I love Japan, and I love beautiful things. So it comes as a surprise that I have never been deeply into the Japanese art of ceramics. 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 marvelled at its perfectly imperfect irregular shape. But art 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 the town I live now, we have a ceramics workshop open to the public. Can you guess what comes next? I had a go myself. I now have about five rather misshaped crazy glazed tea bowls, none of which resembles an artful Japanese tea bowl. I long to return to Japan this year or next year, and although it’s unlikely that an art pottery trail can be followed, a little bit of pottery will find its way in, and as we say in German “Vorfreude ist die schoenste Freude” – the greatest pleasure lies in the anticipation” – let me share with you the pottery trip of my dreams.
As I have been to few of these places, and rarely got hooked on pottery, this post is low in picture, as I have used mostly Creative Commons Images that other photographers kindly made available.
And here comes the Grand Pottery Tour…
First of all, where to start? 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 when compared to overland buses, my also used mostly train connections rather than diving 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.
What makes it special? It’s 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? Town of Mashiko in Tochigi Prececture in Kanto Province just north of Tokyo
Getting there: Its 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 comes with an on-site ceramic studio.
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? 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.
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: 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.
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? 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!
What makes it special? First of all, this is the place where many tanuki, or racoon dog statues, are made! They even populate the platforms of the train station! 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: 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 trian 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 its 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.
What makes it special? Perhaps the variety of styles? They have in common that all Kyo ware is produced in Kyoto. 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? 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.
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 , Hyogo 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, and 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!
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.
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? Appears there are 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.
Arita Pottery (also known as Hizen ware, 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 and, and the region where Japanese porcelain was first produced. It is often white porcelain decorated in rich detail in overglaze painting. It is well known and available outside JApan
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 Matsuura 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!
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.
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.
In Tokyo, Oedo Antique Market has been recommended. It takes place once a month, and has two venues, Yoyogi park or International Forum, both easily reached by train and subway.
In Kyoto, there are three major antique markets: by To-ji temple, Tenjin-san in the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine are, 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?