Let me first be clear about what you should not imagine these flea markets to be. No they are not the garage or lawn sales you might know from back home, neither are they the classical markets which fill up your local market square each week. What they are is a mix of those with a touch of Japanese flair encompassing stalls of professional antique shops, locals selling some of their old belongings, countless food stalls and the occasional stall with fun and games making Kyoto flea markets an excellent morning or afternoon activity.
You can pretty much find anything at the flea markets, so it helps if you have an idea of what you would like to bring back home that won’t disappear in the back of the closet after a few weeks. A kimono is a perfect example of something people buy because it is quite cheap but have no idea what to do with it back home. If you really like the fabrics and designs of a kimono, think about getting an obi, the kimono’s sash, instead since it can easily be displayed in your living room. Arts and crafts, such as pottery, paintings and wind chimes, are perfect examples of simple inexpensive souvenirs with a lot of charm to bring back as gifts for friends and family. Antiques on the other hand or more tricky as they tend to be quite large and some, such as weaponry, need to go through an extensive bureaucratic process of forms and signatures before they may leave Japan and be brought into your home country. Nonetheless, everyone can find something of their liking ad snatch up some nice bargains!
Bargain-hunting is work though and after a while you will get hungry. Luckily, the flea markets have countless food stalls offering both snacks and small meals, such as okonomiyaki (a mixed-ingredient savory pancake) or takoyaki (Osaka’s most popular snack made with octopus).
While some prices are negotiable, the room for negotiation is quite limited. Residents selling belongings on behalf of their (grand)parents will of course be more open to negotiate on their asking price in comparison to professional antique shops who come to the flea markets every month and know they will be able to sell their goods anyway. Knowing who you are talking to is therefore key, along with showing respect and closing a fair deal for both of you. Although this all might seem very straightforward, I myself have seen plenty of foreigners making low-ball offers and eventually leaving with nothing concluding it as a “bad experience”, so please be aware of these little things and be the one to say you found something amazing to show to your friends and family back home.
When, where and how to get there?
The two largest and most popular flea markets are the ones at To-ji located south-west of Kyoto Station on the 21st of each month and Kitano Tenman-gu located between Kinkaku-ji and Nijo Castle on the 25th. Toji is easily walkable from the station while Kitano Tenman-gu is conveniently accessed with city buses 50, 101 and 203.
If you are a handicraft enthusiast, you will surely have to bring an extra bag or two for the market at Chion-ji Hyakumanben on the 15th offering a wide variety of arts and crafts. The temple is near Kyoto University and city buses 17 and 206 will take you there, ready for you to shop till you drop. Another market the enthusiast might want to look into is at Kamigamo Shrine on the 22d located in the north of Kyoto where city buses 4, 46 and 67 frequently stop.
The opening hours differ for each flea market as To-ji and Kitano Tenman-gu open at 07:00; Chion-ji at 08:00 and Kamigamo at 09:00. Most markets close around 16:00, but during autumn and winter sellers will tend to wrap up earlier, while when the days get longer and warmer they might stick around a little bit longer.