Treasure Hunting in Arita

Treasure Hunting in Arita

Treasure Hunting in Arita  was dream come true. I love Japanese ceramics and porcelain.  Many years ago, trips to the now defunct Oriental City were a wonderful respite from  toiling away in a laboratory. Years later, my already decent Japanese tableware collection was supplemented by pieces from Tsukiji Outer Market  – Ichifuji, to be exact. Great shop and a recommendation for Tokyo! And now, well over twenty years after getting into JApanese tableware, I would finally go  Treasure Hunting in Arita.

My first trips to Japan were to see the big sights – Tokyo and Kyoto in a rush in six days, expertly helped by a Japanese friend, then, a bit longer, racing to  Hiroshima and nack on a Japan Rail Pass with a former boyfriend before spending a week in Tokyo. Last not least, another short trip to console myself over the break-up from said boyfriend, where a couple days in Koyasan and being shown the less touristy bits of Tokyo by my friend were the highlights.

Then I really got into chawan (tea bowls) but didn’t want to stump up for the crazy prices especially since I am not deeply into matcha. I certainly watched plenty of videos on JApanese tea ware and raku firing and plotted a dream trip to visit ceramic centres of Japan.

So here I was,  equipped with a car, with a very satisfied husband who’s just had a lovely lunch and couldn’t care less about me spending the next two hours running around like a maniac in a china shop.

And here’s the scene of action, Kouraku Kiln. Let’s go treasure hunting in Arita.

What is Treasure Hunting in Arita?

Treasure Hunting is basically looking for and buying Japanese porcelain and ceramics that remains unsold due to faults, overproduction or simply falling out of fashion.  An artist in residence at Kouraku Kiln from Brazil, had been wondering about piles and piles of deadstock porcelain in one of Kouraku’s warehouses when he first arrived at the Kiln.

Kouraku, being one of the oldest and most famous kilns in Arita, had amassed a load of porcelain they were unable to sell for various reasons – may it be seconds, overproduction, slightly faulty stock. They were stored in a large warehouse next to the kiln for decades, with no use, but somehow too good to be destroyed.

Arita porcelain is a highly prized and intricately decorated ware from the small town of Arita. Many call it Arita-Imari as the style of nearby Imari, where all porcelain was shipped, is quite similar. Made from local porcelain clay and highly decorated with blue, white and gold, the classic designs have barely changed in the past 400 years.

A classic Arita-Imari porcelain piece is first  bisque-fired, then decorated with blue underglaze paint, glazed, fired, decorated with overglaze paint, often red and gold, then fired again. That’s a lot of work steps. And some pieces never make it to the second decoration step or further. And this is where treasure hunting in Arita comes in.

The perfectly useable pieces were made accessible by opening the warehouse to casual visitors, charging them a fee and giving them a basket, gloves, and 90 minutes, during which they could fill their baskets with anything they liked in the warehouse. The only condition was that baskets must not be overfilled, and that there is a cheaper course for the blue and white “unfinished” pieces and a more expensive one for colourful “finished” pieces.

How to hunt for treasure

We rolled up on a weekday after lunch. The kiln was pretty deserted – there is a production and storage facility as well as private residences which are off limit, Parking is easy, as it’s semi rural, and then the path to their regular factory shop and to the treasure hunting warehouse was clearly marked.

Treasure Hunting in Arita
View of the 5500JPY course at Treasure Hunting Warehouse

The shops were manned by one lady who drifted in and out of the buildings, and asked us if we wanted to treasure hunt, then invited us to come and take a look, showed us a stack of smallish shopping baskets and gloves and said we could look around as long as we wanted to see what’s available then, when we were ready, to take a basket and gloved and start looking for treasure in the stacked boxes full of deadstock and seconds.

The stacks of boxes could be unstacked  if desired, and the overall hunting time is 90 minutes, but it didn’t seem strictly enforced, as there were so few people in the shed – maybe five treasure hunters altogether. My husband pretty soon zoned out and found somewhere for a postprandial nap. He is really not into tableware and is happy with the fake lacquer bowls from the 100 Yen store.

