The history of Arita-yaki goes back to the year 1616. In the 1590s when Toyotomi Hideyoshi withdrew troops from Korea after an unsuccessful invasion, a potter named Yi Sam Pyeong was brought back to Japan along with them. Yi Sam Pyeong was responsible for the discovery of minerals suitable for porcelain creation (kaolin) on Mt. Izumiyama in Saga Prefecture’s Arita region and is said to be responsible for the first successful firing of porcelain in Japan. During the Edo Period (1603-1868) this porcelain was shipped from a place called Imari thus it was called “Imari-yaki”, but from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) onward it came to be widely known as “Arita-yaki.” Arita-cho, the area where Yi Sam Pyeong started his enterprise, is celebrating 400 years of Arita-yaki pottery in 2016.
Up until that point porcelain had never been produced inside of Japan; the only porcelain items in Japan were high-quality imports from other countries, which meant that the usage of porcelain was limited to only a select few rich and powerful individuals. However, with Yi Sam Pyeong’s discovery of kaolin, it became possible to mass-produce porcelain inside of Japan, which brought the joy of porcelain to many more people than ever before.
The following photograph is an image of the Sueyama Jinja shrine in Arita-cho, which is dedicated to Yi Sam Pyeong; the torii and komainu statues etc. are all Arita-yaki porcelain. Every year in May, ceramics industry workers gather here to honor Yi Sam Pyeong’s achievements through the “Touso-sai” (Founder’s Festival).
Now, with our respects paid to the founder, it’s time to hit the town and find some Arita-yaki we like!
A mountain of treasure hiding in a well-established pottery workshop!
The pottery workshop Kouraku Gama is about 5 minutes away from Arita Station by taxi; at this workshop they have a warehouse full of antiques and unmarketed/unfinished works intended for practical usage; as a result of this, they have started a unique “treasure hunt” service. The rules are simple: you get 90 minutes to fill up a basket with as many pieces of pottery as you want!
They offer two courses: a 5,000 yen course that allows you to select from simple, everyday-use items, and a 10,000 yen course that allows you to select from colorful items with decorations and transfer images on them. You get to hand-package the items you choose, and they also offer cash-on-delivery overseas shipping.
The person who came up with this “treasure hunt” service is the Brazilian artisan Pimenta Sebastiao, who is a live-in employee practicing at Kouraku Gama. He speaks 5 languages (Japanese, Chinese, English, Spanish, and Portuguese) and was very friendly as he guided us through the pottery workshop.
Kouraku Gama was founded in 1865 and they do plenty of traditionally designed tableware, but they also collaborate with artists in and outside Japan to create works for sale.
The pottery workshop also runs a live-in program for overseas artists called “Artist in Residence”, which Mr. Pimenta works as the coordinator for.
Let’s try using Arita-yaki
You’ve managed to get a few pieces of Arita-yaki at a pottery workshop, so how about using them to eat some of Saga Prefecture’s specialty foods? Saga Prefecture is actually famous for its alcohol industry. In 2011 during the highly-influential alcohol competition known as the International Wine Contest, Saga Prefecture’s “Fukuchiyo Shuzo” brewery won the prestigious “Champion Sake” award in the Japanese Sake category for their “Nabeshima Daiginjo” sake. As a result, Saga Prefecture’s sake has received much attention from within Japan.
About a 1 hour train ride away from Arita Station is Hizenhama Station, located in the Kashima-shi region where numerous old sake breweries are gathered; when the sake brewing season begins in winter this entire region is filled with the sweet scent of fermenting rice.
Minematsu Shuzojo, a company which has warehouses in this area, has opened up part of its grounds for tourists; they have a taste-testing corner where you can enjoy over 10 different kinds of sake. As a special treat this time, we were allowed to use a cup we selected at Kouraku Gama for the taste testing. (※Normally plastic cups intended for taste testing are used.)
Different cups’ materials and shape alter the fragrance, taste, and feel of sake, so when you try a new cup you might discover something new!
Bathe in an Arita-yaki onsen
Surely I’m not the only one who thinks that if you’ve come to Kyushu, you’ve got to go to a hot springs, right? There might be some of you wondering “OK, so how are Arita-yaki and hot springs related?” Kyushu is a region rich in hot springs and there is a way you can use Arita-yaki while enjoying one!
The hot spring in question is Ureshino Onsen, which features a hotel called “Yuzen-no-yado Tokai” that has Arita-yaki porcelain bathtubs.
The larger a piece of pottery is, the harder it becomes to balance the form, which means there are different levels of difficulty depending on what you’re making. For example, the komainu statues at the Sueyama Jinja; these statues exhibit such a high level of craftsmanship precisely because they were produced by the master porcelain makers in Saga Prefecture.
The hot water that bubbles up from Ureshino Onsen is a sodium bicarbonate spring which has lots of sodium in it, which makes skin thick and creamy. It makes keratinized skin smooth, a trait that has made it popular as one of Japan’s best 3 hot springs for healthy skin.
You’ll definitely be able to find something you like!
Once you’re out of the hot springs, how about a cup of Ureshino’s locally produced tea? If you walk for about 10 minutes down the main street you’ll reach the café&shop KiHaKo where they have Ureshino-produced Japanese black tea for you to enjoy, served on white Arita-yaki tea sets. The site also has Japanese inns and general stores to peruse, so you can enjoy a hot springs visit and shopping at the same time.
All of the places we’ve introduced in this feature article can be accessed via public transportation.
In 2016, Arita-yaki is celebrating its 400-year anniversary since its creation; why not go on a trip through Saga to see if you can find a special piece of pottery just for you?