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  • An Exploratory Trip to Japan

    The partnership of Jo Maindonald and Robert Joyce and Kazari in Melbourne is now 40 years old.
    To celebrate, Robert and Jo would like to share some of their stories from the early visits to Japan - written by Jo Maindonald

    Mt Fuji

    An exploratory trip to Japan in the late 70’s bore fruit when we
    least expected.

    We’re often asked when and how Kazari started and I mostly reply ‘it was so long ago I’ve forgotten’ which in the busy-ness of life, after 40 years is often true. I’ve remembered now and so here it is.

    Robert and Kaneko Fishing

    Robert had travelled widely in SE Asia buying baskets from hill tribes in the Phillipines and textiles from islands in Indonesia.- I had arrived in Australia from the UK, as a teacher in the mid 70’s after travel in Europe and the Middle East but with a passion for the kinds of things Robert and friends were selling at the Pram Factory market, Moonlight Salon in Lyon St and the Carlton Bazaar. I had honed my skills at Phoenix Antiques in High St. We met when we were buying and selling, acquiring items at auctions and markets, and then selling to other antique dealers, passing on items we’d sourced at a profit. After a while we combined our passions and resources and worked together towards an overseas trip that would culminate in an exploratory buying trip in Japan. We were told of the possibilities of buying old Imari ceramics, wooden folk art and Buddhist figures, lacquer ware and kimono textiles seldom seen outside of Japan at that time and that they were quite easy to find.

    Encouraged by some friends who’d recently returned, felt sure Japan could be ‘the holy grail’ for budding antique dealers such as ourselves. We were well traveled and both well versed in the intricacies of dealing, trading, buying and selling. We’d saved for the trip doing just that, trading with antique dealers in Melbourne, country  Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Sydney. We bought and sold from shops, markets and auctions, having learned what was desirable and how much to pay.


    In 1978 we’d planned for a trip to Japan with a Balinese holiday we called our ‘honeymoon’ en route. We’d budgeted for a small experimental shipment, which was to include the cost of shipping back to Australia, duties and custom fees included and didn’t want to fritter it away on living expenses. Japan in 1978, was exceptionally expensive to visit at that time and to stay there we needed either a lot of money or to live on a shoe string. The latter was the only option!

    I had to find a job. As an ex English teacher it was always possible to teach and be well paid but unless we were going to stay for a year, it was slow to establish the well paying clientele. A temporary hostess job was the quickest way to earning money. In a way it was much the same as English teaching, making conversation in a select little gentlemen’s club in the Yodoyabashi night life district of Osaka, an area of small bars frequented by executives and salarymen (italics) before leaving for home. The job was simple, above board and well remunerated and it covered our daily living expenses for that first trip. There I poured expensive whisky, owned by members and stored at the Club and I spoke English with the help of a small Collins Japanese English Dictionary (jibiki) to company men in smart business suits from Mitsui, Mitsubishi and other national and multi national corporations, while they sang karaoke often with their foreign guests.


    At about 11.30 every night I left, met up with our new friend Antares, an American hippy also hosting and speaking English and we travelled back to Kyoto on the last slow train back to Kyoto, along with the drunken younger version of the salary men I had hosted earlier, many worse for wear! Robert often met me at the station on a bike with a carrier seat and we rode back, sometimes with flowers he’d found left outside florists, along the quiet streets to our little two story ‘caravan’ of a house in the Sakai near the Fish Market.

    We saved money when we discovered that bananas with blemished skins were unsaleable and given away for virtually nothing along along with the crusts cut from loaves of white bread, which we preferred to the crustless slices themselves!
    By the time we arrived in Kyoto, finding chests of drawers thrown out on the footpaths for the Gomi (garbage collectors) was we’d been told, was not entirely unknown and we were occasionally able to find gems, including brand new kitchen appliances still in their boxes and flowers rejected by the florists. “Special finds” were generally discovered late at night, on the way home. Wanting to throw out the old for the new continued through the social classes and generations especially in the economic growth post war period when the Japanese began to be a wealthy nation and they could easily able to afford shiny new products. This pattern has now changed and Japanese heritage items and antiques are now much sought after in both Japan and abroad.

    Robert and Kaneko at a temple

    The precious contacts given to us in Australia, which had fueled our confidence quickly evaporated. The names and phone numbers given on scraps of paper together with dates for temple markets all drew blanks. One by one we exhausted them, they were either out of the country, the phone numbers were wrong, or they no longer existed!   We were at the point of accepting we might be just having an expensive extended holiday when we stopped at a little coffee shop in Teramachi dori, then a blossoming street for antique shops in Kyoto. We ordered pizzas and coffee. We looked around. The owner had glass show cases on his walls full of jewellery and bric-a-brac, all for sale. We began a conversation peppered with key Japanese words with the aid of my trusty jibiki, (a pocket size Collins Japanese - English dictionary) and explained that we were despairing of ever finding the auction rooms or anyone who would take us to them. He listened politely and after sketches on paper napkins, and much laughter, he offered to take us to the auctions.

    Auctions weren’t open to the Japanese public let alone westerners and Kaneko san had a license. To this day, he is one of our oldest and best loyal friends, in Japan. While my days were mostly spent recovering from the boozy and smoky atmosphere of the club and the late-night packed train journeys, Robert set about familiarising himself with Japanese kotohin (antiques). This led to and included meeting up with internationally renowned Kyoto personalities where he was entertained and educated in the finer aesthetics of Japanese arts including tea ceremony. Daytime was spent trolling antique shops and markets, temples and museums, talking and learning what we could from dealers about their stock in trade, prices and values, eventually making friends, with both Japanese and international expats, some of whom were studying tea ceremony at the Uresenke tea school, others teaching English or were Japanese dealers to the stars, who we were introduced to people like Lauren Bacall and other mostly American luminaries who were passing through Kyoto.

    There had been a pattern at this time, of not valuing their own or the old that had begun in 1850’s when Admiral Perry arrived to ‘open up’ Japan to the West. While naturally interested in what the rest of the world had to offer, after being a closed island empire for centuries, they did not value their own and threw things away at an alarming rate. Fortunately people such as Ernest F. Fenollosa, an American diplomat, recognised the unique nature and quality of their extraordinary art work and offered to catalogue screens, scrolls, paintings and sculpture held in collections such as temples and castles, nationwide, otherwise many works now recognised as National Treasures would now be lost forever.

    We were both in awe of the new electronic Japan full of vending machines and fast trains, neon signs which we often referred to as a kind of Disneyland for adults. At the same time the ancient temples, traditional gardens, landscape and architecture nourished the soul.

    With fresh eyes we recognised the ‘beauty in simplicity’ of the functional and practical forms made in the centuries and decades before, the careful selection of timbers that the highly skilled traditional craftsmen made use of to create all manner of things and including storage chests, which we had an eye for buying right from the beginning.

    Robert and Jo packing the very first container.

    To be continued..

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