Going for colourful Porcelain

So, what if blue and white isn’t your preferred colour scheme? Then you can pay twice as much for colour. The size of the basket ia the same. Of course, any one is free to wander over to the colourful wares, too.

11000 JPY course with colourful porcelain

I saw some guys putting together a complete dining set for four people from the 11.000 JPY course, matching plates and all! But most of the pieces are a real jumple with slight imperfections.

The “upmarket” section, 11.000 JPY a basket

Also note that the pieces stacked up on the side shelves usually aren’t part of treasure hunting but are priced separately.

What treasure is there to find?

This much depends on what you need. I went there with a loose wish list of things I needed in the house:  A small teapot, a stove for a teapot, small snack bowls, and once can never have enough yunomi, the little beaker-like Japanese tea cups, or dinner bowls.

Imari and Arita porcelain are traditionally coloured white, blue and red with gold accents. The mixture of those can make pieces quite colourful and sometimes fussy. While I am not strictly a blue and white person, most of my household tableware is blue and white or earthen tones.

Closeup of some fine porcelain, some of which is still in production

I have tried to add some pictures of what’s available below. However, these are pictures from the more expensive 11000 yen course, because the light was better and there was a much greater variety of stock.

Pretty much anything you will find is a wild mixture of dead stock, seconds or vintage tableware. I have no way to prove this but very little appears to be Kouraku Kiln produced. There was definitely no recogniseable Kouraku Kiln stamp on most pieces. But that’s fine, as Kouraku Kiln porcelain is quite high price normally.

You will need to sift through boxes of the same item for boxes on end, and a lot of pieces , for example tea cups, or bowls with lids, are mismatching. Rims tend to be not smooth, and there may be colours leaking or odd spots of rogue colour on the pieces. If you like your teacup rims smooth, check every single tea cup.

A wild jumble of fine dining ware

From what I read, a lot of the offerings are seconds or overproduction that went through two firings. First the bisque firing every piece of clay has to go through to harden, then a primary decoration and a glaze. After those two firings, it appears only the top pieces went through further decoration with red, gold and other colours and a third and maybe an additional lustre firing.

So, from what I read, I think the pieces on the 5500JPY course are, in Arita porcelain terms, “incomplete” pieces, while the 11.000JPY pieces are fully finished porcelain. All pieces you can fully use, and I didn’t really spot any unglazed pieces.

You have 90 minutes to hunt, but when we were there, nobody stood there with a stop clock. Unless you want to hunt down a matching service, an hour is probably enough.

After about 45 minutes, I finished my hunt, then took all my wares out of the basket and stacked them neatly back in so they would all fit. You see, if there is a hill on your basket, you pay a bit extra – not much, and again, they were quite generous with this.

I paid up, and then We were given a big sturdy box and shown to an area of large packing tables with large amount of old newspaper, tape and labels, to pack our goods at leisure. They really provide tons of good packing material to package everything safely.

For an extra charge, you can leave them there to be picked up an shipped to your home.

Buying Kouraku Kiln Arita Porcelain at the regular shops

Aside from the two large sheds for treasure hunting,  there is  a small shop with seconds and a small full-price shop. What you see here is the full price shop. So, the fish is a tiny side plate, about 7cm long. Full price Arita porcelain isn’t cheap. If you consider buying it as a second, where you can really see no to super minor flaws, it is about 40-50% cheaper.

They also make a nice travelling tumbler based on porcelain regions of Kyushu, which male s fairly portable and useful souvenir. You can find it, along with lots of other new items, in their online shop.

Just giving you an idea of regular retail prices…

And as for my husband… don’t worry he didn’t get bored! He had a nice rest while I was turning boxes and hunted for treasure.

Husband not part of treasure hunt

What will 5500 Japanese Yen (about 36 Euro)  buy you at Treasure Hunting?

Her is my about 80% of my  haul. There was one large bowl that got broken in my husbands’ suitcase even with thick wrapping (thank you Lufthansa), which I can repair, a yunomi that I gifted to my mother, a tea pot and two larger bowls.   Admittedly, I am not sure what the intended function of all these pieces is, but I definitely know what I will use them for!

