Kuraya doesn’t look like much from the street — just a nondescript warehouse on the industrial fringe of the Mission District. But climb the loading-dock stairs, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by some real Japanese booty: hundreds of antique tansu chests from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, each built for a specific function, from tea preparation to kimono storage. Arranged in a serpentine fashion, they carve the soaring, loftlike space into a series of narrow aisles. The effect is that of an exquisitely appointed ant farm.
Presiding over the trove is Jin Spring, a 42-year-old with rectangular eyeglasses and tousled black hair. Mr. Spring and his business partner, Ito Tsuyoshi, buy the tansus in Japan, picking through villagers’ kuras, or storehouses, to find dusty, smoke-stained antiques that would otherwise be discarded or burned. (Tastes in Japan currently run to the modern, said Mr. Spring: “They prefer to buy some Ikea stuff.”)
Thanks to their hands-on wrangling, the owners can trace the provenance of almost every item in the shop. Of a gigantic staircase-shaped kaidan, or step chest, Mr. Spring recalled that it took four men and a handsaw to wrest the cypress beast from a Kyoto house undergoing remodeling. Newly cleaned, repaired and waxed, the piece, $4,700, is ready for another hundred years. Other pieces are $450 to $8,000.
A further tour revealed a katana-dansu (sword chest) once owned by a 19th-century samurai family and a 130-year-old mizuya-dansu (kitchen chest) with individual compartments for storing water pails, chopsticks and leftover food. The burled elm doors of a cha-dansu, or tea chest, slid back to expose a series of small delights: cedar-lined drawers for tea implements, shelves for teapots and cups, and intricate cherry blossom carvings for good luck. Like the shop itself, the closer you look, the greater the reward. “There’s always something more to discover,” Mr. Spring said with a smile. “That’s what keeps me interested, totally.”
Kuraya Japanese Antiques, 2345 Harrison Street; (415) 285-2011, with a second shop at 2425 California Street in Pacific Heights; (415) 885-3313; pieces available for purchase at www.kurayaantiques.com.