Okawachiyama, the Beautiful Village of the Secret Kilns
When you love Japanese ceramics, visiting Saga Prefecture on Kyushu Island is highly recommended. I studied in Nagasaki this year , so a trip to the kilns of Arita and Imari was pretty high on my wish list. When I wrote my Japanese Ceramics Dream trip in 2017, Arita and Imari were on the itinerary for sure.
Then I read about Okawachiyama. This secluded village is just outside Imari, and what Imari and Arita may not have in atmosphere, Okawachiyama has it in spades!
Table of Contents
History of the Okawachiyama Kilns
Imari is, along with Arita, the first place in Japan where porcelain was produced from kaolin, which was found nearby. China had been producing porcelain since the 7th Century CE, and traditional ceramics had existed in the area for over thousand years. It was Korean artisans who found Kaolin deposits in the area during the Edo period (1603 bis 1868) and began to craft them into porcelain in the early 17th Century. Porcelain was seen as superior in appearance and longevity, and its production safeguarded by the ruling local Nabeshima Clan.
The first Japanese porcelain, bearing cobalt blue underglaze decoration and showing the Korean stylistic influence, came onto the market in 1616. As China’s porcelain exports were flagging during civil unrest during the 17th Century Japan, still guarding its porcelain production secrets closely, began to export porcelain through the Dutch East India Company, who held a permanent office on Dejima Island, in the Bay of Nagasaki.
Until porcelain in Europe was invented by Johann Boettger in Dresden in 1708, quite a lot of the Japanese porcelain was exported, its styles being influenced by European tastes and the then quite new Dutch Delftware, so there has always been an exchange of styles between Japanese, Chinese and European. Although the Okawachiyama Kilns were probably the first kilns in Japan and guarded closely and away from outsiders during most of the 17th Century, they were in existence during the entire Edo Period and into the early Meiji Imperial period. Today, production takes places in the whole area, in modern and vintage kilns, and the old sites of the Nabeshima kilns are now museums.
How to get to Okawachiyama
To be honest, I think you will need a car to get to Okawachiyama. First, you will need to get to Imari.
Coming from Fukuoka, the easiest, fastest (1,5h) and cheapest is the Airport Express Bus from Tenjin Bus Station or the Airport. These express buses are usually full and it’s best to pre-book them at least a week before departure. Attobus is the website for online booking, but if you happen to be in Kyushu, you can book them in person at highway bus stations.
Alternatively, you can take a train from Fukuoka on the Midori-HuisTenBosch JR Line, then change in Arite. From Nagasaki, it’s a JR Train ride as well, which will often include the (pricey) Shinkansen to Takeo and the Midori-Huis Ten Bosch JR Line. With a single train ticket costing between 400 and 5500 JPY, it’s pricey.
From Imari Station, the village is about 5km gentle uphill walk or taxi ride. The bus only runs about five times a day. You will be better off to rent a car for about 5000 to 7000JPY a day. Just remember to take an International Driving Permit.
I found driving very easy in Japan – with automatic cars, strict speed limits and a very respectful attitude of drivers. Some roads are extremely narrow, but again, drivers are so polite, it never posed a problem for us.
Best time to visit
For me, Japan is a great year-round destination, especially Kyushu with its mild subtropical climate. I visited in May and June. At the beginning of the year, Kyushu experiences a mild winter, with rare snowfalls. From March, it’s really bright and sunny, until rainy season sets in around June – it will get more hot and muggy but not unbearable Besides, there is air conditioning pretty much everywhere. Autumn is warm and relatively dry, making this another great time to visit. December stays dry but gets fairly cold with average temperatures of 10 Celsius, and it will stay like that for the coming three months.
Golden Week in May is obviously busy, but it is also the time of many festivals- crowded but interesting. Other than that, Okawachiyama is mostly a destination for regional or local tourists, with some English labelling but other than that few concessions to foreigners.
Okawachiyama Shops and Sights
We parked up at the foot of the picturesque village, having a crossed a beautiful blue and white porcelain-clad bridge. Visiting on a Friday afternoon, we were astounded how empty the village was. It was super peaceful walking along its two main street – both paved, with quite an incline. There was an occasional resident coming in a car, but they were mostly pedestrian – and wheelchair accessible.
Okawachiyama Village is full of traditional houses – a mix of small scale kilns fronted by porcelain shops and residences. There were a handful of smaller cafes in the village but I didn’t see any full scale restaurants. You get a post office and tourist information but not even a convenience store.
Speaking of porcelain shops, there were plenty! I didn’t count them all but I would say at least thirty shops lines the two main streets. Most of the wares are typical of Imari -smooth white porcelain with an overglaze decoration of blues, sometimes red, and some small gold accents.
Rice bowls and tea cups (yunomi) as well as side plates appear to be the most popular souvenirs, along with vases and Sake bowls. After not being into overly fussy decoration, I really warmed to the Imari style and the elegant shapes. However, it wasn’t exactly cheap. You would expect to pay about 2000 JPY for a small item with a simple blue and white decoration. This, of course reflects the excellent craftmanship, and it may well be worth it, but don’t come and expect mass produced tableware.
Since I had just bought some tableware in Arita, we were happy just to take in the atmosphere – although I did sneak into a coupe of porcelain shops for a look! When you park at the car park and walk into the village, the street divides up after a 200m or so, We took the one to the right, believed to be more scenic, and followed the paved road sloping upwards. Very pretty traditional houses line the street, and many have shops out the front.