Most of my haul safely back home

The rectangular plates are, well… plates. I  serve snacks and tofu on them, or regular sandwiches.

The two octagonal pieces are my tea fire stoves. Are they traditional Japanese tea stoves? Probably not. There are few of those around, those I have seen have large openings in the front for a tea light. So let’s see how they do when there isn’t a ton of oxygen getting in those. Maybe the smaller one is an ash tray. Or are they stands for pots, or something different entirely?

First of all the cups which can be used as snack bowls at a push.

Vintage cups or small bowls

Here’s a variety of small bowls that are a bit small and squat for tea cups. They stacked up easily so they were easy to take along as they occupy so little space.

More cups

I tried my hardest to decipher the markings on some of my items. But this one here, like some of the others that bear markings, ain’t no regular kanji.

Most marks were impossible to decipher

Only one piece was actually made at Kouraku Kiln. It is the pretty little plate here, which bears a modern Romaji Kouraku Kiln stamp including its web site.

My original Kouraku Kiln piece

Last not least, let’s take a look at markings on  all the goods.

Some marks, usually undecipherable

One of the larger pieces not shown bears the Kanji for “Takayoshi” which apparently is another Arita kiln. So, I am pretty certain, other kilns in the Arita -Imari region contributed to the treasure by getting rid of their overstock here.

One I forgot because it’ already busy in service is my  tea pot!  This traditional side handled pot ( kyusu/急須) I really love, It looks a bit rough round the edges, but it can’t be totally cheap it is feather light and has a carved clay filter  –  so no need for a metal insert or a gauze tea bag – just dump the finest tea  in there and add hot water. It take about 250ml of water, just enough for a UK size mug. Japanese traditional tea pots tend to be smaller ,as you can brew a decent tea leaf two, three times and continue adding hot water.

The marking is inside the lid  says 茶山 (chayama, meaning “mountain with tea gardens”

Piece in heaviest use: my Japanese tea pot!

Is Arita Treasure Hunting worth it?

Easy question, straightforward answer, yes, for me it was definitely worth it. Saying that, I did not visit any other Arita kilns or porcelain shops but I looked at the offerings in Okawachiyama.  I wanted some  fun aesthetic tableware, and I got that, at a very small price. Everything is functional but has minor cosmetic flaws.

You have to look quite hard to find anything matching, and are most likely to end up with an odd collection of pieces. You will definitely find something with a Showa-era vintage touch, as these wares date back decades. Pay 11000 JPY, and you may actually be able to get together a dining set for four from the colourful pieces.

For comparison, I purchased a yunomi in Karatsu – it was one of the cheapest items at 1200 JPY, with many other pieces like small vases and tea bowls costing up to 150.000 JPY. Department store porcelain was aso way more expensive, and so was porcelain, even simply decorated everyday cups and bowls, in the shops in Okawachiyama.

Practicalities for Treasure Hunting in Arita

Make your way to Arita during Treasure Hunting hours, usually 10.00 to 15.00. Bear in mind you will be rifling through boxes and boxes of ware, so don’t leave it too late. Head to Kouraku Kiln, opposite the lare Arita Sera Shopping Centre, about 2km out of town. Unless you are posting your treasures from Kouraku Kiln (possible at a charge) a car is probably best to carry your treasures home.

How to get to Arita and Kouraku Kiln

To be honest, I think you will do better with a car. Especially if you plan on some shopping!

Coming from Fukuoka, the easiest, fastest (2h) and cheapest way to get to Arita  is the Airport Express Bus from Tenjin Bus Station or the Airport to Imari. 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. From Imari, use a local train, they take about 15 minutes.

Alternatively, you can take a train from Fukuoka on the Midori-HuisTenBosch Japan Rail (JR) Line bound for Sasebo, which stops in Arita. From Nagasaki, it’s a JR Train ride as well, which will often include the (pricey) Kamome Shinkansen to Takeo then a change the Midori-Huis Ten Bosch JR Line. With a single train ticket costing between 3000 and 5500 JPY, it’s a fairly pricey trip once the Shinkansen is involved. But if you just want to experience one of the newest Shinkansen using a fancy N700S tilting train, this is your chance! If you make frequent train trips, a Kyushu Rail Pass is well worth considering.

