29 May 2024

Walking Through Okawachiyama: A Village of Secretive Pottery

In mid-March, Team Musubi visited Okawachiyama, a village in Saga Prefecture known for its Imari Nabeshima ware. Okawachiyama is renowned as a pottery village of secretive kilns, alive with a remarkable pottery culture and set against scenery reminiscent of sansuiga "landscapes paintings."

Its history dates back to the Edo period (1603 CE–1868 CE) when it served as the exclusive kiln for the Nabeshima clan of Saga, producing the highest quality porcelain, known as Nabeshima ware. This porcelain was crafted without regard to cost, and its techniques were strictly forbidden from being shared outside the domain. Even today, the village cradles over thirty kilns in its narrow valleys, preserving traditional methods and passing them on to the next generation.

The juxtaposition of unique rocks and brick chimneys, distinct to this area, creates a scene unlike any other in Japan. Even for Team Musubi, who has visited various pottery regions across Japan, being in Okawachiyama evokes a sense of awe in the presence of its long history and vibrant cultural streetscape. We hope to convey the unparalleled allure of this place to you all.

The Okawachiyama area was designated as a national historic site in September 2003, known as the Okawachiyama Nabeshima Kiln Ruins. Visitors to this site first encounter a sekisho "checkpoint," reconstructed in 2019. Although newly built, this checkpoint serves as a fitting monument, reflecting the history when the domain used it to seal off the village to protect its secretive porcelain-making techniques during the clan kiln era.

After passing through the checkpoint, visitors are greeted by the Nabeshima Clan Kiln Bridge, adorned with Imari Nabeshima ware porcelain tiles and decorated with a large vase, making it a striking and colorful sight from afar.

Crossing the bridge, we came upon the Meotoshi-no-Tou. This tower incorporates a unique mechanism activated upon crossing another small bridge, where sensors trigger white porcelain wind chimes to ring gracefully, even in the absence of wind. This ingenious design has been recognized as one of the top "100 Soundscapes of Japan."

Walking ahead, there is a large map of Okawachiyama, also made of porcelain, providing a clear overview of the village's main spots.

Further along is the Imari Nabeshima Ware Hall, where pottery is displayed and sold. In the cafe area, you can enjoy coffee brewed with natural water, served in your choice of cup. We arrived just in time for lunch and enjoyed a curry served, of course, on an Imari Nabeshima ware plate.

Following a narrow path lined with kilns along a sloped street, the village—surrounded by rocky mountains and bisected by a stream—offers a delightful stroll, with Nabeshima ware displayed throughout.

The climbing kiln shown in the photo was reconstructed in 1990 for tourists and has been a centerpiece of the Nabeshima Clan Kiln Autumn Festival since 1989. The festival features the prestigious "Nabeshima Dedication Ceremony," attended by dignitaries such as governors of Kyushu, prefectural mayors, and mayors from renowned castle towns across Japan. The offerings showcased at the ceremony are a collaborative effort by various kilns, each specializing in different stages of the intricate process. The culmination of this collaboration is a remarkable 36-hour firing within the climbing kiln.

Beyond the climbing kiln, a winding trail beckons visitors to an elevated park, unveiling breathtaking panoramic vistas of the sprawling village below. As we ascended this path, our footsteps tracing the very earth that nurtured Nabeshima ware, we couldn't help but muse on how the picturesque landscape had undoubtedly shaped the porcelain's exquisite aesthetics. With these profound reflections lingering in our minds, we bid farewell to Okawachiyama, our hearts captivated by its timeless beauty and rich heritage.

Special Exploration: Arita Ware's Tourist Spots

After immersing ourselves in the rich ceramic artistry of Okawachiyama, we embarked on a journey to the neighboring town of Arita, a place celebrated for its exquisite Arita ware porcelain. Before concluding our visit to this captivating region, we paid our respects at the historic Sueyama Shrine.

Established in 1658, the shrine stands as a testament to Arita's heritage, perched majestically atop a hill. As we ascended the stone steps leading to the shrine, we were greeted by a breathtaking sight—a magnificent porcelain torii gate, its white surface adorned with a captivating light blue arabesque design.

Additionally, the shrine grounds are home to porcelain komainu "guardian dogs," large water jars, and lanterns, all fired using the pinnacle of Arita ware techniques.

A short walk up a mountain path and a long staircase from Sueyama Shrine leads to the "Founder of Arita Ware, Ri Sanpei (Yi Sam-pyeong) Monument," erected to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Arita ware. This monument honors Ri Sanpei (Yi Sam-pyeong), who discovered porcelain stone at Izumiyama and was the first in Japan to fire porcelain. From this spot, you can overlook the town of Arita, densely packed with kilns and traditional Japanese houses nestled in the valleys, making the visit a profound experience of the local community's deep connection to the pottery industry.