I could only assume they are small scale artisan porcelain producers. You could definitely see where some of the kilns are due to their brick chimneys. Nothing was roped off, and we walked a few small side paths. The village appeared quiet and peaceful and not at its most active.
Right behind the village, a dense forest would start. Nice to look at, but since we’re both not great hikers, we were perfectly happy to keep ambling on the paved path and enjoy the views of the tree-clad rocks.
As I had already observed in Nagasaki, even the inties outside space was used for gardens. A lot of houses here also had stone water basins outside their houses, sometimes even with fish in it. The water looked so clear and was obviously used to water plants, but I wasn’t sure whether these basins serves as Kabata, purification basins for water from the nearby stream.
I had read about the practice a while ago, and Harie in Shiga Prefecture is probably the most famous example. However, I discovered that Shimabara on Izu Peninsula, where we would visit a couple days later, employs a similar system!
If you have time, you could, upon returning to the village entrance, visit the small museum in the Aritayaki Industry Hall, right next to the car park. From here you can also take a forest path to admire the ruins of the historic traditional stepped kilns which were once a closely guarded secret.
This is an easy walk on a paved small road as well, leading up to the Nabeshima Clan Kiln Park. YOu can also make a loop, walking up through the Kiln area then crossing pedestrian Tenjin Bridge and returning through the village.
Where to Stay in or near Okawachiyama
This being a relatively densely populated area with relatively little tourism, the standard accommodation options are in business hotels, of which there are plenty in nearby Imari and Arita. I have looked for some characterful options in the area. Wherever you stay, English is not spoken as a standard around here, so come armed with goodwill, a bit of Japanese and an online translator. Despite the language barrier, we never encountered any real problems although I did get fairly frustrated at my very basic Japanese, as a lot got lost in translation.
We visited on a day trip from Nagasaki, where I was staying for six weeks. While my husband was visiting I upgraded to a ryokan. Our modern Ryokan, the “Relaxing Inn Origami” was located in a nice neighbourhood yet just 10 minutes walk from the car hire, and had a garage where we could park our car safely.
The closest traditional accommodation is in Kami-Arita about 20 minutes drive away. The Zokuijinkan Guesthouse is a cute guest house in a tastefully decorated traditional building, with tatami rooms, free parking and free bicycles. Expect to pay 80-90 Euro per room. In Nishi-Arite, the Arita Huis is also a traditional guest house but expect a modernist Mies van der Rohe-style building and calming woods and white linens and minimalist style for 100-120 Euro per room.
If you just want convenience and aren’t bothered about style, the Central Hotel Imari is right next to the train station, a business hotel with friendly looking bright rooms.
If it’s the full-on traditional Japanese Ryokan experience you are after, without breaking the bank, try nearby Ureshino Onsen, a pleasant half hour drive from Arita. Taishoya offers Japanese style rooms, a private on-site onsen, all for about 130 Euro accommodation only. And you can relax in one of the onsen after a busy day sightseeing! Similarly, Takeo Onsen makes a nice break with its historic onsen but has fewer accommodation options than Ureshino which is a bone fide resort town.
Is Okawachiyama worth a trip?
Well, it really depends what you are interested in. When you consult the Japan Guide, a pretty neat private website, the only place in Kyushu to receive full (three) points is Yakushima Island, a place of intense natural beauty. Nagasaki gets two, Arita and Imari get none but then, Okawachiyama Village gets one dot. It is not clear to me how they formulate their reviews, and there appear no actual traveller reviews on the site, but it’s a great web site to look up mainstream places to visit. Also, their forum contributions are really old, so I am not sure what is still relevant post-pandemic.
Anyway… Google gives it 4.2 out of five points, with visitors praising the beautiful village scenery, the fact that it isn’t crowded and complain about “all shops look the same after you/ve been to a couple of them”. Last not least, Tripadvisor crowns it the top sight of Arita and Imari and give it 45 out of five stars.
Personally, when it comes to having a great time strolling around and admiring the scenery, then sitting down with a nice coffee or lemonade and just soak up the atmosphere, Okawachiyama was my favourite place in Arita and Imari, too! So, if you are visiting the region and have your own transport or ample time, it is definitely worth a visit!
I will leave you with some more impressions of Okawachiyama.
Map of Nagasaki and Saga Province recommendations
I made a little map earlier with my recommendations – feel free to use for trip planning!
The Small Print
I visited Okawachiyama while studying in Nagasaki on a day trip with my spouse. We were based in Nagasaki and hired a a car for a few days, doing multiple day trips out of Nagasaki.
We paid for the entire trip ourselves, there is no sponsored content in this post. This post contains affiliate links to Booking.com. This means I may earn a small commission if you book through one of the links at no extra cost to yourself. I booked three out of my four accommodations in six weeks in Nagasaki with Booking.com and can really recommend them.
- Porzellan Stiftung Meissen GmbH: Zur Geschichte des Ostasiatischen Porzellans (online at https://www.porzellan-museum.com), accessed 9 December 2023
- JR Kyushu Railway Company (online at https://www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english)
- “Village of Living Water” (online at http://ihcsacafe-en.ihcsa.or.jp/news/harie)
- Japan Guide: Okawachiyama (online at https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e8303.html)