Imari, the birthplace of Japanese ceramics
Crossing the small stone bridge dressed entirely in blue and white ceramic to Okawachiyama, time seems suspended. This small village surrounded by mountains is just six kilometres from Imari, the port where porcelain was exported by the East India Company beginning in the 17th century.
From high brick chimneys to the doors of studios left ajar, to traditional Japanese houses covered with small pieces of coloured ceramic, the whole town appears unchanged. Located on the island of Kyushu, Okawachiyama is part of the exclusive club of ‘Hiyo no sato‘ villages, meaning villages with secret kilns. It is here that over the centuries, the first Japanese ceramicists developed their techniques.
Encouraging heritage of savoir-faire
The Imari region, and more specifically the city of Arita, is the capital of Japanese porcelain, and has been for 400 years with the arrival of Korean ceramicists in Japan. It’s apparently thanks to the Korean potter Kanagae Sanpei or Kanagae Sanbee (according to which historical account you read) that the art of pottery was brought to the archipelago.
This precious savoir-faire was once jealously guarded, with master ceramicists forbidden from leaving their villages in order to prevent the spread of the techniques. The Imari region had a particular advantage back at the time, thanks to its large deposits of kaolin, a white clay used for the production of ceramics. It was all that was needed for numerous pottery studios to open their doors in the main city of Arita, as well as in the surrounding countryside villages.
The region is very popular among ceramics fans, who are able to visit these studios and discover different styles and techniques, from Kakiemon that can be used on a daily basis, to Nabeshima, the most precious; between the 17th and 20th centuries it was reserved for gifts for Japanese dignitaries. These gifts would often feature floral illustrations or images of birds or landscapes. The pieces were always produced in the same colour palette: red, blue and green, decorating the white of the porcelain.
Tracing the imperial court
In the past, the entire Edo court would visit the region, with a particular preference for the tiny village of Okawachiyama, where the Nabeshima porcelain was produced. The village has managed the outstanding feat of preserving local knowledge and visitors are still able to visit different ceramics ateliers. Adding to its charm is the calm atmosphere, spared from mass tourism. This is however, because the region is notoriously difficult to access without a car, located in the middle of a public transport desert. If you do manage to get your hands on a car however, you will cruise through rice fields and forests to reach your destination. Visits to Okawachiyama are most recommended in summer when the village holds its annual furin festival. The small ceramic bells are emblematic of Japanese summer and render the whole experience even more picturesque.
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