The sticky mat draws particles away from my shoes before I slip on disposable fiber booties. Donning a hairnet, I secure a face mask as I proceed to wash my hands and pull on blue nitrile gloves. Next I zip myself into a white bunny suit. I wear my side-shielded glasses, and just before entering the clean room, I snap on a second pair of gloves and spray my hands with an aerosol sanitizer.
This used to be the start of my day. Strolling the spotless glass, chrome and marble façade of Ginza reminds me of the sterility. Everything is clean and in its proper place. I sip my coffee and watch the rush of mostly middle-aged housewives, executive assistants and anti-egalitarians stride past. The people are orderly; they walk with quick purposeful cadence. They are not fooling anyone, because they don’t have to. That Louis Vuitton is Louis Vuitton! That Franck Muller is Franck Muller! Their vanity is legit, and that blasé is real. The polished gold doors open before them as they are cordially welcomed inside.
Takeaway: Fake it until you make it does not apply to Japan, not in the way many Westerners are used to experiencing. Yes, some people still look down their noses. There are so-called Haves and Have Nots even among the Japanese, but the material part of it, the outward appearance of wealth is not as important a status symbol as “power is power.” What this means is that fashion and money do not necessarily coincide. In Japan, affordable fashion does not mean fake, namely because you don’t counterfeit in a society so bent on perfection.
Removing The Walls
I’m being pulled along. Led through the wardrobe, the world changes from furs to firs. I see blue of sky and the walls fall away. Now surrounded by pleasant greenery, sunshine kisses our faces and we’re shopping, or people watching or both. There are no windows here. And nobody is out to turn a profit, make a commission or wearing black. This is a Japanese secondhand clothing market.
The mostly twenty and 30-something crowd shuffles about the neatly arranged spaces attended to by cohorts of like manner: posh, hippie, Lolita, etcetera. Everyone has representation. Their genre of fashion calls to them like Isildur’s Bane. I am happy to observe, but my companion has other ideas. Shopping is her other-other part-time job.
My wingwoman gestures for me to squat alongside as she picks, inspects and presses garment after garment in my direction for lack of a basket. Designer threads are like catnip to this mostly freeter (フリーター) crowd, but damn, they make rummaging look less bag lady and more chichi. And now my arms are full, and every label reads like a who’s who of haute couture: Dior, Ferragamo, Tadashi Shoji?
“That’s mine, stupid!” Yo-yo growls when I question the Hermés bag she has guided to me. I apologize. Her playful k-k-kawaii mood is spent. She is now competing against a frenzy of lionesses padding about her kill. A bottle blonde claws at the chiffon blouse Yo-yo holds, and the air shifts darkly. I only catch the blonde’s sardonic, “Inaka-chan,” and I know the girl is tempting fate. Yo-yo has maimed for less. Yet uncharacteristically, she nods charitably for the girl to take the canary yellow blouse.
At the same time, Yo-yo stands, holds a silvery shirt-like dress upon her chest and urbanely steps aside optimistically modeling for my opinion. I mumble something with a smile, but actually say nothing. Her pensive look turns to the seller for aplomb, but the vendor simply grins and flashes a quintet of fingers. I do not know where the decimal lies. Yo-yo squints sweetly and the seller rescinds one finger. I learn it is the equivalent of $40US for a four hundred dollar dress, in addition to the ¥3,000 in bric-a-brac I cradle in my arms. It is only then the blonde realizes the silvery frock missing from her pile. I’m tiring of holding this bag, “Stupid.”
Takeaway: This is a peoples’ market, a grand meeting of egalitarian social ideals with a dash of free market economics. Here it pays to be froward. So don’t be shy, engage everyone with a smile. This may grant you that 20% discount you didn’t even know existed. Sometimes however, you should express directly what you want to pay, but be nice about it.
Out Of The Woodwork
Secondhand clothing markets bring people out of the woodwork, and that is what made the inaka-chan comment clever and dangerous. But the market is much more than deftly sewn fabric at rock bottom prices. Turning away, there are festive foods. A girl bites into a hotdog, another studies the grilled squid. It’s a fine day to play ubiquitous Japanese games: Goldfish scooping (金魚掬い) and Yo-yo Tsuris (ヨーヨーつり).
We take to nearby shade, and Yo-yo gets organized as I contemplate the cuisine. She withdraws an expandable nylon bag and neatly arranges her winnings before we continue our stroll, “Eat later, okay?”
The playfulness has returned to our party and we share laughs with buyers and sellers alike in passing. The secondhand clothing market is about easiness, never mind the occasional drama. Everything and everyone is informal and casual. The wares are priced to move, which makes negotiation mostly irrelevant or more likely, a minor courtesy.
Takeaway: Like open air markets throughout the world, bargain hunting demands strategy, persistence and above all else: a good eye. Arriving early is key to garnering those incredible deals, yet even seasoned vets will not catch everything the first time through. With all of the excitement and stress, it’s easy to find yourself experiencing tunnel vision as I did. So take a break, have your snack and welcome the pleasantness of the moment.
People Watching People
We are three hours in and Yo-yo’s bag is brimming to capacity. The market is now a deluge of bodies, though I sense fewer shoppers and more people just hanging out. I have yet to purchase anything besides the sweet potato I’ve demolished. And then I raise my camera.
