Photo/IllutrationHundreds of vendors sell everything from priceless antiques to bric-a-brac at the Setagaya Bori-Ichi flea market. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

By the time this column reaches your eyes, depending on where you may be, the inkling of spring may be in the air. I vowed last year around this time, upon hearing about the Setagaya Boro-Ichi, that I would visit the flea market next year.

A year flew by, and upon my visit, I found myself delighting in everything I saw there. Please mark your calendars now: The 442nd Boro-Ichi will take place Dec. 15-16 this year and Jan. 15-16 in 2020.

An Intangible Folk Cultural Asset of Tokyo, the Boro-Ichi, started in 1578 when feudal lord Hojo Ujimasa (1538-1590), the fourth head of the late Hojo clan, who governed the Kanto area at that time, authorized a tax-free market called “Raku-Ichi” in Setagaya, which was a bustling way station on the Soshu Kaido that linked Edo and Odawara. Originally, farmers sold old "boro" rags and straw to make durable "waraji" sandals and anything else that could be recycled.

Wow, a flea market continuing for 441 years and counting! I couldn't help but think about the unyielding collective initiative and will that was required to keep passing the baton to the next generation through all the turmoil, wars and drastic societal changes.

The flea market is like no other in terms of its eclectic offerings of food, services and things to buy. I saw heaps of interesting items to nibble on as you walk, for example, fare advertised to “turn tigers into cats” and “sardine fists,” which turned out to be Chinese pies and deep-fried sardine fish pates on a stick.

There are services such as on-the-spot knives-and-scissors sharpening and bodywork (“not massage, but bone-correcting work,” the proprietor insisted). There are unique stalls like those that sold 24-hour circulating bathwater filtration devices made by a sewing machine company; "hanko" stamps carved in glass and crystal; cutting boards made from 600-year-old cypress trees; authentic military gear like gas masks, canteens, uniforms, peaked caps with embroidered and metal insignia, and vintage first aid kits; household Shinto altars, Showa Era medicine boxes, cacti, soap made in Syria, and an item I couldn’t make heads or tails out of called "warabocchi."

They looked like small but heavy Chinese conical hats. I asked about them and learned that they were traditional straw covers used to shelter plants or an ancient way to dry stalks of rice.

It’s all a feast for your taste buds and your eyes. The market also gives you the opportunity to talk with unique stall keepers and learn all sorts of things. And with its size and history, this flea market is a must-see!

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the March 17 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.