For the most part, visitors to Tochigi Prefecture hit the well-trodden tourist track to the rococo extravaganza of grandiose Toshogu shrine in Nikko. Yet those in search of a more refined showcasing of the Japanese aesthetic would be better directing themselves to a spot in the prefecture’s southeast.

Along with Arita in Saga Prefecture and Tokoname and Seto in Aichi Prefecture, Mashiko is one of the country’s best-known pottery towns. But unlike those other places, ceramic production is a relatively recent development in Mashiko.

Although excavations indicate that pottery was being made there in the Nara Period (710-784), the practice subsequently fell into decline and wasn’t revived until the latter part of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Back then, when Edo (present-day Tokyo) was the biggest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants, Mashiko’s potters began producing various kinds of kitchenware to meet demand in the Kanto region.

But what triggered Mashiko’s real growth as a ceramic center was the arrival of an Englishman in Japan in 1909.

Bernard Leach had come to the country as an etching artist, but his encounter with Japan’s ceramics inspired him to make a shift in artistic direction. And it was Leach’s meeting with a dynamic young potter by the name of Shoji Hamada that proved to be the key event in shaping the careers of both men.

Hamada accompanied Leach back to England in 1920, where the two continued their fruitful artistic collaboration in pottery, and when Hamada returned to Japan four years later, he settled in Mashiko.

There, using the local clay and glazes, he was able to achieve a remarkable range of effects in ceramics that built his reputation as the nation’s most renowned potter. In the process, he bolstered the repute of Mashiko as well.

Today, Mashiko is home to a couple of hundred potters, and it offers visitors a full-on ceramics experience, so that even those stopping for a breather in Tsukamoto Pottery Square will find themselves sitting on a ceramic stool beside a ceramic table on which sits a ceramic ashtray.

Pottery and shards thereof adorn everything around the square, from fountains to toilet walls. With its concentration of pottery stores and workshops where visitors can have a go at throwing a few pots themselves, the square — presided over by a giant ceramic statue of a tanuki (raccoon-dog) wearing the requisite toothy smirk — is the main focus of tourist attention in Mashiko. But besides that particular giant of his species (such tanuki are always quite obviously male), it’s hard to avoid feeling in Mashiko that you’ve landed among planet Earth’s greatest concentration of the pot-bellied creatures more often placed in pottery form at the entrance to izakaya (Japanese pubs).

Meanwhile, the vastness of the nearby municipal car park looks wildly optimistic for this sleepy place — until you reflect that the Mashiko Pottery Fair, held annually in spring and autumn, hauls in almost half a million visitors.

Get away from the main tourist area, though, and Mashiko quickly reverts to ordinary provincial Japan. The pottery boutiques give way to the likes of an auto-repair shop where I watched a mechanic inspect a rice harvester of extraordinary complexity as a rooster crowed nearby. Then in a clothes store, I met some antique headless, cracked- plastic mannequins sporting fashions of a sort that would have looked dated even back when people thought platform boots looked cool with bell-bottoms.

In contrast, inside a Mashiko kiln things do of course get pretty toasty — but nothing like as hot as the associations with another point in town. Not far from the main thoroughfare, named Jonai-zaka, stands the temple of Saimyoji, founded in the eighth century.

Of special interest here is the statue of Emma, who, despite the girly name, is the king of hell, his task being to judge sinners and select an appropriately torturous spot for them in his netherworld. As might be supposed, Emma is ordinarily depicted as a character possessing all the affability of a pit bull with migraine.

But Saimyoji is different. The sculptor there was obviously keen to present someone deeply content in his vocation, and so ruddy-faced Emma uniquely appears having a good old laugh as he throws a high five in the direction of those about to be his guests infernally and eternally.

After spending a hell of a time in Saimyoji, visitors may yearn for a little serenity, and this can be had at the opposite end of Jonai-zaka from Tsukamoto Pottery Square. In an attractive, thatched-roof minka (traditional-style building) is housed the Hiketa Indigo Dye Workshop.

Indigo is used to lend handsome tone to such items as cotton yukata kimono and happi festival jackets, and at the workshop you can see the dyeing art in its entirety, right up to final weaving. A pungent, earthy smell of the dye from the 64 floor-level vats hangs over the whole place as visitors take their pick among the dyed T-shirts, noren split entrance-curtains, bags and purses on sale in the workshop store.

Shops offering Mashiko’s more famous ceramic products are in particular abundance along the length of Jonai- zaka. Next to some can be seen the noborigama (climbing kilns) traditionally used to fashion Mashiko ware.

Though a certain unsophisticated style in subdued tones featuring linear-glaze designs characterizes much local pottery, its diversity is certainly striking.

In one boutique I came across, there was a figure looking like Marge Simpson on a bad-hair day cradling an inexplicably grinning fish beside a striking plate in robust, earthy tones and decorated with simple, finger-daubed lines in sienna shades. Yet incredibly, all the shop’s varied works were the output of a single artist.

Prices, too, vary. While some stores display stunningly fine works with price tags topping ¥1 million (probably negotiable), others, with a ¥10 sticker on soy-sauce dishes and sake cups (drinking glasses being given away free), make the nation’s ubiquitous ¥100 shops look positively upmarket.

Mashiko is an easy place to like. Locals greet a foreign stranger as warmly as they greet each other. When Hamada was looking for somewhere to develop his art, he sought a town with good clay far from the city where he could lead a comfortable lifestyle. It’s not difficult to see why he settled on Mashiko.

Getting there: From Ueno Station in Tokyo, first go to Oyama (about 75 min. on the JR Tohoku main line). From there it’s about 20 min. on the JR Mito Line to Shimodate, and another 45 min. from there on the Moka Railway to Mashiko.

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