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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogWhat is a Flea Market: The Ultimate Guide

What is a Flea Market: The Ultimate Guide

James LauJames Lau
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April 12, 2023
A bunch of bracelets for sale at an open-air market, also showing what is a flea market.

What is a flea market in the bustling city of Tokyo? Well, it’s one of the best ways to experience the city’s rich culture! Tokyo’s flea markets offer various items, from antique and vintage goods to traditional Japanese crafts and street food. Let’s take a look at some of Tokyo’s best flea markets!

History of Tokyo Flea Markets

Flea markets have a long history in Tokyo. The tradition of selling second-hand goods dates back to the Edo period when it was common for people to sell their used items in markets held on temple grounds or other public spaces.

A replication of an Edo-era market.
Open-air markets have been popular in Japan since the Edo era. Image via Shutterstock

During the Meiji period, Tokyo underwent a period of modernization and Westernization. As a result, new shopping centers replaced many of these traditional markets. However, the tradition of flea markets continued, and new markets sprang up in areas such as Ueno, Asakusa, and Akihabara.

Black and white photograph of a post World War II open air market, showing the history of what is a flea market.
Open-air markets were fundamental during post-World War II. Image via Shutterstock

After World War II, Tokyo experienced rapid economic growth, and the demand for cheap and second-hand goods increased. Flea markets became popular again, and new markets arrived in neighborhoods such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku.

What does “flea market” mean?

The word “フリーマーケット” (furī māketto) is a borrowed term in Japanese, derived from the English words “free” and “market.” The term first appeared in Japan in the 1970s as part of the cultural exchange that occurred during that period.

The concept of flea markets as we know them today originated in Europe, where they were called “marché aux puces” in French, meaning “market of fleas.” Therefore, the term references the misconception that the often-used goods had fleas.

A bunch of porcelain cups on display at a French open-air market.
Flea markets originated in France., Image via Tokyo Cheapo.

However, in Japan, the first flea markets were called “bazaar markets” in the early 20th century. The term “フリーマーケット” did not come into use until much later, when the concept of flea markets began to gain popularity in Japan.

What do we call them today?

Today, “フリーマーケット” is the most commonly used term for flea markets in Japan. However, the term “バザー” (bazā) is still sometimes used to refer to charity or fundraising events that include a market component.

A French sign reads "marche aux puces" (flea market).
The terms came from the misconception that the sold items had fleas. Image via Shutterstock

In Japanese, the character “フリー” can be used for both “flea” and “free,” leading to some confusion. However, the Japan Flea Market Association has used “Free Market” to make it easier for everyone to participate in the events, creating a word with different meanings in Japanese and English.

Today, Tokyo’s flea markets are a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. They offer a unique shopping experience, with vendors selling everything from antique furniture and ceramics to vintage clothing and toys. Many markets are held on weekends and holidays, attracting large crowds of bargain hunters looking for a good deal.

While the popularity of flea markets has waxed and waned over the years, they remain an essential part of Tokyo’s cultural heritage and a testament to the city’s long and rich history. Let’s look at some of the most popular flea markets in Tokyo!

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Setagaya Boro-ichi Market

The Setagaya Boro-ichi Market is one of Tokyo’s oldest and most famous flea markets, dating back over 430 years. It happens twice a year, on December 15-16 and January 15-16, in the Setagaya district of Tokyo.

People at an outdoor event in Setagaya.
The Setagaya Boro-ichi market began all the way back in 1578. Image via Shutterstock

The market is generally known for its lively and festive atmosphere, with over 700 vendors selling various goods, including antiques, vintage clothing, traditional Japanese crafts, and local street food. Some of the most popular items at the market include old-fashioned Japanese toys, handmade pottery, and especially vintage kimono and obi.

The Setagaya Boro-ichi Market is known for its history and tradition. The market originated as a way for farmers to sell their goods during the Edo period. It has continued to thrive over the centuries as a hub for local commerce and community. The market’s name, “boro-ichi,” comes from the Japanese word for “rag market,” reflecting the market’s history of selling secondhand goods.

A display of antique cameras at the Setagaya Boro-ichi Flea Market.
This flea market has many vintage items available! Image via Shutterstock

In addition to the shopping, the Setagaya Boro-ichi Market also features traditional Japanese street performers and musicians, adding to the event’s festive atmosphere. Visitors can sample a variety of local street food, such as yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), and karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken).

Hanazono Shrine Antique Market

The Hanazono Shrine Antique Market is one of Tokyo’s most popular and vibrant flea markets. It occurs on Sundays at the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most colorful neighborhoods.

Antiques, including a green basket on a table at the Hanazono Shrine Antique Market.
This is one of the best antique markets you can go to! Image via Tokyo Cheapo

The market features over 500 stalls selling various items, including antique and vintage goods, traditional Japanese crafts, clothing, accessories, toys, and more. Overall, the most popular items at the market include kimono, yukata (summer kimono), vintage vinyl records, and old-fashioned Japanese toys.

Antique pots on a red velvet cloth on display at the Hanazono Shrine Antique Market.
This antique market happens every week. Image via Tokyo Cheapo

An incredibly unique feature of this event is the lively and festive atmosphere. The market is in a traditional Shinto shrine, which adds to the charm and ambiance of the event. The market is popular with locals and tourists and is a great place to find unique and exciting items while soaking up the atmosphere of one of Tokyo’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

Oi Racecourse Flea Market

The Oi Racecourse Flea Market is a famous outdoor market every weekend at the Oi Racecourse in Shinagawa, Tokyo. It’s open from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and surprisingly, admission is free.

The market features over 700 stalls selling various items, including antiques, vintage goods, clothing, jewelry, toys, and more. Many items for sale are second-hand, but plenty of new and handmade items are also available.

A display on a blue tarp at the Oi Racecourse.
The Oi Racecourse Flea Market is down in Shinagawa. Image via Japan Travel

It’s a great place to find bargains, and many vendors are willing to negotiate prices. Some of the most popular items at the market include vintage clothing and accessories, old-fashioned Japanese toys, and traditional Japanese crafts.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Oi Racecourse Flea Market is its location, which is one of Tokyo’s most prominent horse racing tracks. Visitors to the market can enjoy a day of shopping and browsing and then head over to the track to catch some horse racing action.

Indoor shot of the Oi Racecourse where people are selling stuff.
Oi Racecourse is Tokyo’s premier horse racing venue. Image via Time Out

Tokyo’s flea markets are a must-visit destination for anyone interested in vintage and antique goods, traditional Japanese crafts, and local street food. From the bustling Oedo Antique Market to the lively Hanazono Shrine Flea Market and the unique Oi Racecourse Flea Market, Tokyo has many flea markets to explore. 

All in all, visitors to these markets can find unique and exciting items and experience Tokyo’s vibrant culture and history. So if you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, add one of these flea markets to your itinerary for an unforgettable experience.

Have you ever been to a flea market in Tokyo? What was your experience like? Tell us in the comments below!

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