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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2000

A stroll through ceramic country


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

FUKUOKA -- Driving from Fukuoka to the fertile northeast of Saga, the landscape suddenly changes. Gently stepped rice terraces and fields give way to short hills that rise abruptly like sugar lumps and end in craggy, chalky rocks. Towns with square brick chimneys loom, and signs begin pointing to artsy workshops and palatial showrooms. You're in ceramics country.

Tourist stroll down Okawachiyama's main street.

Ceramics towns and workshops dot the region from coastal Saga to inland Nagasaki prefectures. Arita is historically the king of these, and deserves discussion in a separate article. But the smaller towns of Hasami, Imari and Karatsu nearby make for interesting browsing and a fun way to boost your reserves of select ceramics. You can also watch craftspeople work the pottery wheels and deftly apply glaze to the underfired goods on most days, except Sundays.

Although pottery has been fired in Japan as long as 12,000 years, Saga is special as the first area in the country where porcelain was produced. Around 1598, skilled Korean ceramics artisans were taken to Japan following Toyotomi Hideyoshi's raids of Korea. These Korean potters produced the first porcelain in Japan after discovering fine kaolin clay in 1616 near Arita. Kaolin was subsequently discovered at several other locations in the Nabeshima clan domain.

Pottery bargains fill baskets at Miyake-gama.

One of these is Imari's Okawachiyama area, about 10 minutes by car or bus from Imari. The kilns first opened around 1675 to produce exclusive wares for the Nabeshima lords' personal use. By contrast, almost all Arita ware was exported. Okawachiyama's hilly location was chosen to keep its ceramics technology under tight guard, and visitors can still see where a customs house once controlled all transactions there.

Okawachiyama is wonderfully pretty, with mist dripping permanently over the steep hills that hem the village together. A ceramic arched bridge marks its entrance, and a clear stream banked by sculptured walls splashes down a gully. Several historical sites, including a noborigama (climbing kiln), have been restored, and old-fashioned shops cluster neatly together along a narrow road that winds steeply uphill.

Okawachiyama has over 30 excellent workshops and display rooms. Choices range from the contemporary, attractive designs of workshops Taiichiro and Fukuda, to yuppified wares for modern dining at Imari Towan. Choshun-gama is the town's only workshop dedicated solely to making celadon wares.

Celadon, often seen on Chinese and Korean wares, is a rough stone in its original state and a crystalline bluish coating when used as a glaze. Cheap imitations can easily spoil its appeal, but real celadon is beautiful.

Back in Imari, sate any remaining hunger for ceramics by drinking from Nabeshima-yaki cups at the town's various cafes, or browsing through shops in the historic Imamachi district. During the 1600s, Arita porcelain was stamped "Imari" at merchants' houses along this river and loaded onto ships headed for Holland. Several whitewashed merchants' buildings remain in Imari. Imari also has an excellent, new museum dedicated to film director Akira Kurosawa.

Within a 30-minute drive from Imari and Okawachiyama are the ceramics towns of Mikawachi, Hasami and Arita. Like Okawachiyama, Mikawachi was once a secret kiln area and has a similar atmosphere with its narrow central road and hilly surrounds. Its trademark porcelain is white with flowing, blue, Chinese-inspired designs of children playing. Most workshops are directly attached to the display rooms, offering good views of artisans at work.

At nearby Hasami, semi-automated workshops make an interesting contrast to the handmade production methods of Okawachiyama and Mikawachi. The town's wares were first produced for the area's Omura lords, but were subsequently made for a general market. They are still characterized by practical shapes and colorful patterns today.

Worth seeing in Hasami is the fascinating Ceramic Research Center of Nagasaki. Almost the only museums in the Arita-Imari-Hasami area that could hold even the shortest attention span, this modern facility shows visitors everything about high-tech porcelain manufacture, from computer-generated designing to firing in the latest kilns.

Finally, pottery fans shouldn't miss Karatsu, a quiet fishing town in northern Saga Prefecture and about a 50-minute drive from Arita and Imari. The town's name translates as "port to China," and it was here that many of Hideyoshi's Korean artisans first landed in Japan and began their work. Incidentally, Karatsu's pottery history dates back long before this, to the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Karatsu-yaki is prized for its simplicity and natural, earthy colors.

The town's pretty foreshores are accented by the small Karatsu Castle (a replica), which has good displays of Karatsu pottery inside and several shops nearby. Other shops in town also sell the wares, but a visit to the workshops spread around Karatsu is more fun. Of note are workshops run by members of the Nakazato ceramic family, whose highly regarded wares exemplify Karatsu-yaki's beauty yet are quite different from each other.

Provided you don't get distracted by Arita, you should be able to meander through two or three ceramics towns in one day if you're selective and even drop by the nearby hot spring towns of Takeo and Ureshino. Kyushu people love to rib Saga natives for the rural quiet of their prefecture. For exactly this reason, this is the place to come for peace of mind and uncrowded treasure troves.

Imari and Karatsu are all linked by JR lines from Nagasaki and Fukuoka. Buses to Okawachiyama and Mikawachi leave from Imari and Arita respectively. Imari Nabeshima-yaki Kaikan, at the entrance to Okawachiyama, has maps in English and Japanese, (0955) 23-7293. Karatsu is about 50 minutes from Fukuoka on the Western Kyushu Expressway. For more information, contact Kurosawa Akira Kinenkan Satellite Studio, (0955) 22-9630; Ceramic Research Center of Nagasaki, (0956) 85-3140; Karatsu Tourism Information, (0955) 72-9127; Karatsu-yaki Kyodo Kumiai, (0955) 73-4888.


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