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

A Bit of Cosmic Luck…Shrine Sale Synchronicity

My advice to new expats includes the caveat for a small escape clause, often timed to that six month-or-so point (dip?) in the experience. After mulling over the mysteries of the cosmos in my last post, I am taking my own counsel, spurred on by a little February calendar magic. I’m headed out tonight for the lovely land of Nippon and will be in Tokyo over the weekend. As luck would have it, the 28th this month – better known in some Tokyo circles as Kawagoe shrine sale day – falls on a Friday, nicely followed by an entire weekend of other shrine sales around the Tokyo area. Three days of uninterrupted antiquing, plus lots of eating and best of all, seeing friends.

I’m not the only one thinking about things Japanese these days. The March issues of the major shelter magazines brought a rush of antiques, mostly in the form of tansu, which while always unusual to spy, was made more so because there were so many of them! House Beautiful featured a new construction Sonoma property that had a zen-like feel even before I learned the owners had formerly lived in Japan. Designed by Rela Gleason, who brings a multicultural viewpoint and proficiency in mixing in Asian antiques, it has a few standout pieces like this iron strapped tansu…


…and the real yowsa piece, this massive mizuya tansu in the bedroom. I’m always preaching these large pieces in lieu of built-in cabinetry, whether it be in the kitchen (where they were designed for) or better yet, in the bedroom, where they can hold massive amounts of clothing and extra bedding. The contemporary bed in indigo plays off the other vintage pieces from the trunk to the herbiers. All things close to my heart as you well know.


Elle Decor featured a Joe D’Urso designed double NYC brownstone, the kind that has had its facades restored but the interior completely blown out. A skylit living room laden with well stocked book shelves has a lovely tansu tucked in the corner…


…but the yowsa piece here has to be the 17th century byobu of pines on a golden background in the master bedroom. Again, the Japanese antiques look so fresh when paired with the modern spaces and furniture.


So I’ll leave you salivating over these lovely pieces as I go off to pack my suitcase – very lightly so as to leave plenty of space! I have a few client requests that I am searching for, so let me know if there is anything you need or want (aren’t they the same thing?) I’ll be posting live from Instagram as I find things too. Details on the shrine sale schedule this weekend can be found here, as always. And as for my Japan based readers, I am hoping to see you all out at Kawagoe on the 28th. Please be sure to say hello!

Related Posts:
Where Do You Tansu?
Where Do You Tansu? Part II
What’s Cooking? Tansu in the Kitchen
Provenance…Byobu and the Race to Acquisition
Beautiful Byobu…Japanese Screens at The Nezu Museum and at Home
Michael Smith Has One Too!

What Do Giorgio Armani and Alex Kerr Have in Common?

“Instead Armani’s interiors possess the formal grace of a Japanese ryokan, only darker in tone and significantly more luxurious.”
-Mitchell Owens in Architectural Digest March 2012

While working on my sayonara series of posts, I had photos of fashion designer Giorgio Armani’s ski chalet in Switzerland from the March issue of Architectural Digest queued up for use. The design featured some tansu used in dramatic ways, but something about the entire home struck a chord with me and I decided to set it aside until I could figure out what it was. It came to me in that magic way ideas can just germinate in a passive mind in a calm moment, that the home felt Japanese in more ways than just the few pieces of furniture. It reminded me of a similar spread on author and Japanologist Alex Kerr’s famous renovation – or more accurately rescue and restoration – of an old Japanese home, also featured in AD, but about ten years ago.

Since then I have managed to read the article accompanying the Armani photos and it makes no bones about the parallel to Japanese design. Armani’s La Punt, Switzerland winter getaway is a restored 17th century barn that has been converted into a sleekly modern ski home, in a very Japanese vernacular. It is not surprising that the gleaming mahogany walls, floors and beams and streamlined furniture coupled with Japanese antiques, including half of a tansu hiding behind the sofa in the photo below, in the soaring cavernous space, remind me of…

Alex Kerr’s restored 18th century farmhouse in the Iya Valley. In addition to writing Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons, Kerr has become one of the standard bearers in the movement to preserve Japan’s vanishing arts, culture and traditional lifestyle in the face of globalization and modernization.

Beamed details and grid-like wall pattern around the hearth at Armani’s…

…beamed details and grid-like built-ins around the hearth at Kerr’s.

Upstairs at Armani’s place, a pair of fraternal twin tansu stand guard on either side of the window in the bedroom.

Upstairs at Alex Kerr’s there are at least a quintuplet of tansu siblings, including the kaidan tansu on the left and assorted mizuya tansu around the room.

