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A Guide to Japan's Pottery Towns

2024-05-30

With roots dating back to the Jomon Period (14,000 BC), the craft of Japanese pottery and ceramics is one of the world's oldest and most esteemed traditions. The art form speaks volumes about the meticulous craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibilities intrinsic to Japanese culture.

In Japan, certain towns have become synonymous with ceramic production, their names a byword for quality and style. These "ceramic towns" didn't just randomly fall into their vocations; they were shaped and sculpted by a combination of geographical blessings — such as the presence of high-quality clay — and the ingenuity of their inhabitants, who fostered unique styles and techniques.

Each town's approach to ceramics often fuses local innovation and external influences, leading to diverse styles. The histories and cultures of these towns are embedded in every vessel and sculpture, and the distinct pottery styles that have emerged from these hubs have played significant roles in daily life as well as in the ceremonial practices of Japan. Visiting these towns offers more than just a chance to buy beautiful wares; it provides a glimpse through the window of Japanese culture, where the rhythm of the potter's wheel and the heart of the kiln continue to shape not just clay but the very identity of its people.

Let us take you for a spin as we explore Japan's ceramic towns together.

 

1. Arita and Imari: The birthplaces of Japanese porcelain

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Arita and Imari in Saga Prefecture are hailed as the birthplaces of modern Japanese porcelain, a craft with over 400 years of history. These towns became the epicenter of Japanese porcelain production when kaolin — the mineral essential for making porcelain — was discovered in their hills during the 17th century. The arrival of skilled Korean potters, who shared their expertise, was pivotal to developing what would be known as Arita-yaki (Arita ware), which is also called Imari-yaki due to the port from which it was shipped.

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What makes Arita and Imari ceramics unique is their distinctive designs, often featuring intricate blue and white underglaze with overglaze polychrome enamel decorations in vibrant red, green, and gold. The translucent quality of the glaze and the finesse of the hand-painted designs make them stand out as luxurious and highly prized objects. Advanced firing techniques and locally sourced materials further underscore their exclusivity.

To visit Arita and Imari, travelers can take a train from Hakata Station in Fukuoka to Arita Station, which usually takes about 90 minutes. For those coming from Nagasaki, the trip can take between 70 minutes and three hours depending on whether you opt for high-speed rail.

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Once in Arita, tourists often flock to Arita Porcelain Park, which resembles the recreation of a traditional German palace, and the Kyushu Ceramic Museum. Another place to check out is Tozan-jinja Shrine (Sueyama-jinja Shrine), where the Torii gate and other pieces there are made of porcelain. For an immersive experience, many kilns and studios in Arita welcome visitors to observe the pottery-making process and even try to create their own porcelain pieces. The annual Arita Ceramic Fair, which takes place during Golden Week (late April to early May), is a highlight of ceramic enthusiasts worldwide.

Where to stay in Arita

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For those planning a visit to the heart of Japan's porcelain heritage, Arita Huis offers a serene retreat infused with local artistry. This Dutch-inspired accommodation includes comfortable guestrooms, a restaurant serving delicious meals on top of Arita-yaki, a gallery, and a shop. Arita Huis embodies the town's craftsmanship, presenting an atmosphere where one can appreciate the town's artistic history.

Arita Huis is situated conveniently for visitors looking to explore the pottery shops and other local attractions dedicated to the town's rich ceramic culture. For a comprehensive encounter with the charms of Arita and Imari, consider staying at Arita Huis and enjoy the culmination of 400 years of porcelain artistry in comfort and style.

 

2. Mashiko: famous for folk-style pottery

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Mashiko, nestled in Tochigi Prefecture, is celebrated for its folk-style pottery known as Mashiko-yaki. This pottery gained prominence in the early 20th century thanks to the work of Shoji Hamada, a leading figure of the Mingei (folk craft) movement. Hamada was designated a national living treasure for his efforts in preserving and promoting Mashiko’s pottery traditions.

