A few years ago, Sakamoto Goro kindly suggested that I join him for a weekend at his lovely retreat up in the hills of Odawara, near Hakone. The thought of spending a couple of days, not the customary couple of hours, with the famously eccentric doyen of antique dealers in Japan filled me with excitement. Since my early teens, the image of the dashing diminutive man had made an indelible impression on me, having browsed many times through my grandfather’s photo albums where he jumped off the page, always sharply suited, sporting his signature bow tie, sometimes gloved. Over the years, I had heard of his extraordinary exploits in the antique trade through Julian Thompson, with whom he shared a profound mutual respect.

The sliding screen doors of the house open with a loud “hai hai!!!” and there stands Mr. Sakamoto, smiling mischievously, for once casually dressed in a light kimono. We sit down in the open veranda taking in the view of the mountain range facing us and quietly smoke the first of many cigarettes. “Okasan, otosan genki?” (Are your mother and your father well?), he asks, and I reply with a simple “OK.” “Miya-san, waifu, OK?” I then ask, enquiring about his gracious daughter Miya, who helps us overcome the language barrier, and about the discreet and gentle Mrs. Sakamoto. He casually points towards the train station and says “Tokyo.” The sudden realisation that the two of us will have almost no means of communicating triggers in me a sudden bout of anxiety. “Eiii Beee… Shiii… ai donuto no” (ABC, I don’t know) is Mr Sakamoto’s favourite, and delightfully accurate, way of summing up his English skills. As a matter of fact, I would gradually discover over the weekend that this most elemental form of communication has the singular virtue of reducing someone’s thoughts down to their innermost core. With his most broken English, Mr Sakamoto would teach me his three key life principles, those that have steered him from the bustling dried fish markets of his youth, through the frenzied auction rooms and quaint antique shops of London, to the pinnacle of the art trade.

Faito, Faito! = Fight, Fight!

= Dogged Determination

Sakamoto Goro utters those two words energetically, jaws and fists clenched, looking severe and boxing an invisible opponent. The steely strength of body and mind, nurtured through a childhood rich in challenges and disappointments, constitutes the concrete foundation of the man. That strength, Mr Sakamoto also instills in his children, his grandchildren, those that he has trained over the years as the master of Fugendo, essentially in anyone that he cares about. His old apprentices, successful antique dealers who are themselves approaching the retirement age, have told me of the harsh training and remember the occasional verbal and physical abuse with an uncanny mixture of affection, fear and gratitude. Indeed, many of them have inherited his fortitude and his penchant for risk-taking. I myself get a taste of that old-fashioned tenderness as I foolishly attempt to challenge him on the attribution of an object and get promptly punched in the gut. As I am standing there in shock, he gestures at me to sit down, drink a cup of tea and have a bit more “hanashi hanashi” (a chat).

Physical fitness is fundamental to Mr Sakamoto and lunch is often followed by a walk up the mountain and many illustrious visitors – politicians, writers, museum directors, antique dealers – have had the pleasure of exercising with him. On that weekend, I am given the privilege and follow as best as I can Mr Sakamoto as he walks briskly up the hill, past the derelict bathhouse, through the forest, to a clearing overlooking the narrow valley. It is there that he invites me to follow his movements. We stretch our limbs, rotate our hips, for a good ten minutes, until he stands straight, his hands on his hips, chest out and shouts at the top of his voice “Ganbareeeee!!!” (Go for it, do your best) and we enjoy the rallying cry echoing all around the valley.

Sutoreito haruto = Straight heart

= honesty, sincerity, loyalty

The words are said softly, with deep sincerity. Integrity is the unshakable cornerstone of his philosophy as an antique dealer. In human relationships, this translates as an uncompromising sense of loyalty and respect towards his elders. That deference not only applies to great people, but also to great objects. A celebrated collector recently recounted Mr Sakamoto’s visit to his house and how upon entering the room where the collector displayed for his discerning guest countless treasures of Chinese porcelain, he repeatedly bowed very low. This brings back to mind Mr Sakamoto’s private viewing of the sublime Song dynasty Ru ware washer that we were entrusted with a year ago. As he caught sight of the piece, he took off his shoes, kneeled down in front of it for a while, before sitting down and admiring it in silence. Only after a few minutes did his hands timidly approach the piece, in the greatest solemnity.