Simple beds, low to the ground and fireplaces with little adornment are common…

…at both homes.

I think Kerr’s place is more romantic, but I am sure Armani’s is more comfy!

Related Posts:
What’s Cooking? Tansu in the Kitchen
Where Do You Tansu?
Where Do You Tansu? Part II

Image credits: Giorgio Armani’s home in Architectural Digest March 2012, photo credits: Roger Davies, Alex Kerr’s home in Architectural Digest August 2002, photo credits: Erhard Pfeiffer

Sayonara Series…Antique Furniture in Cool Modern Spaces

What if your style is prevailing modern, but while you lived in Japan (or China or Indonesia or India or Europe or anywhere else) you managed to acquire an antique cabinet or tansu or table that you are not sure fits into your spare aesthetic? One strategy that tends to be successful in contemporary interiors is to treat the item as an objet d’arte – to set it off on its own punctuated by only a few accessories and gallery style white walls. A small bit of punchy bright color will also lighten the mood, or as in the case of the antique Chinese wedding cabinet below, quite a bit of color. Also note the single graphic note struck by the antique Japanese spinning wheel placed on top.

In this stunning room a pair of Chinese lacquered chests crowned by a collection of bird cages functions in a similar fashion. The purple on the chair and the green on the trunk coffee table provide color in the otherwise neutral space. I love how the height of the birdcage topped cabinets lines up with the graphic dark window mullions.

In a glamorous Manhattan loft Chinese pieces mix with modern icons like the Barcelona couch by Mies van der Rohe. A similar lacquered cabinet to the ones in the photo above is topped with a single decorative object, while a red lacquer bench provides a note of color. Walls of mirror further reflect the light and seem to double the size of the space, making it seem as if there is a pair of cabinets in this photo too.

This home in the Pacific Northwest is punctuated by not one but two pawlonia wood and iron strap tansu and a wild chartreuse sofa. I love the open plan space but I am not as hot on the sofa. An exciting detail in this photo is the Japanese silkworm tray basket hung on the wall above the larger tansu. A favorite item of mine for decorating, I have never seen one used in an interior photographed for any magazine or other interior design press.

Low slung modern beds are a perfect match for sword tansu in bedrooms, here anchoring a gallery wall…

…and here at the foot of the bed.

Is this your style? If not, coming soon – Sayonara Series…Antique Furniture in Warm Modern Spaces.

For many more photos of tansu in modern and traditional interiors, check out my previous posts Where Do You Tansu? and Where Do You Tansu? Part II.

Image credits: 1 & 4. Metropolitan Home April 2009, photo credit: Erik Johnson, 2. credit unknown, via American Gypsy Living, 3. Elle Decor September 2005, photo credit: William Waldron, 5. Elle Decor March 2012, photo credit: William Waldron, 6. Metropolitan Home April 2009, photo credit: John Ellis

Where Do You Tansu? Part II

Here’s my long promised follow-up post on tansu at home, only this time not from glossy shelter magazines, but instead photos submitted by readers and friends. I always like to say that every space has its own voice and use that adage pretty religiously in my decorating for myself and others. Since each and every residence has its own needs you might find it surprising how tansu can be so completely adaptable to different environments and styles. Keep in mind that while they can seem large and monumental (which makes them ideal for filling the over-sized volume of new American construction), they are most often made of two completely separate pieces, stacked one on another to give the appearance of a single larger item. They can be used in any room of the home (I even have a tiny one in my front hall powder room), which I hope was well illustrated in my previous post Where Do You Tansu?  And depending on what they are mixed with, they can take on many personalities, from formal to casual, global to local, modern to traditional, etc.

For some, especially those who own a lovely antique store filled to the brim with goodies and treasures, it is easy to furnish an open airy country home with excellent tansu, as well as other classical Japanese antiques. Mizue Sasa, proprietor of Okura Oriental Art, has done just that in her Yamanaka lake home. To cut down on volume she will often use a shallow katana (sword) tansu or only half a tansu….

…or split one into its two pieces and place them side by side to reveal open window views.

To deal with low ceilings and a smaller room volume, she does the same thing in her city apartment. In both places she mixes dark woods with warm colors, Turkish flatweave rugs and pillows with some lightweight and visually unobtrusive tables. The mix is warm and elegant at the same time. Be sure to note the lithographs by one of my favorite modern hanga artists, Keisuke Yamamoto, on the walls. They are from the “Beyond the Doorway – Mysteries in Monochrome” CWAJ Associate Show I co-curated in 2007. More recent views of his work can be seen here and here.