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The town’s ceramic appeal lies in its practical yet aesthetically pleasing ware, which boasts an earthy charm and resonates deeply with the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. Mashiko’s pottery is characterized by its simple and robust designs, often featuring natural glazes that embrace the tactile quality of clay.

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Visitors to Mashiko can explore the Shoji Hamada Memorial Mashiko Sankokan Museum, experience the vibrant local pottery scene at various galleries and workshops, and perhaps time their visit to coincide with the Mashiko Pottery Fair, a biannual event attracting ceramists and enthusiasts from across Japan.

To reach Mashiko, you can take a train from Tokyo to Utsunomiya Station and then transfer to a bus directly to Mashiko. The journey offers a pastoral shift from Japan’s urban landscape to the scenic, craft-rich countryside. Mashiko presents a unique opportunity to delve into Japan’s living tradition of ceramics, where visitors can buy beautifully crafted pieces and engage in pottery-making experiences themselves.

Where to stay in Mashiko

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When visiting the pottery haven of Mashiko, Mashikokan Satoyama Resort Hotel offers an inviting retreat surrounded by the natural beauty of Tochigi. The hotel embraces the rustic charm of Mashiko, providing a peaceful backdrop to your cultural excursion.

Guests at Mashikokan Satoyama Resort Hotel can enjoy a variety of accommodations, from traditional rooms with tatami-mat areas to rooms with luxurious open-air baths. The hotel is appreciated for its cleanliness, comfort, and attentive staff who ensure a pleasant stay.

The hot spring bath, which promises relaxation and rejuvenation after a day exploring the local pottery shops and cafes, highlights the stay.

Mashikokan Satoyama Resort Hotel is conveniently located a few minutes’ drive from the central area of Mashiko, where you can immerse yourself in the pottery culture at the local shops and galleries. This hotel is a must-stay for anybody looking to be close to the action yet far enough away to enjoy a serene, natural environment.

 

3. Shigaraki: one of Japan’s oldest pottery towns

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Shigaraki, one of Japan’s oldest and most distinguished pottery towns, is in the southern part of Shiga Prefecture. It is celebrated for its eponymous Shigaraki-yaki, a style that began when tiles were made to construct Shigaraki no Miya Palace in the eighth century. Over time, the town became recognized for its practical stoneware and distinct pottery style, with earthy tones and rustic appeal. Shigaraki’s pottery is deeply rooted in the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which finds beauty in imperfection and transience.

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Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the craft. It offers a museum that chronicles the history and evolution of the ceramics produced in the region and showcases contemporary pieces.

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In Shigaraki, you can also engage with the history of this traditional craft by observing the unique climbing kilns, which are an integral part of the pottery process in Shigaraki.

Travelers can reach Shigaraki by taking a train from Kyoto to Kusatsu (in Shiga, not Gunma), transferring to Kibukawa, and finally taking the Shigaraki Kogen Railway to Shigaraki Station.

Aside from its rich pottery culture, Shigaraki is also known for producing the iconic tanuki (Japanese racoon dog) statues — charming ceramic statues believed to bring good fortune. These can be found throughout the town and are symbolic of the local craft and customs. The Shigaraki Ceramics Festival, held in autumn, is a highlight for those who want to find unique pieces and witness the vibrant local ceramic scene.

Visitors to Shigaraki are greeted by an artisanal community, picturesque scenery, and a bohemian vibe that makes it a worthwhile detour from the well-trodden paths of nearby Kyoto and Nara.

Where to stay near Shigaraki

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Nestled in Koka City near Shigaraki, Koka-Shinobi no Yado Miyano Onsen offers a tranquil retreat. This hot spring inn provides a variety of relaxing spaces, including a multi-story accommodation. The inn is designed to offer guests a peaceful and rejuvenating experience, reflecting the natural beauty of the area. Its location in the historic ninja city of Koka adds a unique cultural dimension to the stay, making it an excellent choice for travelers exploring Shigaraki and its pottery traditions.