My Traditional Japanese Ceramics Dream Trip

My Traditional Japanese Ceramics Dream Trip

(written November 2017, updated December 2019) 

I love Japan, and I love beautiful things. So it comes as a surprise that I have never been deeply into the art of Japanese ceramics. Until now!

Japanese Ceramics are worth seeking out

I was lucky enough to visit Japan three times, and every time I would go to one of the small shops in or near Tsukiji fish market and pick up some pretty but inexpensive bowls, sake cups and rectangular plates.  Or a bento box. I bought a small vase in a flea market in Himeji and marveled at its perfectly imperfect irregular shape.

But arty and handmade Japanese  ceramics? Nah. It came gradually after I admired a traditional tea bowl (chawan) owned by a friend, witnessed a tea ceremony in a museum in Stuttgart and watched endlessly calming videos of making tea bowls online.

In my home town, there is a ceramics workshop open to the public. Can you guess what comes next? One of the first things I tried to make as a Japanese ceramic tea bowl. I now have about five rather misshaped crazy glazed tea bowls, none of which resembles an artful Japanese tea bowl. I am planning to return to Japan in 2020, and although it’s unlikely that it turns into a full-flown pottery trip, a little bit of pottery will find its way in, and as we say in Germany  – “The greatest pleasure lies in the anticipation” – let me share with you the traditional ceramic centres of Japan.

As I have been to only a few of these places, and rarely got hooked on pottery, this post is low in pictures.  I have used mostly Creative Commons Images that other photographers kindly made available

And here comes the Grand Pottery Tour

Where to start our trip on Japanese ceramics? We could start with the Six Ancient kilns, deemed to be the most important sites for the production of ceramics in  Japan.

They are, East to West, North to South: Tokoname, Seto, Echizen, Shigaraki, Tanba and Bizen. Then I researched a bit more, so, I have come up with this rather epic trip.

Sorted from the furthest north towards the South and West, I have included

Mashiko / Tokoname / Echizen /  Seto / Shigaraki /Kyo /Bizen / Hagi and Arita

Given that I would be unlikely to hire a car and drive in Japan, and that the train is the most ubiquitous, most reliable mode of transport, I also  researched mostly train connections rather than roads and buses.

Remember that if you have a JR Rail pass, most of these trips will be included, unless you travel on private train lines. Even some buses are included in the Rail pass. In the UK, I bought my Japan Rail Pass form the Japan Centre in London, which was extremely straightforward. For online purchases, Japan experience seems to be able to sell it in most European countries online. To cover ALL of the areas listed there, you will need the standard Japan rail pass.

Mashiko Pottery

What makes it special?

Mashiko has only really been a pottery centre since the mid-1800’s, was made famous with the revival of the folk craft movement related to designer Shoji Hamada from the 1920’s, and has relatively many expat potters from other countries. It style… simple and rustic, yet with a modernist touch. Looks like a lot of the output is everyday dining ware.

Where can I find it?

In the town of Mashiko in Tochigi Prececture in Kanto Province just north of Tokyo

Getting there

It’s practically a suburb of Tokyo  yet appears to take unusually long to reach.  Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Oyama, then change onto the smaller JR Mito line to Shimodate, then the JR Moka Line to Mashiko. Altogether about 2 hours. Another option is to continue on the Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsunomiya, then take  a bus, also about two hours in total.

What’s there?

The Shijo Hamada Memorial Museum and a Pottery Theme Park, which has an on-site ceramic studio.

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Mashiko Pottery. Photo by Jennifer Pack (Flickr)

 

Tokoname Pottery

What makes it special?

It is the most northerly of the six ancient kilns of Japan. Its traditional style wares are reddish-brown clay due to high iron content with little or no glazing. During the industrial revolution,, a lot of the production was switched to utility products and building materials such as tiles, but the area is also famous for its teapots.

Where can I find it?

Tokoname Town (South of Nagoya), Aichi Prefecture

Getting there

JR Shinkansen to Nagoya, then local train, about 40min

What’s there?

Internet research shows that Tokoname is a small traditional town. A few minutes walk from the train station, you will find Tokoname City Pottery Footpath, lines with shops and workshops, with very little large-scale production and altogether a rather quiet place. However, some well-known artists still operate in the area, but I have no information on whether they are open to the public.

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Tokoname Pottery. Photograph by Christian Kaden (Flickr)

 

Echizen Pottery

In lieu of a free and legal photo of the Echizen ware, here’s a link to the rather cool  Echizen Ware Industrial Cooperative Association  with links to local potters, which show a variety of styles rather than the traditional brown pots!

What makes it special?