In the handling of his own works of art, Mr Sakamoto displays the same reverence, whether the object is a masterpiece or a slightly lesser, but nonetheless worthy object. The occasion is always invested with a sense of gravity, from the unwrapping of the furoshiki (Japanese traditional wrapping cloth), to the untying of the string on the outer box, from which he pulls the inner box, that he unties and opens, unhurried. The delectable prelude heightens my senses, and my curiosity. At last, I am invited to share the pleasures of contemplation

Litoru wan veli naisu sutairu

= little one very nice style

= Moderation

Those words, which I did not readily understand, are uttered with intense satisfaction, while enjoying a small glass of fine brandy or Kaoliang (Chinese sorghum-based alcohol). Even the harshest work ethic should be balanced with short moments of relaxation, but these ought to be well measured. On the wooden wall of his living area hangs a large cursive calligraphy that reads “Cold wine is bad for the stomach, warm wine is bad for the liver, no wine is bad for the heart.” Mr Sakamoto pulls out a bottle and a couple of shot glasses and pours us a drink. He explains to me that this alcohol is “beta” (better) than that one and goes on ranking all his bottles. After a few moments, I grasp that for him the stronger the alcohol, the better, and at the top of his liquor pyramid sits the vicious Kaoliang from the small island of Kinmen, an alcohol befitting the “faito” spirit. Mr Sakamoto enjoys his glass immensely. I try hard not to cough or grimace, for fear of getting hit again. The concept of moderation also applies to Sakamoto Goro’s diet. The day starts with an umeboshi, a pickled salted plum, of which there exist many kinds. The type that he favours is diabolically sour and thins the blood, he says. A few moments later, he grills a couple of silver fish that we savour with a small portion of rice, followed by delicious tangerines that are just coming in season. At noon, Mr Sakamoto excuses himself for a while and reappears, dazzling, in his crisp grey cashmere suit, wearing a fedora, sparkling white cotton gloves and his signature bow tie. I should point out that this is no ordinary silk bow tie, but one tied out of an old antique box string. It is a charming little wink at his trade, but more importantly it is tailored to his small size. We hop on the train to Hakone and head towards his favourite soba restaurant. The modest establishment offers no frills other than remarkably tasty bowls of herring soba, which we slurp hastily before strolling around the streets of the small town. Sakamoto Goro cuts a fine figure among the Sunday crowd of shoppers, groups of young ladies, couples of all ages and from all walks of life who have come to enjoy a weekend at the hot springs. People stare and whisper, curious to know who the distinguished old gentleman might be. We return home. He closes his eyes, joins the flat palms of his hands and holds them at an angle, signaling his desire to take a nap and urging me to do the same. We lie down in the veranda side by side, our heads comfortably rested on two whale-shaped cushions. As I wake up from the half-hour nap, Mr Sakamoto, fully restored to “faito” form, is already busying around carrying large furoshikis filled with boxes.

The weekend was rich in memories, not all of them necessarily lifechanging epiphanies. I will never forget the first evening watching a Korean period drama on the television, in Korean, which neither of us could understand. Or the following afternoon when a monkey stormed into the veranda, jumped on the dining table, stole a few chocolates and rushed out swiftly and how Mr Sakamoto spent the next 15 minutes chasing after him with a broom. But most of all I have been privileged to taste a way of life that is fast disappearing and I will long cherish Sakamoto Goro’s precious, hard-earned nuggets of wisdom.

                             Chinese Art Through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō – The Clark Ding

                                                           8 April 2014 | Hong Kong