Entry to Okawachiyama Village

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.

We visited on a Friday afternoon, well knowing that I could always go back should it be too busy. We did not pre-book, and there were very few people treasure hunting. The kiln advises to pre-book though.

Where to Stay in or near Arita

This being a relatively densely populated area with relatively little tourism except in Golden Week during Arita Ceramics Fair, 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 5 minutes drive away. The Zokuijinkan Guesthouse is a cute guesthouse in a tastefully decorated traditional building, with tatami rooms, free parking and free bicycles. Expect to pay 80-90 Euro per room.  In Nishi-Arita, the Arita Huis is also a traditional guesthouse but expect a modernist Mies can der Rohe-style building within a shopping precinct. For 100-120 Euro per room, you get calming woods and white linens and minimalist style, an on site restaurants and a plethora of porcelain shops on your doorstep – but it is about 2km walk from the station.

You could also opt to stay on site at the Happy Lucky Guesthouse which is run by Kouraku Kiln and is best booked by contacting Kouraku through their website.

If you just want convenience and aren’t bothered about style, the Central Hotel Imari is right next to the train station in Imari, 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.

Where to Eat

I am fairly certain Arita has decent restaurants, this being an industrial town. But I didn’t see loads on the map when I researched places, and since we were coming from Ureshino, we stopped off in Hasami, a relatively nondescript yet pleasant large village, where we had some brilliant sushi at Sushi Zen, a local restaurant. We certainly caused a few curious looks but a super warm welcome and excellent sushi at very reasonable prices. I do admit I ate a little bit of fish on this occasion – normally I would stick to the vegetarian sushi but the Sushi restaurants of Japan tempted me.

If you are looking for  a place to eat in Arita, the largest concentration of restaurants is around JR Arita Station.

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 Arita, Imari and Okawachiyama on a day trip while studying in Nagasaki. 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.

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9 thoughts on “Treasure Hunting in Arita”

    • Hi Anna, then you will love this! Kyushu is quite under-visited by foreigners, so you’ll hardly encounter any crowds. It was my fourth time in Japan and I am already trying to return this year…

  • Hopefully we get to visit Japan this Summer, so I’m reading as much as I can on Japan. The ceramics look beautiful, must have been fun treasure hunting. You picked out some beautiful porcelain.

  • Wow, just incredible! How fun would that be! I would have a hard time picking out only a few! What a great experience. Those pieces are so dainty and pretty! Great read, thanks for sharing your story with me!

    • Hi Cosette, thank you! Japan is wonderful. I haven’t been to the popular destinations for over ten years, but Kyushu definitely isn’t overrun with visitors. I hope you have a wonderful time in Japan!

  • I would love to wander in these artists’ shops and see their ceramics. Great post. I know this is off subject but did you run into any street cats in this little town? I love to photograph cats when I travel abroad. You always see them in the Mediterranean countries in Europe, such as Greece and Croatia.

    • Hi Terri, to be honest, there were very few street cats in Japan, and I am glad about it. Some cats in rural and urban areas, but they looked owned or they were ear tipped and I am pleased to say most looked quite well and well fed. We have three ex street cats from Spain there it is a huge problem – Japan thankfully is one of the countries where they do tend to look after community cats and you see relatively few strays.

  • I am planning a few days of Kyushu travel in autumn after a work-related trip to Japan. Arita is definitely on the list, as I have never been there, but know a lot about it. The treasure hunt looks like fun – but I always end up with too much bowls and plates (not enough space in the kitchen). I love the small fish-shaped dish, as well as the small cups/ bowls you bought. Just the right size for soba dashi?

    • Hi Natasha, this sounds wonderful! I wish my work would take me to Japan more often! I also have too much crockery but could not resist these vintage pieces. We try to buy only what we need. The little fish shaped bowl would be great for soy sauce for dipping. We also use our small bowls for ketchup and small portions of chocolate or nuts, or used tea bags…

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