Similar to Tokoname, a very reddish-brown, often more brownish, little-glazed variety of mostly utilitarian vessels. Echizen also produces a lot of the Washi paper used in Japan today. Oh, and artisan knife-making and soba noodle production.

Where can I find it?

In Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, northwest of Nagoya, almost on the Western Coast of Japan

Getting there

Despite it being fairly remote from any big city, there are many (and somewhat complicated) ways to get there: the most straightforward is JR Tokaido SHinkansen to Maibara, then JR Hokuriku Line to Takefu. Another option when coming from Osaka are the  JR Raicho and Thunderbird Limited Express Services which take about 1.5 to 2 hours. Also, there is the private Kosai line from Tsuruga to Kyoto and Osaka.

What’s there?

Its seems, quite a lot! Or their tourist board is very active. I counted no less than 14 shrines or temples, a “knife village”, a “soba village”, a few places related to paper milling, and, of course, a pottery village. The pottery village has a very appealing website, and offers a lot of activities, and there is a large pottery festival in May.

Seto Pottery

What makes it special?

Some of the most famous Japanese ceramics and also one of the six ancient kilns. The Japanese term “Setomono” literally means “ceramics”. There are various sub-types, some of the better known stoneware with yellowish smooth glazes called Shino ware, and also blue- and- white porcelain, mostly antique, resembling antique Chinese porcelain.

Where can I find it?

Around Seto, Northern Aichi Prefecture.

Getting there

Despite being central, its a bit complicated: From Nagoya, take the JR Chuo Line to Ozone, then the private Meitetsu line to Seto. From Kyoto, go to Nagoya first on the Shinkansen.

What’s there?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot, ceramics-wise. All I could find on searching the net was the Seto Municipal Center of Multimedia and Traditional Ceramics.  There is also the separate Seto Glass and Ceramics Art Center, which is more like an exhibition of pottery.  However, if you are into cars, the Toyota Museum is nearby!

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Seto Pottery. Photo by pixel sky (Flickr)

Shigaraki Pottery

What makes it special?

Firstly… this is the place where  many tanuki, or racoon dog statues, are made! They even populate the platforms of the train station! So you get two traditions in one town

The local clay is sandy and of a yellow colour, and traditional pieces have been described as rather archaic in shape. Their natural glazes can be pleasingly gold to yellow in tone.

Where can I find it?

In Shiga Prefecture, Kansai Region, Western Honshu. Its Capital is the City of Ōtsu.

Getting there

On the Tokaido Line (not Shinkansen!) from Kyoto JR Station or Osaka (or Nagoya) to Kusatsu Station. Then, change onto a JR train to Kibukawa. THEN… another train on the private Omi or the Shigaraki Kogen Railway.

The MIHO Museum can be reached by JR train from JR Kyoto to  Ishiyama on the JR Tokaido Line, then by bus. Between Shigaraki and the MIHO Museum, although they are maybe 5km apart, there is no public transport! So, perhaps a taxi.  An alternative would be an organised tour out of Kyoto or Osaka which combines the two sites.

What’s there?

First of all, try to combine a trip to Shigaraki with the visit to the modernist MIHO Museum which holds a large private collection of crafts from all over the world. And yes, there is another Ceramic Cultural Park, but it’s said to be quiet, with a heavy emphasis on racoon dogs, and with lots of showrooms.  Also, Koka town is known for its ninja association, with the appropriately named “village” and museum.

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Photo by Ryosuke Yagi (Flickr)

 

Kyo Pottery

What makes it special?

Perhaps the variety of styles? All Kyo ware is produced in Kyoto, and that’s what they have in common. Well known styles include Raku ware, fired at low temperature with soft glazes and reduced, and famous in Europe. Many of my beloved tea bowls, and many of those teabowls you can admire online, care raku fired.

Another well-known type is Kiyomizu-ware, made in a district around Kiyomizu-dera temple.

Raku firing is also very popular in Europe and the US, where many vessels are wheel thrown. A Japanese raku bowl is usually formed/pinched by hand. Many tea ceremony bowls are made this way. Paradoxically, I could not find any definite CC images online, but if you visit certain pin boards and enter “chawan” you will see the,. Perhaps this is also the style I am most interested in, but how tricky is it to visit an actual workshop? Add to that that singular raku chawan (tea bowls) are very highly prized and not your average holiday souvenir.

Getting there

The home of Kyo pottery is perhaps the easiest place to get to, as Kyoto is extremely well served by JR Shinkansen from Osaka, Tokyo, and many other cities in Japan, and therefore easily accessible.

Whats there?

