OTSU, SHIGA PREFECTURE – Owners of lodging facilities aiming to attract more visitors amid the tourist boom and preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been attracting people from Japan and overseas with a new cultural draw — ceramic bathtubs made with traditional Shigaraki pottery.
The tubs, which have become not only a local attraction but also hot-selling items, are made by ceramics companies in and around Shigaraki, an area in southern Shiga Prefecture centered on the city of Koka, the home of the traditional ware.
Shigaraki ware is one of Japan’s six oldest potteries, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.
Two potters at Marumoto Co., based in Koka, were preparing a new product this month that had just gone through a week-long firing process in a high-temperature kiln for further treatment.
Since all bathtubs are hand-made, customers need to patiently wait for over a month until the process of molding, drying, firing and glazing is completed.
The business isn’t new. Marumoto has been producing the bathtubs for about two decades.
Following the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, bathtubs made of Japanese cypress grew popular and became a standard feature in inns and spas. So Marumoto decided to take a shot at ceramic bathtubs.
As the clay of Shigaraki, known for its fire-resistance and elastic properties, is believed to be well-suited for large items, the company figured the technique would also be suited for bathtubs.
The tubs are expensive. As the price for one tub ranges from ¥300,000 to ¥2.5 million, Marumoto got only 60 to 70 orders a year in the first few years after development. But orders have gradually grown and the firm now gets more than 10 times the initial figure. In one recent year, the firm received as many as 1,300 orders.
“I never expected the tubs would become such hot sellers,” Marumoto President Ikuo Muraki, 52, said.
It is often the case that orders are placed when ryokan (traditional inns) and hotels refurbish their facilities for the 2020 Olympics. The most popular type is the round tub 60 cm high and 1.2 meters in diameter.
The bathtubs became so popular with foreign travelers that some even ordered them after going home, Muraki said.
Compared with cypress tubs, Shigaraki ceramic bathtubs are much heavier but can be easily installed and cleaned. The ceramics also keep the water warm much longer, also lending to the tubs’ popularity.
“It’s really good you can make orders in various shapes and colors to match it with an interior design,” said Shuichi Kawahara, 62, manager of Kotohira Grand Hotel Sakuranosho in Kagawa Prefecture.
Kawahara bought eight Shigaraki bathtubs for the hotel’s private rooms and said they have been well received.
Marumoto’s Kimura said the company has been producing bathtubs so that people can feel bathing is worthwhile. “We would like to pass down this Japanese tradition of using tubs for relaxation,” he said.