Pottering down Chita way

by Chris Bamforth

It dangles down from Nagoya, dividing Ise Bay from Mikawa Bay in the inglorious shape of one of yesterday’s socks. While the upper, northern end soaks up the industrial overspill from Japan’s fourth-largest city, its southern half works as a calming antidote to the madding metropolitan crowd. It goes by the name of the Chita Peninsula.

The association with summer’s least wholesome item of clothing extends beyond physical form. About halfway down the western side of the peninsula, windsocks find customary employment around Central Japan International Airport. Built on an artificial island, the sleek facility is so highly regarded it made the top 10 both this year and last in the World Airport Awards.

Even though its other name, of Centrair, has had currency since the airport’s 2005 opening — and the committee-approvable logic behind the handle is somehow quaintly understandable — it still sounds as if it would sit better on a cyclonic vacuum cleaner than on an international air terminal.

On the peninsula adjacent to Centrair stands a place of decidedly greater antiquity. Tokoname and the pottery produced there go back into ancient times. The town was included among the so-called Six Old Kilns of medieval Japan — the most prominent pottery-producing centers from the 12th to the 16th centuries. And back in its then ceramic heyday, fully 3,000 kilns in Tokoname were assiduously firing up their wares.

As might be supposed, Tokoname is happy to remind folk about its pottery past, and visitors can follow a couple of courses, together known as the Pottery Path, to inspect the remains of old kilns as well as the innards of those still making ceramics. Prominent on the path is a noborigama (climbing kiln) — a through-draft kiln that revolutionized pottery manufacture after the Japanese acquired the technology from Korea following its invasion of the country in the 1590s.

In later ages, coal-fired kilns came to dominate the industry, just as their chimneys physically dominated Tokoname. But then, as those kilns were steadily replaced by electric- and gas-fired ovens, the flues fell into disuse. Since some of them stood 30 meters high, they were thought too dangerous to be simply left standing. Today, the truncated chimneys of the old kilns characterize the landscape of Tokoname, putting an oddly likable postindustrial stamp on the place.

To inspect some of the finest examples of what the town has furnished over the years, Tokoname Ceramic Hall on the Pottery Path is a requisite stop. As well as versions of the orange-red teapot that came to be particularly associated with Tokoname, on display here are quite a diversity of objects, from traditional beakers, plates and vases to more contemporary lions, felines and owls. Perhaps the most impressive of all are graceful stoneware tea bowls — strong pieces where the blistering flaws of the largely unglazed surface are partially cloaked in vitreous, olive-green expanses of ash glaze.

Beyond Tokoname, the Chita Peninsula continues for another 33 kms. This is where Nagoyaites go to relax — to view the rocky coastline, get into hot water in spas and stretch out on pocket-sized beaches.

One of the more likable beaches is Yamami Dolphin Beach, with its old rusting sign enthusiastically declaring “Let’s go Yamami.” Despite the name and despite the rampant trio of the sea mammals supporting a small tower on the strand, you somehow suspect that you stand as much chance of spotting a cetacean there as you do a wombat.

Along the coast, it is hard to miss offshore the regular lines of poles protruding from the water. Though they serve as handy stands upon which cormorants are glad to rest and dry their wings, they’re actually there to support the long nets that are used for cultivating nori laver. Like the mandarin oranges on sale in seriously hefty bags by the roadside, the dark-green seaweed is a Chita Peninsula specialty.

More than seaweed, though, the best-known product at this lower end of the peninsula is fish — as is conspicuously evident in Toyohama, which stages an annual Sea Bream Festival in mid-July. This features giant 18-meter-long figures of the fish, which are paraded around town before being dispatched into the drink together with prayers for a good catch.

A smaller replica of the festival fish adorns the roof of Toyohama’s fish market, a stopping point on the itinerary of every wise visitor. As well as sea bream (tai), on sale there is a vast assortment of sweetly fresh seafood, from all manner of seaweed and shellfish to tuna, aji (horse mackerel) and hirame (halibut). Meanwhile, suspended above several stalls, huge octopuses gaze dolefully at the world from within water-filled plastic bags.

Moving on to the lower tip of the Chita Peninsula brings you to Morosaki, strung out beside the sea that lends it a living. Even at midday, more than 100 fishing boats and larger trawlers are docked in its harbor, whose seawalls and long cables are thick with barnacles. Hanging over the place is the satisfying working-port smell of fish, sea and engine oil, and scattered around are lobster pots, fishing tackle and great numbers of anchors, large and small, smartly lined up as if ready to be put to instant use.

Morosaki is the kind of place where you expect absolutely the freshest fish. An order of sashimi in an eatery is followed by swift death meted out to your luckless fare that had been quietly biding its time in a tank. It reappears moments later, still twitching, on a plate.

The most romantic spot on the coast has to be the small lighthouse at Mihama, halfway down the peninsula between Tokoname and Morosaki. Built in 1921, and 18 meters high, it stands above a rocky shoreline and commands a sweeping view across Ise Bay. This is the place to head at the end of day. As the sun sinks over the bay, the silhouettes of fishing vessels head out to sea, the fresh tang of salt rises in the air and — as if from somewhere in the deepest depths — there thuds the slow hammer of waves rolling into rock.

Getting there: From Nagoya, Tokoname can be reached in 30 minutes by train on the Meitetsu Line. From there, the Chita Peninsula is best explored by car.