If you want to see the popular styles and shop, all you need to do is go to the foot of Kiyumizu-dera temple and stroll the lanes leading up to or away from the temple. Gojo-zaka is convenient for the bus stop, and downhill, choose Zannen-zaka to view traditional houses, tea shops and ceramic shops. A lot of this pottery is mass-produced yet no less pleasing and of nice quality. For handmade Kiyomizu-ware, you may need to visit the town of Kiyomizuyaki-Danchi on the east side of Kyoto. Bit tricky to reach by public transport, though Higashino Station on the Tozai Line might be a good bet.

But, where can you see pottery away from the shops? Do you have any tips? I have been to Kyoto three times and would always go back there, as I have not seen enough of it, so Kyoto might be a good place to start exploring, and also makes a good base for other pottery areas, as some can be reached in a day trip from Kyoto.

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Kyoto pottery, probably Kiyomizu-style. Photo by Christian Kaden (Flickr)

 

Tanba Pottery

What makes it special?

Tanba, or Tamba, is another of the six ancient kilns. It appears to be another rustic type pottery like Tokoname, Echizen or Bizen, in fact, some of the pieces look rather like concrete, but over the years, many different firing techniques have been applied, and typical are “natural” whiteish and greenish glazes, with many pieces being used for tea ceremonies.

Where?

Sasayama and Tachikui Villages,  Hyōgo Prefecture, north of Kobe

Getting there

I thought this was tricky, as its rather remote and hilly, but as so often, a great official provincial tourist website called Travel Hyogo suggests that Tachikui Pottery Village is only 15min by bus from Aino Station on the  JR Fukuchiyama Line from Osaka. You could also get off halfway in Takarazuka which has hot springs. And a Manga museum.  This is no Shinkansen Line, the fastest train is a Limited Express, so I guess, maybe an hour to 1.5 hours to Aino.

What’s there?

With Tachikui being the more accessible place, it has a rather organised looking “Pottery Village” that offers classes. The whole Hyogo prefecture appears rather attractive, to be honest, while remaining low-key.  While you are there, and have time, why not visit the amazing Himeji Castle? Never in my life had we had such an amazing detailed tour running about three hours by a volunteer English guide. It was restored for five years but re-opened in 2015. Total highlight of my second Japan trip in 2005!

 

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Photograph by calltheambulance (Flickr)

Bizen Pottery

What makes it special?

Fired at a high temperature for about two weeks, it is known to be hard and resilient. Like many, it is often left unglazed and it can have a little bit of natural glaze.

Where?

Imbe Village, Okayama Prefecture, Sanyo Region, Western Honshu.

Getting there

It is near the Shinkansen train line, but the Shinkansen does not stop there. The nearest Shinkansen station is Okayama. From there, take the JR Akō line back towards Osaka to Imba Station, takes about 35 minutes from Okayama.

What’s there?

Bizen, like many of the others, is a small town, and there is the usual museum dedicated to the craft, the Bizen Pottery Traditional and Contemporary Art Museum. I have absolutely no idea whether it is worth the trip… I remember from my trip to Okayama that there were plenty of shops in town selling Bizen ware, and Okayama has the rather nice Koraku-en, one of the top three Japanese formal gardens, dating back to the 18th Century, with  a castle sitting in its middle.

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Bizen Ware. Photo by jar[] (Flickr)

Hagi 

What makes it special?

Made from fine clay and  fired at relatively low temperature, Hagi pottery shines through its soft coloured glazes and is traditionally used for tea bowls.

Where?

City of Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, South-Western Honshu

Getting there

Shinkansen to Shin-Yamaguchi, then the JR Bus to Hagi. Bear in mind you are even further south-west than Hiroshima, so this is some way to go, but with a JR Pass, as many trips as you like are included. The bus alone takes 1-1.5 hours.

What’s there?

There appear to be  a number of workshops open to visitors. First, Hagiyaki-Keikan appears to be some craft village with a large number of shops. There are two potters workshops mentioned, too, Genshu-gama and  Senryuzan, where one can have a try at making pottery.

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Hagi Pottery. Photo by Kyle McDonald (Flickr Creative Commons)

Arita Pottery (also known as Hizen, Imari or Nabeshima ware) 

What makes it special?

It is basically porcelain, and what is traditionally known as “Japanese porcelain”, dating back to the 17th Century. Usually it consists of white porcelain decorated in rich detail in overglaze painting.

Where?

Around the towns of Arita and Imari in Saga prefecture in Western Kyushu.

