Japanese pottery is one of the local art forms that the people are very proud of. Several towns have established their own identity as “pottery centers,” and draw thousands of local and international tourists each year.
The art of making pots dates back more than 12,000 years in Japan, with different areas specializing in their own particular styles of crafting these beautiful items. But over more than a hundred centuries there have been two styles of pottery art that have remained. Those are the so-called “random” designs of the wabi-sabi school, and the more “perfectionist” style that is based on Chinese design principles.
Zen Buddhism was the point of origin for today’s wabi-sabi pottery styles, while ancient Chinese porcelain masters, who strove for balanced perfection, were the originators of the other school. The most famous kind of wabi-sabi pottery is called raku-ware, with its pieces tending to features natural colors of earth and plants. These pieces are easily identified by their “off balance” style and apparently random design.
The Chinese style pots are quite different, featuring balanced designs of symmetrical proportions but often decorated with bright, loud colors. With this style, the emphasis is on how the end-product looks, not on the process itself. For wabi-sabi experts, the whole effort has to do with the process of making the pot, with less emphasis on what the final piece looks like.
No matter the style, one thing that kept the art of pottery alive for many years was the Japanese tea ceremony practices. Those events rely on highly specialized pieces of pottery and even today pottery is one of the central elements of tea ceremony.
As travelers move from pottery town to pottery town during their visits to Japan, they’ll no doubt notice the many specialized regional variations in design, color, and materials used. For example, Hagi and the city of Mashiko are world famous for their own styles of pottery.
Mashiko’s tradition was boosted in the 1920s when a renowned pottery master moved there for the sole purpose of having access to local clay. He proceeded to create some of the most beloved pieces of pottery from the local mountains’ clay deposits. Since then, Mashiko has been a world-renowned pottery center.
Another fine example of a famous pottery town is Hagi, known for a style called Hagiyaki. This style is prized by practitioners of tea ceremony, who value the fact that the clay actually changes colors as the years pass. The concept of “time marching on” is central to tea ceremony philosophy, which is why these pieces are so beloved.
Those are just two of the many examples of what it means for a city to be a “pottery town” in modern Japan. For tourists who want to learn more about Japan’s exquisite tradition of pottery, there are a few “must-see” places that should be on any complete Japan guide.
The “Big 5” Japanese Pottery Towns
This is the biggie of pottery and porcelain town. Many tourists who visit just one place go here to see what is called “the best of the best.” It’s in Tochigi Prefecture, about 3 hours or less from Tokyo, directly north. Note that the local area is actually known for many different crafts, including painting, weaving, and sculpture, but pottery has put them on the map.
The authentic feel of the pots made here is something to behold. The thick pieces look sturdy and appear as if they’ll last forever. Some have almost achieved that hurdle. Even though the modern era of Mashiko pottery dates back about 150 years, archeologists have dug up pots in the area that are at least 16,000 years old!
Local legend has it that a fellow named Otsuka moved here for the quality of the nearby clay on local mountains. Whether that’s true or not, the local clay is world-famous for its usefulness in making fine pots.
Visitors can spend some time in local pottery museums taking it all in but the best aspects of a trip to Mashiko are the interactive opportunities at the local cooperative where you’ll be able to purchase locally-made pots, view artists at work, and take part in a short tutorial class on how to make ceramic pottery. If clay pots and ceramic arts are your thing, Mashiko is heaven on earth.
For the “textured look” in ceramic pottery, Inbe is the place to be. Nestled in the artsy corner of Okayama Prefecture, the city is home to the Bizen style of pottery, an earthy design that uses heavy, iron-laden clay to achieve a stunning final result.
There’s a museum where you can learn all about the “supernatural” properties of Bizen-ware and take part in a class at the city’s pottery school. Kyoto is nearby, so after a few days in Inbe, you can visit one of Japan’s major tourist cities.
In Shikoku, the city of Tobe is a bit off the beaten path of pottery towns and is not as well known as some of the others. But don’t let that stop you from visiting this place where Tobe-ware’s delicate style is on display and has been going strong for more than 250 years.
Locals and pottery enthusiasts call the Tobe style of design a “feminine” one, complete with fine lines, green and red coloring, and crisp lines. Some of the best Tobe-ware shows up in noodle bowls and drinking cups. There’s a festival every October and plenty of local sellers who will be glad to show you what they do and offer to sell a piece or two.
Imari and Arita
About 400 years ago, the locals in Arita and Imari discovered that the local soil was rich in a particular element that made elegant ceramic pottery. From there, the business boomed and the city eventually became the top pottery town in all Japan.
Visitors will find museums, famous kilns, and local instructors who give short courses to visitors. This town is still one of the top ceramic pottery centers in the world.
Approximately 3 hours from Kyoto, to the north-west, this pottery town produces some of the most delicate, pure white pieces on earth. The townspeople are so proud of their enduring legacy as a ceramics/pottery center that they offer numerous free classes to visitors who want to make pieces of their own.
For pottery enthusiasts who want to take in a place that is not the first stop on every tour itinerary, this is the place. Its quaint and quiet atmosphere is the ideal place to spend a few days exploring Japan’s pottery culture and learning first-hand how to create works of clay art.
Information for Japanese Pottery Enthusiasts
Besides knowing the best time to travel to the pottery centers in Japan, it helps to do a bit of research on the topic before heading to any of the cities on the list above.
Weather does play a small factor in travel to pottery cities, as some are located in areas where winter can be quite cold. Be sure to bring plenty of warm clothing when visiting any northern city in Japan, for pottery or anything else.
I found an informative book that is an ideal choice for anyone who plans to see a Japanese pottery town. It’s a Japan guide of sorts but specifically geared toward pottery. It’s called The Ceramic Art of Japan: A Handbook for Collectors, Hugo Munsterberg.
This wonderful Japan guide to all things pottery-related offers up lively comments about the history and development of the art of pottery in Japan as well as dozens of high-quality photographs of key pieces. Anyone who might like to collect a few special pieces of pottery will find this book invaluable.
There’s plenty of practical information about where to go, what to see, and how to decide which pieces of pottery are worth putting into a collection. There’s a fascinating section about how even an amateur can spot a “fake” pot and not get defrauded in a transaction.
Even for those who have no interest in collecting but just want to admire and learn about Japanese pottery, the book is a comprehensive reference to the different cities and special styles of pottery, history of the art, and the exact methods that artists use to produce exquisite pieces. It’s a fun book to read and delivers on its promise of explaining the true story about the “ceramic art” of Japan.