Antiques 10-11-08

I once wanted an antique sewing machine I spotted in an enclosed trash area on my drive home during my apprenticeship. I passed the enclosure everyday and on the days there were big things on the pile I would slow down and take a closer look.

It would seem I could just stop the car, throw the machine in the back of my car and be on my way. But this was in the country and if I even stopped the car I was sure it would be the topic of the evenings dinner discussion. The next day I told my teacher about the machine and asked him if he thought it would be OK to just put it in my car and take it. This was trash after all. A hushed discussion ensued that I was only half included. If I just took it it would be in bad form. If I asked the previous owner that would cause friction since I wasn’t observing the pecking order. What I would have to do is first ask the person that heads that area of the village. That would take care of the ruffling of feathers. That person would give me the OK to ask the person that had thrown it out if I could have it.

Of course I let that one pass and grabbed the next one I saw with out asking anyone.

Is Japan a difficult place to live? I often get this question from both Japanese and non Japanese. My general answer is no, it isn’t. I also qualify that with a ‘But there are areas that are difficult’.

I am very interested in the details, for therein lie the story. Not the gossip. The details. ‘It is a difficult thing’. You hear that saying often. What does it mean? What is difficult about any particular thing?

This past Saturday I went on my usual round of the two antique stores I am studying in. I vary my order depending on a number of variables, this past Saturday the variable was I has gifts for the owners of the shops and one of the shops had a customers car in front so I decided to go to Mr. Kawase’s shop first. Mr. Kawase is 86 years old. He is the top dog in the antique hierarchy in the Nara area. He has the rarest and most expensive work.  My wife and I went in and started talking, taking pictures as we usually do. After about 40 minutes in walked a woman with a furoshiki bundle. A furoshiki is a large piece of cloth inside which is what ever one wants to carry. Think of a bindle minus stick but larger. She unwrapped the cloth, took out three smaller wrapped packages and set them out to have them appraised by Mr. Kawase. 3 teabowls out of the 20 or so left to her by her father who had died 10 years back. This is typical. It takes 10 years to get to the business that at least to my mind would be taken care of in less than a year in the U.S.  These 3 bowls were marked, on the outside of the box, Ido, Setoguro and something else that I have forgotten. Now, a true Ido would be worth something upwards of 500,000$, several million not being unheard of. A true Setoguro 300,000$ and up. I can’t begin to describe the atmosphere correctly as a  bowl was unwrapped, looked at, turned over, talked about, put back in its box, re-wrapped and put aside to start over on the next one. What Mr. Kawase would say would determine if this woman had, in effect, hit the jackpot or not. There is much wrapped up in each bowl and evaluation. Her father’s taste, station in life etc.

The appraisal took its course, she thanked Mr. Kawase and us, and headed out the door.  We did too after some small talk. On to the next shop, Mr. Furuya’s. He is more schooled, scholarly, but the antiques he has are not up to the quality of Mr. Kawase’s but his scholarship more than makes up for it. We seemed to come at a bad time as things didn’t proceed as they have in the past. Just small talk for 10 minutes or so until the door to the shop opened and in walked the bindle carrying woman. This gets to the point of my story, is Japan difficult to live in. When she and we realized who we all were the three of us let out a surprised sound to which Mr. Furuya asked if we knew each other. Out came the meeting at  the other antique store and the weirdness settled in.

Now let me stress. I am not obligated to either antique shop owner in any conventional non-Japanese sense. But here in Japan one has to abide by the obligations Japanese set forth or choose not to and accept the consequences. I have chosen the latter and have accepted the consequences. It remains to be seen if there will be any consequences of going to both shops. There isn’t any easy answer. It isn’t like one can be “clear” and let each of them know. It just wouldn’t work here.

I just watched the movie “Udon” with my family. I think there is so much that can’t be projected  correctly in the translation in the movie. A bowl of noodles takes on the force of a fine meal. It reminded me of watching a Tibetan man eat a bowl of noodles for lunch at Sarnath, out side of Varanasi in India in 1988. He ate them with an enjoyment I had not seen up to that point in my life. Not an extravagant selection, just some sliced pork on top of some bean sprouts in the yellow noodles. But no matter how I tried I knew my enjoyment was somewhat less. The movie does justice to a quality Japan has, one that I am sure is there in a lot of countries. The quality I am talking about is not having extra elements in a situation. When it is time to work it is time to work. Time to drive, time to drive, not time to eat McDonald’s hamburgers and talk on the phone. Back at Mr. Kawase’s shop there weren’t pitchers of iced tea and a box of doughnuts on the table, just these 3 bowls and every ones anxiety.


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