Narrow portal leads to a world of Japanese culture on Yokota

Photos by Mike Van Hoecke
Photos by Mike Van Hoecke

Narrow portal leads to a world of Japanese culture on Yokota

by Mike Van Hoecke
Stripes Japan

Masami Obata’s antique shop at Yokota Air Base looks tiny from the outside. Pedestrians might pass it and confuse it for a dry-cleaning outlet or another business. The foyer barely has room to sit and is overseen by an array of curious masks that keep watch over the store and customers. Beyond the small foyer is a large hidden storeroom full of incredible cultural items.

As the passage opens up it reveals cast iron tea kettles, huge, decorated plates, long flowing carp streamers, wooden kokeshi dolls, replica samurai armor and helmets, colorful kimono, and Japanese wooden items like pendulum wall clocks and tansu handcrafted cabinets.

Obata began his antique business selling tansu to Yokosuka Naval Base families about 40 years ago. One of his favorite styles of tansu has a golden-brown finish with a clear grain pattern and is made from keyaki – a durable and pretty wood.

“Even back then, these 100- to 150-year-old cabinets went for 800 to 1,000 dollars each,” he said. They are especially pretty when matched with a wooden wall clock of about the same era and perhaps a woman’s kimono sash, called an obi, folded across the top of the wooden cabinet.

Eventually, Obata’s business would expand to selling a variety of antiques to Yokota Air Base families and young airmen.

“Half of the things [Yokota airmen] purchase are for themselves and half are for souvenirs to send back home,” he said. “They tend to buy smaller items like the masks and Boy’s Day samurai helmets.“

Many of the hand-carved masks in the store were worn by actors who danced on wooden floats during Japanese festivals. They are likenesses of fools, farmers, pretty girls, animals, and demons. The masks cost from $80-$200 apiece and can be several decades old.

Surprisingly, Obata said demand for the colorful obi is tapering off.  Obi used to be very popular and were repurposed as wall hangings, table runners, or as decorative components for making shoulder bags.  Nowadays, Obata has so many in stock that he says he keeps his prices very low for these.

Most of what Obata sells –  like the tansu, the masks, the clocks, and porcelain hibachi – are genuine antiques. The Japanese swords, by law, are replicas for display only.  Though they may be faithful in design, Obata said the blades are polished aluminum instead of steel.  He explained that Japanese authorities won’t allow him to sell steel swords that can be sharpened.  However, there are actual sword hand guards in the shop that are authentic.

He acquires his goods at a regular auction in nearby Hachioji City.  Whenever Obata receives a new item that he thinks one of his clients might be interested in, he uses his smartphone to send them a photo. The shop doesn’t have an online presence and the 81-year-old merchant explained that he is still old-fashioned.

Obata’s store and the items he sells are hidden gems waiting to be discovered. There is a lot to see and great opportunities to bring a touch of Japan home or to send to your family and friends back in the States.

Visit Japanese Antiques

Address: Building 4330 on the East Side of Yokota Air Base, in the same building as the Airmen’s Attic. 
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. M-Sa. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Phone number: 0425-52-2511 Ext. 62037 or Cell Phone: 090-7231-5094

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