemporary Japanese artisans. Sitting near a Kobo-san booth filled with breathtakingly intricate statues of buddhas and altars, Hiro Ohara of Saitama City, north of Tokyo, carves a piece of byakudan, a rare and fragrant sandalwood.
Ohara quit the life of a Japanese businessman about six years ago and turned to the craft his ancestors had honed for 250 years.
Some statues are carved completely by hand by Ohara and his assistants. Others start with machines but are finished by hand.
His 4-inch statues - chiseled out of a leaf-shaped background with a matching hinged cover - sell for about $158 (online, similar statues sell for $258). Three-sided, 12-inch-tall altars containing replicas of carvings in 9th -century temples sell for $500.
We also meet glassblower Ikuo Hayashi, who travels four hours from Wakayama to Kobo-san each month to sell the wares he makes from Osaka whiskey bottles and colored wine bottles: sun catchers, about $2.50 to $5; hanging wall vases, about $18.
Hayashi has a prime spot at Toji, right in the shadow of the temple's famous pagoda.
The five-story pagoda, the tallest in Japan, was originally built in 826 but was burned down four times. The structure standing today was rebuilt in 1644 by the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu.
Both markets offer great history as well as great finds.
The largest and oldest market in Japan, Kobo-san began 700 years ago, when merchants turned out to cater to the pilgrims who came to pay respects to Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
Today, people still venture beyond the market, past prayer racks filled with wooden plaques inscribed with wishes, to pray before a statue of Kobo Daishi and to visit the more than 1,200-year-old temple. Some stop along the way at the statue of a turtle, to rub it in hopes of curing aches or ailments.
The markets are spiritual center, shopping center and community center all in one. People like 93-year-old Takeo Okayama come to Kobo-san every month. Even when his 89-year-old wife can't make it, Okayama still ventures out to Kujo-machi Street to join the swirl of humanity and merchandising, looking, he says, "for nothing in particular."
For Okayama, the dawn-to-dusk market means a chance to get out and support local businesspeople.
And for the serious shopper, people like Okayama mean there is plenty to choose from. And, as day approaches evening, there are dealers who want to deal.
Haggling over price here is a discreet dance, with merchants gently but firmly taking the lead. Don't worry about coming up short in the Japanese language department. You will develop a great appreciation for an ingenious translation device: the calculator.
No matter how hard you have worked to learn the Japanese words for numbers and currency, there's a good chance you will be humbled when prices are spoken rapidly. There's also a good chance you may respond with a blank stare as you attempt to picture the number in your head and, if successful at that, then figuring out what types of currency and coins to offer.
Which brings us back to the wonderful calculator. With it in hand, the vendor can substitute the intimidating "ni-sen go-hyaku en" with a very familiar "2,500" (yen). Read: approximately $25 to you and me.
And if the vendor is dancing the haggler's tango, he will draw the calculator back after showing you these numbers and tap in others. This time when he flashes the calculator your way, it reads: "2,000."
Sold. Say no more. Standing near the ancient temple gate, a blooming lotus pond to our right, tables filled with elegant bonsai to our left, the scent of teriyaki chicken in the air and a beautiful glass vase in hand, we're definitely sold on all the otakara that is flea marketing Kyoto style.
Things to know
WHAT TO SAY:
Sumimasen (or "Ah, sumimasen"): Please, excuse me (it's safe to start every encounter with this phrase)
Kochi-wa ikura desu-ka?: How much is this?
Domo arigato: Thank you very much
COINS COME IN:
1 yen (a very lightweight small silver coin that looks like a dime)
5 yen (a copper-colored small coin with a square hole in the middle)
10 yen (a larger, more weighty copper-colored coin)
50 yen (a silver-colored coin with a square hole in the middle)
100 yen (a silver coin with 100 stamped on one side and cherry blossoms on the other)
500 yen ( the biggest coin, it's silvery-gold in color)
1,000 yen (worth $8.38 at press time)
BEST OF KOBO-SAN AND TENJI-SAN:
Best buys: Used kimonos ($50 to $100); obis ($20 to $65); pieces of fabric (beautiful enough to frame; about $20 for a 21/2-foot square with figural artwork in its center, $30 to $70 for 3-foot panels); ceramics (functional pottery; potters' "seconds" start at about $1; fountains and flower-arranging pieces can go up to $200); 50-year-old painted scrolls ($200 to $800); antiques.
Best time to shop: As early as you can get there -- to beat the heat (if it's summer) and the mammoth crowds. Prices start to drop toward the end of the day.
Best eating on the spot: Typical Matsuri (festival) foods--yaki-soba (noodles), yaki-tori (teriyaki chicken on a stick); tako yaki (octopus fritters); corn on the cob. Foods sell for about $3 to $5. If it's hot, the snow cones are unbeatable.
Best currency: yen; no credit cards, no U.S.
Best negotiating technique: Spend a lot of time looking longingly at an item. Put it down, pick it up. Walk away, come back. Then start all over again, if need be.
Best way to get your treasures home: Think light and buy an extra suitcase -- or better yet, plan ahead and take an empty one with you when you leave for Japan.
What: Antiques, textiles, vintage kimonos and yukatas, pottery, plants, basketry, jewelry, food, bric-a-brac.
Where: Toji Temple, 1 Kujo-cho, Minami-ku, Kyoto; a 10- to 15-minute walk southwest from Kyoto Station.
When: 21st of every month
Hours: Around 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tip: The December and January markets are the biggest; a smaller, antiques-only market is held the first Sunday of each month.
What: Antiques -- such as wooden racks worn by farmers to carry their loads, merchants' record books, wooden rice measuring vessels; used and new clothes; pottery; furniture; bric-a-brac.
Where: Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Imadegawa Dori between Nishi-oji and Senbon.
When: 25th of every month
Hours: Around 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Elaine Matsushita is a writer for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times