Shrine Sale Stories…Treasures From My Trip To Tokyo

My long weekend in Tokyo was simply sublime. Days of friends and food and lots of shopping were just the restorative I needed. The weather didn’t cooperate, but it didn’t really matter. Kawagoe was a bit thin on the ground because of the threat of rain and unfortunately the next two days delivered the promised precipitation, although it didn’t keep us from the markets. It did however keep me from taking lots of photos, so most of the finds recorded are from the first day out. I also broke my own rule of “buy it when you see it” a few times, mulling over the weight and difficulty of transport, which meant I lost out on a few things, although as usual, there is a funny story attached to one of them.


There were some things that didn’t get away – like these swirling blue and white dishes – and others that did – like these kutani lidded teacups – so beautifully painted they looked like brocade.

kutani lidded teacups

This very fine takamakura, complete with original buckwheat filled pillow went home with a friend.


A search for a tansu was successful, yielding this lacquer beauty for a fraction of its retail price. Tansu at shrine sales are often in poor condition which is why they are a bargain, but this dealer had lovingly restored this piece.


Brought home and placed in the entry it will be a workhorse, holding gloves and scarves and general entry clutter.

lacquer tansu

Speaking of tansu in poor condition, I also popped in to the The National Art Center to view the Joint Graduation Exhibition of Art Universities. Not sure what the meaning of this installation of destroyed tansu by Shunsuke Nouchi is meant to represent, but I couldn’t resist including it. Student exhibits in Japan, as elsewhere, can be really fun, ranging from discoveries of major talent to down right awful. I can’t help but feel bad for these chests!


Another friend and client scored really big, bringing home all kinds of treasures. The giant wooden gears – very Vincente Wolf – will be hung as a focal point on a bare wall. We got very lucky, finding three with just the right amount of variety in size, shape, color and detail. A vintage onbuhimo, better known as a baby carrier, has lovely indigo cloth woven into its straps. And a large lacquer carrying chest, billed as Edo period by its dealer, but not, is extremely decorative with its etched brass hardware.


As for my haul, I had to keep reminding myself that I had to carry anything and everything I bought home. So I left behind an entire basket of small fishing floats and even some charming porcelain. I had to have the gray and white bowls – which were likely the more expected blue originally but now faded – because I knew they would look great with the dining table and they are that perfect not too big, not too small size. I picked up a few wooden pieces, a tray and some itomaki, including this unusual long one. A small hibachi with the great geometric asa-no-ha or hemp pattern was also a keeper. But as always, my eye and my wallet are equally lured by non-Japanese discoveries and I fell in love with these bright Turkish glasses and a cut glass jam pot. I’ve been having a bit of a glass fetish lately – wait, aren’t I always having some kind of glass fetish?


The promised funny story is about the glasses, made for serving arabic tea, but I can imagine them holding dessert or even wine. I saw five of them, 3 pink and 2 purple, on a table at one of my favorite dealers at Kawagoe and passed them only because I decided there weren’t really enough to be useful and their fragility made them hard to transport. My mind kept returning to them over and over (those silver mounts!) as I wandered so I went back only to discover they were gone – massive bummer!

arabic turkish tea glasses

Imagine my surprise when later that evening I walked into the kitchen of the dear friend I was staying with for the week. Long my partner in crime and shrine sales, SHE had bought the glasses and they were now sitting on her kitchen counter. It was one of those moments of fierce purchase jealousy, but the truth was if I couldn’t have them, better she did than some stranger. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself while contemplating going to the mat for them.

Turkish glasses

The surprise continued when we saw the same dealer the next day and once again he had 5 of the glasses out on his table. It was a confusing moment of déjà vu, but we at least had the good sense to ask if he had more and it ended up he had an entire box! So all’s well that ends well and one day we have to have a massive party together and use them all!

Related Posts:
Shrine Sale Stories…Recent Treasures
Shrine Sale Scorcher…Vintage Mirrors on an Extremely Hot Day
Shrine Sale Stories…Vintage Matchboxes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel and The 1948 London Olympics
Shrine Sale Stories…Yamamoto’s Steamer Trunk
Shrine Sale Stories…My French Moderne Bar Cart

Women’s Work…Itomaki With the Silk on Them

“Female workers in cotton spinning mills, silk reeling plants, cotton and silk weaving factories and sheds formed a large and vital part of the Meiji industrial labor force. In 1882, textile plants employed about three-quarters of all factory employees in Japan. In 1909 female workers, mostly in textiles, made up 62 percent of the Japanese factory labor force. This pattern continued for many years — as late as 1930 the majority of Japanese factory workers were women……”

— E. Patricia Tsurumi; Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 18, 1986

thread spool silk reel itomaki

Itomaki, antique Japanese silk reel bobbins or thread spools are a common enough sight around Japan. You can be sure some dealer at a shrine sale will have empty ones lying around in a basket…


…or even stacked neatly on a bamboo pole.


The medium size 4 spoke ones are the easiest to come by, while the more unusual large and small sizes less so. Occasionally you can find a big 6 spoke spool, like the one here, or even a folding one, like this one below.

collapsible itomaki

Silk production was a widespread cottage industry in Japan throughout the Edo period and many traditional Japanese farmhouses were designed with special attic rooms for raising and harvesting silkworms. With the advent of the Meiji-era, silk production became industrialized, with women being the main workers. Factory conditions in Japan were awful, much like those during the Industrial Revolution in the West. Girls were forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions in factories and dormitories surrounded by fences. Photographs inside the heavily fenced workplaces were hard to come by, but this c.1915-23 silver print photograph by T. Enami shows the thread being drawn from the cocoons and spun.


Other Enami photos from the same period show independent cottage workers spinning their silk.


I love this one of a little girl working outside.

the little silk winder

What is unusual nowadays is to find them with vintage kimono silks still on them, like I did recently.  I found a large grouping of medium size reels (and one small one) with gorgeous peacock colors in great condition.


The silken threads are luminescent and the unusual color combinations so typically Japanese.


I wasn’t the only one to get some – a good friend took a few too. They are great at pulling colors out of artwork and textiles elsewhere in the room. Both of us have placed ours on altar tables, although I am not sure I have room to keep them there.


Empty itomaki make fantastic stands for porcelain or plants…

Boston fern and Ballard Designs bench

…or even Japanese fishing floats. This one helps to display the lovely pontil and mark on this float.

glass float on itomaki

See why I said it is all too crowded?


Readers, I’d love to see how you use your itomaki. Please post photos on my Facebook page!

These and more great Meiji period photographs of Japan by T. Enami can be found on Okinawa Soba’s Flickr photostream.

Related Posts:
Finding the Thread…Between Boston Ferns and Japanese Spools
Woven Wall Art…Japanese Silk Worm Trays, Winnowers and American Tobacco Baskets
En Masse…Iron Teapots, Vincente Wolf and the Art of Grouped Displays

Tokyo Jinja

Back to top