Kyoto has always been one of my favorite places to shop for cool stuff. Two shops, Nijusanya and Katsura-Ya, have wonderful handmade combs and hair ornaments carved in Japanese motifs. These are used for arranging traditional hairstyles but a designer might consider framing them in a Plexiglas box for a stunning wall piece. Some shops sell only purses, or only belts, for the local geisha clientele; these, too, would be nice in frames. In the same neighborhood, Isamu Noguchi lanterns can he found at Miura Shomei for reasonable prices.
Yokohama Street had many antiques and curios and nearby on Nawate-dori Kyoto Guin specializes in screens of all kinds. Down on the right many good prints are available on Shin Monzen, “Shopping Street.” On Teramachi is Takana Bamboo Arts, which makes and sells things designed for the tea ceremony, still popular in Kyoto. The dark woven bamboo vases and flower baskets at $45 would look fine in any living room, as would lampshades, banded in bamboo, for about $100. On the same street Yamanaka Seikado specializes in Kyoto metalwork, with lovely pewter teapots, bowls and vases from $30 up.
Even though Kyoto is the center for traditional handcrafts, this mingei, or folk art, is getting harder and harder to find. There are odds and ends in a lot of places on Kawaramachi-dori, off Shoji-dori, but the best is at Yamato Mingei Ten with many signed papier-mache pieces; giant cats and dogs and fanciful beasts, colorful accents for any room. On this street, too, is a splendid collection of Japanese paper umbrellas (wagasa), all fragrant with persimmon tannin. An enormous one, almost six feet in diameter, costs about $250 and can be used outside in the garden. Stop in at Marufuku, whose sign announces they are a “fine art curious shop,” and often there are indeed both fine and curious things available: antiques and large and small accessories. Down the street is a purveyor of old and new Japanese prints and an art book store.
If you are interested in pottery, try to find a street called Kiyomizuzaka, which is lined with shops selling nothing else. An afternoon might be devoted to the antiques district south of Sanjo-Keihan station. Here, on Nawate-dori and Furumonzen are treasure troves of lacquerware, ceramics, textiles and old and new kimonos. Latticed shop fronts, characteristic of old Kyoto, face the narrow street.
One shop, started more than a century ago, is Nakamura Kotaro’s Chinglreya, a haven for collectors, textile designers and craftsmen who appreciate the incredible collection of textiles, priests robes and kimonos. This is on the east side of Nawate-dori; across on the west side you will find the tiny shop of M. Yoshida with a cache of porcelains, and lacquerware squeezed in among chairs and tables.
At S. Nishimura on Furumonzen you can buy early-20th-century kimonos for $40 up to about $350, to use as wall hangings. Poke through the piles of silk fragments for pillow-makings. Ask directions here for the store around the corner of the elder Mr. Nishimura, father of the proprietors. His extensive collection of antique kimonos and textiles is among the city’s best.
A doll shop may sound mundane, but this is not true of K. Fuji’s at 14 Nawate-dori. Kyoto has long been the center of Japanese doll-making and here you will find old and new versions of appealing baby dolls. Elaborate geisha dolls are dressed in antique fabrics. Boy and girl dolls from Girls’ Days and Boys’ Days long past cost about $200. A marvelous set of elder sister paper dolls, over 200 years old, are only $28 and would be stunning in a frame. Glass cases for dolls are available here.
If you happen to be in Kyoto the end of the month you can spend a fascinating day browsing at two colorful temple markets, Toji Temple on the 21st and Kitano Tenjin on the 25th. In Japan, even a flea market is beautiful. Red and white banners float overhead, booths are decorated with blue and white signs or black and red calligraphy. The smell of incense permeates the air and the faint sound of drums, wooden clackers and chanting comes from the temple. Everything from antique swords, painted fans, lacquerware furniture and Kyoto dolls to plastic dishpans is for sale. Among the antiques and crockery are mountains of old kimonos, tied in bales and hung on makeshift racks, all for sale at rock bottom prices. Some have holes or worn places; you won’t have to feel like a sinner if you have these cut up for pillow covers. Bargaining may be difficult; it helps to have a translator, but you can always use pencil and paper to present offers.
Even if you don’t buy anything it is fascinating to wander through the crowd or visit the temple. You might stop at one of the small shrines, hung with colored banners with bells along the bottom. After donating a coin, the supplicant yanks the fabric to get the attention of the god and then says a prayer. Be sure to indulge in some of the absolutely delicious tidbits at the tempting food stalls.
Many tours of Kyoto include a stop at the Kyoto Handicraft Center. The place is a seven-story tourist trap with quite appalling prices. Our advice is not to buy anything except small paper goods or prints. New sets of elder sister dolls are made of varied hand printed paper and cost only a few dollars. Like the old ones, they would be fun to frame. If you have a big suitcase, you could consider the 3-ft.-high paper bride dolls, or a group of smaller ones to back with some of the glossy tea paper sold here. Don’t even look at the kimonos; the prices were higher than those in the States. The Center does have a good map of Kyoto, but at the top it says “Have a Nice Day!”