Yoyogi Flea Market is a lot of shopping, but to many it is a place to see and be seen. Breakout fashion is common and many flock here to tryout new ideas and connect with like-minded sartorialists.
The Candid Moment
Yo-yo casually slaps my face with follow-through! And I lower the camera.
“Don’t be that guy,” she whispers.
Suggesting we move, I follow her into another aisle just as a tall skinny rockabilly tosses me a ‘sup head tilt and I’m riveted. A head tilt in a land of bows is absolute counterculture, but I will myself to return the gesture. The man flashes a gold crown half-smile as we approach his small setup. Clearly rock and roll, his horn-rimmed glasses, cuffed blue jeans, red-laced boots and pompadour greet us. Yo-yo is beaming wildly. I suspect they know each other and wait for the introduction. It does not come.
Lifting a small spiked pouch from this overseer’s lot, there is a tiny handwritten tag tied to the zipper with a piece of twine. I turn to my companion and ask what it says. She squints. “It’s from London.” And now everyone is laughing, because just below the inscription is the price: ¥100.
Takeaway: Have you ever purchased something from someone just because they were the ones selling it? Secondhand clothing markets can be like this. As a co-worker once told me, “Sometimes I just buy their stuff like it’s a souvenir of that person.” There’s a lot of this kind of buying, actually. Yeah it’s weird, stalker-shopper syndrome isn’t uncommon, especially here. But this is Japan, and meaningful association is the norm. It’s kinda like Elvis’s comb.
The Social Place
Whether one is a shopaholic or a people watcher, secondhand clothing markets are ideal to practice your Japanese language skills in a low-pressure environment. More importantly, these markets provide an opportunity to make friends. Or at the very least, they grant a dose of cultural exchange regardless of one’s Japanese or English speaking abilities.
Takeaway: Lead with your best smile and seize opportunities to interact. Granted, you may be the one initiating, but that’s as simple as saying hello. Secondhand clothing markets are wonderful for engaging strangers. This is not so easily achieved in Ginza by example. And in the later hours when traffic slows, sellers begin slashing prices not wishing to take back what they’ll never use. The time is ripe to shoot the breeze.
Minding The Store
It’s four weeks later, and I’m crouched before a vendor’s stall. A strategic mess, but the shopkeeper knows where everything is at. She holds up a silvery dress and smiles brightly.
“Remember this one?”
“Yeah, I think you should wear it.”
“It’s too early.”
Yo-yo and I are now sellers. I only brought a dozen or so items, things friends of friends left behind, the stuff not worth shipping. Though I have never participated in the E-teaching game, I have known a fair number who have. They always leave stuff, always clothing. My collection is significant. There is a bundle of vintage t-shirts, and lots of plaid. Someone had a schoolgirl phase.
Our stall cost a paltry ¥200. It’s a nice spot under a tree, and we have laid out an old quilt as drop cloth. Yo-yo has also brought a box of bath bombs she claims fell off a truck. She sells me on the idea of, “Free with every purchase.”
Ten o’clock arrives and there are loads of early birds. It is then Yo-yo decides to leave! She’s actually forgotten why she’s here.
“I don’t know your stuff.”
“So? Ganbatte!” she cries over her shoulder while hurrying out of sight.
Remember how I said that bargaining was a non-issue, I WAS TOTALLY WRONG! Most of these early shoppers are resellers with online businesses, a few are serious fashion folk, but really, it is all chaos to their advantage. And while I know this game, it is another thing to stay ahead of the curve in a language I am only dangerously proficient.
All I can make out is, “This?” “That?” “That one over there?” “How much for everything?” “What’s this?” “If I add these?” “Is this okay?” “Don’t-touch-my-pile!”
It is all happening rather quickly, and I’m calling out numbers like this is the Tsukiji Fish Market! Turning on my knees, Yo-yo and Rocka Billy are contemplating smiles behind me. He’s got a fist before his face, and Yo-yo’s crushing her bright red lips.
“Are you gonna help or just supervise?”
“Ganbare!” they cheerfully rally in unison.
“Keep-your-fist-pump,” I mutter.
Takeaway: After this experience I believe anyone could successfully sell regardless of Japanese language ability. Really, I do. Speaking Japanese is helpful in maintaining flow, but being organized is much more important. If the price is reasonably marked, most buyers will simply hand over payment sans negotiation. And while we did not mark any prices on our items, my Japanese improved significantly since the situation demanded keen listening. This was my idea, and partially why Yo-yo remained hands-off to my benefit and frustration. It was like a five hour Japanese lesson with sixty different instructors for a mere ¥200.
Getting There And Getting To It
While finding these secondhand clothing markets is not difficult, many outdoor venues close if weather is severe enough. Most markets are promoted with this in mind, often designating alternate dates in advance for rain. Although secondhand clothing markets are generally referred to as flea markets, their vendors and clientele differ dramatically in presentation. It is best to search the web accordingly for market type, location, dates and times. One static source for English readers is Metropolis. Alternatively, simply ask someone.
For those interested in selling, a few markets require advanced booking online, while others will charge a nominal fee day of. All you really need is a drop cloth and your stuff. Be ready to make change. Ganbatte!
Note: All photos taken by the author.