Arita fires up a love of pottery, both historical and contemporary

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

The streets of Arita’s Uchiyama porcelain district are mostly deserted this overcast Sunday, a boon for me as I am looking anywhere but at the sidewalk in front of me. My eyes are drawn instead to the parade of restored buildings that front the street, a veritable “name that era” of architectural styles. The edifices here might date anywhere from the Edo Period (1603-1868) to the Taisho Era (1912-1926), but the porcelain vessels contained within have a heritage that stretches back centuries.

Four centuries, to be exact — a fact that Arita, a small town in western Saga Prefecture, casually reminds you of as you pull into the area. Next calendar year will herald the 400th anniversary of porcelain production in town, marking the year that the master craftsmen and celebrated potter Ri Sanpei found a cache of good kaolin clay in the nearby mountains and fired the first porcelain in the archipelago.

Ri might have been an unwitting father of Japanese porcelain — he was forcibly brought to these shores from Korea after warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion campaigns in the 1590s — but he’s long been revered in this small corner of Kyushu. Along with scattered monuments of varying importance, Ri is most worshipped by porcelain aficionados at the Touzan shrine dedicated to his spirit, located on the edge of the Uchiyama district.

We start our explorations of Arita there, where a ceramic torii gate is the first clue that Arita’s artistry isn’t just hidden away behind the walls of the town’s many workshops. Various pottery districts have donated additional shrine accoutrements, such as the water purification basin and the pair of ceramic dogs that diligently guard the unassuming main altar. We haven’t hit the right season to see any blooming althea, the national flower of Korea and a nod to Ri’s origins, but the views over the surrounding mountains are reason enough to ascend the temple’s numerous steps.

Back at street level, we cross the main thoroughfare and wander through narrow lanes along the river. High ochre-colored walls, constructed mostly of leftover fireproof bricks from local kilns, hem in the cobbled alleyways. Here and there, the edges of porcelain detritus can be seen mixed in with the cement. Called tombai walls after the aforementioned bricks, they stretch for a kilometer or two, winding through flower-filled neighborhoods and past roadside shrines. Long ago, however, the picturesque fortifications supposedly served to protect the trade secrets of the competitive potters who lived behind them.

We cut out early, back to the main street, and humor our youngster and her “aching feet” with a visit to the Arita-kan plaza of traditional culture. Placed at the corner of one of Arita’s main intersections, the building doubles as information point and coffee house. Upstairs, however, a ¥200 ticket gains visitors access to the porcelain puppet show.

Shown on demand, the spectacle recounts the fable of a mythical serpent, from nearby Mount Kurokami, who attempts to kidnap a local maiden. A warrior takes on the beast with a bow and arrow, but the creature escapes into the crags of the Ryumon Valley, where legend has it he still resides today. The mechanized entertainment initially seems a bit cheesy, until closer examination reveals just how superb the handcrafted mannequins are. Most of Arita’s big name kilns, including Koransha, Fukugawa Seiji, Gene-mon and Shinwa Ojiyama, contributed their talents to these automated puppets.

From the Arita-kan, we putter our way slowly down the main thoroughfare of Uchiyama, stopping more often than not to pop into a welcoming gallery or rummage through a sale bin of table settings. I silently praise and curse the community’s high schools, who compete each year to design the most attractive storefront in the main shopping district. If their goal is to part visitors with their cash by the boatload, the bags we’re toting by the end of the shopping hour are proof that the project is entirely a success.

Sapped by both the heat and a healthy dose of retail therapy, we push past the noren curtain of the Kamei sushi shop near the end of the Uchiyama district and query about the chance of a rather late lunch. We’re shown to a low communal table — devoid of any other patrons due to our unorthodox dining hour — and waste no time in selecting the Arita-yaki Gozen set.

As if the town didn’t have enough to attract travelers already, a few years ago tourism officials drummed up a special gourmet offering. The Arita-yaki Gozen set features locally raised chicken prepared in five ways: boiled, baked, steamed, fried and vinegared. The five versions are served in a porcelain box — the provenance of which you needn’t even ask — and accompanied by such sides as soup, rice, the local specialty of godōfu tofu, and pickles. Only five restaurants in town have been selected to serve the specialty. Kamei’s set, when it is placed before us, boasts enough food to take up two separate trays and even includes a hefty portion of chirashi-zushi (scattered sushi), in a nod to the shop’s primary cuisine.

We manage to roll ourselves out of the restaurant just as a summer storm announces itself with flashes of lightning and a flurry of rain. Dodging drops, we make for the car and head to the other end of town, where the China on The Park complex sits overlooking the road to Imari, the equally notable porcelain town immediately to the north.

Run by the Fukagawa Seiji company, which also has a showroom near the Arita-kan, China on The Park is a sprawling complex, not unused to welcoming visitors by the bus-load. Today, conversely, the parking lot is a veritable ghost town and at least three eager staff line up with umbrellas at the ready to escort us from vehicle to front door.

While my wallet can’t tolerate an additional shopping spree, the weather encourages us to take time to customize our own pieces of porcelain (a mere ¥1,000 apiece) in the shop’s art studio. I select a bone-white coffee mug and peruse the proffered design books on the table, knowing my artistic skills aren’t equal to the task of anything but lines and circles.

“If you make a mistake, you can simply wipe the area clean,” soothes our helpful assistant, before then cautioning me not to glop the paint on too thickly or it will crack and peel in the firing process. I labor away at some typical Japanese motifs — fans and flowers — while next to me, my 4-year-old paints a green and blue Mount Fuji with reckless abandon.

The personal masterpieces will be mailed to our homes, but I doubt that they’ll even approach the level of the porcelain artistry we gape over in the exhibition hall just next door. The company’s eponymous founder, Chuji Fukagawa, garnered a gold medal for an exquisite vase he displayed at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The century-old treasure now rests encased in glass with only a small sign in English declaiming its place in history. On nearby tables, more modern pieces compete for our attention, avant-garde in their style but equally prize-worthy.

With a temporary lull in the wretched weather, we leave China on The Park and turn north into the hills. A short drive brings us past emerald rice paddies and knobby mountain peaks to the one-way track that loops around the Ryumon Dam. Though the rain is holding, there is a pervasive gloom to this quiet setting. Gray clouds hover thick and low over the trees that crowd the slopes. You can almost imagine that in the inky black of the dam’s deepest waters, the spirit of the serpent lies in eternal slumber, never again a threat to the porcelain paradise of Arita.

Arita can be reached from Fukuoka’s Hakata train station by limited express train (¥3,200, 85 minutes). Several shops in town as well as the aforementioned China on The Park offer various pottery experiences, from working your own lump of clay to painting already glazed pieces. The excellent and free multi-page English guidebook “Arita Style” can be picked up at the local train stations (JR Arita or JR Kami-Arita) and is an indispensable guide to the town and surrounding region.