SYNOPSIS: A day that started with the usual uneventful transit turned out to become a day that finished with the successful completion of a shipping mission and shopping for woodblock prints.  The beginning of a huge downpour and about meeting two American ladies and drinking a lot of sake.


For weeks I had been looking to find any of the famous woodblock prints I most of all associate with Japan.  No luck.  I was surprised how few antique stores I had seen overall and nowhere, not even at that famous Nagoya flea market, had I seen any woodcuts.

I arrived in Nikko in the afternoon; too late to do anything, too early to do nothing.  After shipping the umbrella home — yes, at this tiny post office, the third I tried to get rid of that darn umbrella — there was finally a solution:  custom-made sake boxes!   First the usual: I pointed out the dimensions of the object to be shipped and the post master shakes his head.  But the woman in the next both is overhearing our “conversation” — really, the usual pointing and drawing of pictures — and she jumps up with a lit-up face.  One moment please!  This, by the way seems to be one sentence a lot of Japanese know in English.

And she returned with a perfect box, except too short.  I asked if she possibly had two of them and upon a second disappearance, she returned with two.  Yippie.  My hotel was right across the post office and for the next hour I had my hands full with the usual formalities shipping involves.  But there went the umbrella with a couple more pounds of this and that.

After that, I went for a stroll through town.  It’s touristy here, so there is one souvenir shop lined up next to the other interspersed by restaurants and cafes.  The area is famous for its crafts, woodworking, batiks and more. Stores were filled with fun items of little interest to me.  But this was a good way to kill time.  A few artists were working in their store, that is always interesting to observe.

And there was an antique store.  It was small, but he had a pile of woodcuts!  I was ecstatic.  I sifted through everything he had carefully and discouraged.  These were steep prices.  Don’t get me wrong — I am a cheapskate when it comes to paying $5 for a cup of coffee or more than $10 for dinner, but I am ready to spend a few hundred dollars on a wood block.   Just that most of the ones I liked were way beyond that.

I continued to look, pondering my options.  At least he took credit cards…

By the time I had put another kilometer and three more hours into the endeavor of window-shopping I had been in about 6 more antique stores, all of which had woodblock prints at varying levels of authenticity and in a full range of prices.  Now I really had options.  This was antique row and I wish I knew why this whole town was full of ukiyo-e, the official name for the Edo period wood block prints.  Was this town once a center of the art form?

These antique stores were in the old part of town.  They most likely had been handed down from generation to generation.  Some of the great-grandfathers of these shopkeepers might have known some of the famous ukio-e artists themselves.  They just spoke so little English!  I could hardly converse about more than the price, the age of each print, and the artists’ names.   Some of the stores did not accept visa cards — that was usually the end of the conversation.  By the end of the day, I must have sifted through hundreds of prints.  I was in ukio-e heaven.

One of the last stores I came to was owned by a little old man who could sense my excitement and genuine interest in these prints.  He disappeared with the “One moment please” and returned with something I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams: an armful of fold-out books, each of which contained hundreds of these prints all strung together in their original book form.  Most pages were put together in a way that both front and back were prints.  I could not get over this and he was beaming over my disbelief and admiration for his treasures.  What do you charge for one of those, I asked?

He shook his head with a big sly smile — these are not for sale!  Maybe, someday … and he pointed to the pile of individual prints.  All of these had come from books like this.  It made me cringe to think that most of those complete volumes of original prints, someday will be history as store owners need to maximize their profit.  I don’t blame them.  But I hope we have some museums which buy at least some of them before they are all chopped apart.

I had been assured by the old man that he would accept my visa card, but when it came to the point where I had chosen several prints and was ready to purchase them — he backed off!  Half in cash, half visa was his new demand.  We had a little back and forth about this — I told him that I was going to leave without buying anything unless he would accept my visa card.  No.  If I was not going to pay him for half of them in cash, he would only sell me half.  That was his ultimatum.

I have been mystified by this visa reluctance in Japan for weeks, but this topped it.  We bargained back and forth and finally I got 2/3 of what I wanted.  He explained that he had to pay 5% for every visa purchase.  Fine, then charge me 5% more, I offered.  He was still not happy and I imagine there is more to it.  Perhaps it has to do with taxes?   Either way, I am thrilled to report that I have some very fine ukio-e prints now.

It had started to rain.  I was on my way down the hill, still looking into one or the other store.  This one looked interesting: old kimonos.  By the time I had looked for a few minutes the rain had turned into a downpour.  Two American ladies were trapped in the store beside me and we started to talk.  As time passed, they bought this or that from the rack and the bargain box, joking about how lucrative this rain turned out for the shopkeeper.  Finally, we could not keep him any longer — it was way past closing time.

Between the three of us we had two umbrellas, and more or less soaked, we made it to a restaurant which served drinks.  I can drink a lot, and fast, but these two got me beat!  It was great fun to hang out with them, Leslie and Helen.  With Leslie, who lives with her husband in Tokyo, I have a date just before I will leave.  I am looking forward to this!  Finally, Leslie’s husband joined us.  He had come up from Tokyo to join the two ladies on a day of sightseeing.

Well… we shall see.   The rain did not look like a quick shower.  The forecast was not promising either.  But the day had passed.  I had met two fun people.  I was nicely liquored up with sake on an otherwise empty stomach.  And I had come one step closer to accomplishing what I wanted to do in Japan.  At home, I already have cleared a wall for these prints.  I knew I would find some.  🙂

Good night.

5 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. “He explained that he had to pay 5% for every VISA purchase. Fine, then charge me 5% more, I offered. He was still not happy and I imagine there is more to it.”

    There is more to it. Suppose your bill was $100. Then his loss from VISA is 5%x$100 = $5, so he nets only $100 – $5 = $95.

    Now you offer to pay 5% more, which brings your bill to $105. Then his loss to VISA is 5%x$105 = $5.25, so he nets $105 – $5.25 = $99.75, so he’s still coming up short, by 25 cents.

    Today’s quiz: What number you have to multiply your bill by so that he gets his full price?

    • Well, first of all, retired math teaches seem to never seem to fade away but just keep giving little pop quizzes….

      If we ask ET to pay 5.2632% more, her bill would be $105.2632. His loss to VISA is then $5.2632. So, he nets 105.2632-5.2632 or his original $100.00.
      Of course, this is with rounding off.

      But who can deal with $105.2632, so lets just say that if she had offered him 5.27% more and paid $105.27, everyone would have been happy. She would have her prints and he would have made .0065cents

      • Brava, Ann! I used to annoy my math classes even further by asking for answers for problems like this as a fraction, so as to track what’s happening. Here, it’s 100/95, or add 5/95 to the price. Note to Elisabeth: next time you’re in this pickle, you’ll need Price x [100/(100-VISA%)] to make a happy seller or at least to show him that you are not to be messed with.

  2. What a day! How exciting to find what you were seeking – and to top it off with laughter, new friends and some sake. Bet that you slept well that night.

  3. Congratulations on your wonderful find…good thing you did the purchase before the sake. LOL