Getting there

This one is a long way south: by JR Shinkansen to Fukuoka (Hakata), then Limited Express trains on the JR Huis ten Bosch or Midori lines, which should take around 90 minutes from Hakata. JR Chikuhi Line to Imari or alternatively private Matsura railway from Arita to Imari.

What ‘s there?

Arita Town has a the Kyushu Ceramic Museum. Most other sights are one train station away in the old town of Kami-Arita. Here, there are a shrine, another ceramic museum and ceramic shops. Also… a cermic-oriented theme park where you can view a pretty realistic looking replica of the Dresden Zwinger Palace! Okawachiyama Village, which is a pottery village with workshops and shops in the mountains near Imari. The Saga Toursit association says there is a bus every two hours, or one can walk in 1-2hours.

Can you go into individual workshops? No idea!

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Arita porcelain Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

Needless to say, this list is by no means exhaustive, and I have tried to include the most popular styles of traditional or art pottery, and I am not an expert on ceramics. Please let me know if you have any more information and I will amend this post to include your suggestions!

Another useful link I have found is an article on kilns where you can make your own pottery.

Where to buy Japanese Ceramics in Japan outside the potteries

Below is a list of places that I have come across and where I found the ceramics selection to be very good.

Tsukiji Market

One of my favourite places to eat and shop  in Japan. Last time I visited, there was still the wholesale fish market next door, which is telling it’s been too long! Its fish market was my favourite place to visit with jetlag at around 5am, followed by sushi for breakfast (my favourite is Sushizanmai)  and shopping. It is easy to reach by Metro (Tsukiji). You want to head for the Outer Market (jōgai-shijō) which is very colourful and a neat grid of small shops and sushi restaurants. There are loads of small ceramics shops there, ceramics are relatively cheap and probably machine made but beautiful. When you walk back to the Metro, look out for little shop selling ceramics as well as bento in Shin-ohasho-dori Avenue.

Department Stores

I have seen beautiful traditional tea sets and tea bowls in all “high end” department stores in Japanese cities, for example Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya. I am no expert on department stores though!

Flea Markets

Last not least, if you just want to see good pottery, some bloggers have recommended flea markets and antique markets in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. My only personal experience is a market in Himeji which we happened to chance upon on our way from JR Station to the castle. I bought a small Bizen bud vase for about 1 Euro there.

In Tokyo, Oedo Antique Market has been recommended. It takes place on a Sunday at the Tokyo International Forum in central Tokyo. Dates for 2020 are Janaury 5, February 2 and 15, MArch 1 and 15, April 5 and 19, May 3 and 17, June 7 and 21, July 5 and 19, August 2 and 16, September 6 and 20, October 4 and 18, November 1 and 15, and December 6 and 20.

In Kyoto, there are three major antique markets: by To-ji temple, Tenjin-san in the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine , which apparently has a lot of antique kimono, and Tezukuro-ichi ,which is mainly a handmade and crafts market.

In Osaka, Tenno-ji is the largest market.

And of course I will report back, sometime, if and when I go on this trip.

Do you have a themed dream trip? And what would it be?

Map of Japanese Ceramics locations

Here are all places discussed in this article in a handy map!

Books on Japanese Ceramics and related subjects

The Japanese Pottery Handbook: First published in the 1970’s and something of a classic, this book is 90% graphic, with almost no photographs and text to speak of. It offers a great introduction into Japanese ceramics styles and would be a great place to start, especially if you are considering making your own Japanese style ceramics.

Inside Japanese Ceramics: A bit more pictorial than the Kodansha Book, and written by an American Ceramics lecturer rather than a Japanese potter. A good book to begin with

Rough Guide Japan: I have travelled with an older incarnation of this, and for Japan preferred it to the Lonely Planet as information was accurate, and it had some of those hard-to-find places that aren’t purely for tourists

The current edition is from 2017.

There will be a new one edition  out in June 2020!

Kodansha Bilingual Books: I bought a few in a Japanese bookshop and love them. Like the pottery book, they are graphic in style, but show aspects of Japanese life and traditions that you won’t find in travel guides and “etiquette books”

Teach Yourself Japanese: If you really want to go the extra mile! I have an older incarnation of these series, and I only really listened to the lessoons before a trip, but enough for some very basic conversation, asking the way and ordering in restaurants where there is no English menu (the best ones, if you ask me, not a tourist in sight – and “I’ll have what they’re having” is getting a whole new meaning.

Disclosure: This trip will be self-funded, meaning that I will pay for all services on this trip.  I receive no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking to any of the places and services mentioned,  aside from some affiliate links to Amazon.com and Booking.com. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself unless otherwise stated. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth.  More details on my affiliate link policy are here

 



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