Note: This blog post is not about Yamanashi Prefecture.
I must confess that I have such a serious weakness for hand-painted Japanese porcelain that I have collected well over 100 pieces of these delicate works of art since I first arrived in Japan almost 30 years ago. As no two of these treasures are ever identical, each piece stands out as being uniquely beautiful. When you come to Japan’s porcelain Mecca to appreciate 400 years of local artistic history, be careful not to succumb to what the Dutch once described as ‘porcelain sickness’ as you begin to covet Arita’s delicate masterpieces for yourself.
How it all began
In 1616, the potter Yi Sam-pyeong and his family moved to Arita. Yi and other potters were carried off from the Korean Peninsula at the end of the Keicho Period War in 1598, and the subsequent 18 years taken to discover the raw materials to ensure the production of quality porcelain attest to just how difficult it must have been for Yi to establish himself as a potter in Japan.
The kaolin stone of a local mountain, Izumiyama, was quarried extensively from the time of Yi Sam-pyeong to get the base material for Arita’s porcelain. The stone from this quarry would first be reduced to a powder and then reconstituted with water to make porcelain clay.
Arita’s unique Tombai walls
The bricks of the noborigama (climbing kilns) that were close by Izumiyama had to be replaced every 20 years and the old bricks were recycled as building materials for Arita’s unique Tombai (brick walls). These walls were made high enough that people couldn’t easily steal trade secrets from rival porcelain makers. Think of these walls as early insurance against industrial espionage.
The Dutch East India Company
Before Arita pottery became world-renowned, the porcelain consumed in Europe came mainly from China. However, due to fighting between the flagging Ming dynasty and the emerging Qing dynasty, which made it difficult to conduct business as usual, Arita seized the opportunity to establish valuable trade links with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Dutch royalty and wealthy aristocrats were so enthusastic to own Arita’s exquisite porcelain that their uncontrollable desires came to be known as ‘porcelain sickness.’ Who knows, the very same sickness could strike at any moment as you browse through Arita’s numerous porcelain workshops and boutiques! I couldn’t resist purchasing these hand-painted soba choko (bowls used for Japanese buckwheat noodles). Some shops sell flawed pottery at steep discounts, but the flaws are often imperceptible. That’s how I came to buy these ten soba choko at a 40% discount. I actually prefer to collect porcelain with minor flaws as it appeals to wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of appreciating beauty that is imperfect.
Gen-emon Kiln, a fabulous boutique and workshop which is open for tours, uses only traditional methods to produce handmade porcelain pieces. Although their workshop is an impressive 160 years old, they have actually been in business for over 260 years. Again, kaolin stone is reduced to powder and then reconstituted with water to make the fine white clay for firing. Each of the workshop’s 60 employees has his or her specific role. There are about 100 makers in Arita, but Gen-emon is a cut above the rest. There is pride in this work.
The bricks in Gen-emon’s kiln have a dark brown glazing from repeated firing at 1300c for 40 hours at a time, which makes its ceiling look like huge chunks of a Japanese cake, kasutera, dripping rich chocolate frosting!
The following is the process for making Gen-emon porcelain:
1. Biscuit firing at 900c
3. Painting and then firing again at 1300c
4. Colours additional to blue cobalt are added and the pieces are fired again at 800c
Just like wine and whisky that partially evaporate while aging in oak barrels, porcelain loses about 15% of its size while firing.
Arita is slightly quirky with its main street of shops dating from as far back as the Edo period (1603-1868). You’ll want to poke your head into the shops and stroll the back streets to find the true beauty of this sleepy porcelain town. I cannot help thinking that the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is actually a universal aesthetic. Leonard Cohen said that there is a crack in everything, but that’s how the light gets in. Consider this blog piece as a ‘crack’ that sheds light on this ancient porcelain town. If you enjoy traditional artisanship as much as I do, you are going to love Arita.
Getting to Arita from Tokyo
Take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen towards Hakata. Please ask the station attendant in Tokyo to help plan your onward journey to Arita as your options will differ depending on your arrival time in Hakata.
Getting to Arita from Osaka
Take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen towards Hakata. Please ask the station attendant in Osaka to help plan your onward journey to Arita as your options will differ depending on your arrival time in Hakata.
Arita Ceramic Museum
Open 9:00~16:30 (closed Mondays)
Adults: ¥120 (Free for high school students and younger)
1 Chome-4-2 Odaru, Arita, Nishimatsuura District, Saga
Arita Ceramic Museum’s Website
Izumiyama Quarry, 1-chōme, 4 Izumiyama, Arita, Nishimatsuura District, Saga 〒844-0001
2726 Maruo, Arita, Nishimatsuura District, Saga
Gen-emon Kiln’s Website
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