The next apartment of my reader LT is truly worthy of being featured on Todd Selby’s innovative and influential quirky interiors blog The Selby, and I may well submit it to him. When she wrote to invite me to photograph her place, a much more typically sized Japanese apartment than most expatriates live in, she commented, “there are actually EIGHT tansu, in an apartment the size of the average American two-car garage.” Rather than fight the smallness, or the wood wrapped walls, she went straight to overstuffed and cozy, scooping up flea market treasures to hide clutter as attractively as possible, creating a layered richly colored environment. Like Sasa-san above, she mixes in warm colors with her tansu, two of which can be seen in this photo. With lack of wall space, she has even hung art on the kitchen cabinet doors.

Greenery abounds everywhere, on the windowsill and stacked along this kaidan (step) tansu.

Using an antique “office divider,” the equivalent of a modern-day cubicle wall, she has carved a writing niche out of the deep windowsill. Note the kilim pillows again here.

The iron strapwork makes this isho (clothing) tansu stand out from the wall.

And half of a large mizuya (kitchen) tansu serves to hold the television and all its electronic accoutrements.

Clutter is tucked away in porcelain and lacquer receptacles wherever possible. Check here for an earlier photo of her jewelry storage. These photos don’t manage to show all 8 of her tansu as the apartment was small enough that there were some shots I simply couldn’t manage to take!

Houses in American pose the absolutely opposite problem, often having vast square footage, huge rooms and often hard to deal with volume of space, particularly in newly built neighborhoods. Big tansu can be amazingly adaptable to these spaces and in my opinion, are chronically underused. Double height ceilings and entry ways can be the norm, but how to fill them attractively and give warmth can be difficult.

In a project I am helping with in Atlanta, the owner bought a series of different tansu to do just that. This shopkeepers tansu, with its glass display doors is already full man height. The colorful storage inside and the map framed by sconces elevate the arrangement to fill a large blank wall in the living room.

The breakfast room uses a typical mizuya tansu for its original purpose – to hold kitchen goods. Note all the other Japanese accessories, such as the senbei jars and giant glass bottle used on top of the already tall tansu for additional height. And the milk glass and iron chandelier, another wonderful find, is not specifically referential to Japan, instead having an unidentifiably global feel. Easy care washable slipcovered chairs soften the woods and provide comfy spots for hanging out. The room is painted Farrow & Ball’s Day Room Yellow for warmth, but may not be staying that color…

In another American house, the placement of a kaidan tansu mimics the actual house steps. The irony lies in the fact that a step tansu is called that because it actually once served as the steps in a Japanese home – there would never have been space for two sets of steps side by side.

So far, all the photos have shown tansu used with very warm colors, which tends to be the more traditional pairing. But tansu can be just as effective with cool tones too. This icy blue dining room in Westchester, NY really plays the dark woods of the Japanese tansu and the Balinese dining table and chairs off the cool tone stripes of the upholstery, the white sheers, the silver vases on the table and the white-painted chandelier, an ancient Dara Caponigro trick from her House Beautiful days in the early 1990s that I have used over and over again.

Again, a classical and quite solid tansu, played off very modern furniture and cool toned aquas and greens in this lovely contemporary apartment.

And finally I come to one of the more unexpected juxtapositions in this post, Japanese antiques mixed with modern Belgian style. A long time reader living in Tokyo, with a home back in Belgian, began putting together a collection of Japanese antiques, including this lacquer crested tansu and blue and white porcelain, shown here as she had it styled in her Tokyo apartment.

An unexpected move sent her back to Belgium and the challenge of completing a renovation there as well as mixing in her many purchases. This is where the same tansu lives now, with a giant modern floral painting serving as a perfect counterpoint to the delicate maki-e (golden sprinkles) lacquer.

The side view reveals the light woods and simple pedestal table. Once again, note the senbei canister with its glass floats in the windowsill.

And here is the full room view.

My final photo is from a reader back in the US who sent me a very personal photo of a tansu she bought over 16 years ago for $200. Hanging above it is a painting of her teenage son at 16 and she changes out the small display items on top quite frequently. Her simple Sendai region tansu still has its old red lacquer. As she says, “It is a bit rustic. In three small drawers, which are behind a door, I store stamps, address stickers, tape and other small items. The larger drawers have writing paper, boxes of assorted note cards and invitations, and photographs which are not in albums. It’s a very useful piece of furniture which I could imagine working in nearly any part of a home.” I think that about sums up this post perfectly…

Related Posts:
Where Do You Tansu?
What’s Cooking? Tansu in the Kitchen

Image credits are all mine or my readers. Please contact me for re-use or posting.

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