Okawachiyama: Pottery Village in the Mountains

Okawachiyama

Okawachiyama

We live fairly close to some of the most famous pottery cities of Japan…Arita and Imari.  The history of Imari and Nabeshima ceramics is incredibly interesting and after visiting both Karatsu and Arita, my interest in the subject has only increased.  One town in particular stood out to me, Okawachiyama.

Most tourists don’t bother to go to Okawachiyama (unless they are really interested in pottery and still have time after visiting Arita and Imari).  I read about this village in a few other blogs and it sounded like a place that would be not only be interesting, but also beautiful.  It also sounded like it would be fun just getting there.  As it turns out, it’s not particularly easy to get to, but it is certainly worth the effort.   After digging up enough information (train and bus schedules as well as maps), we decided to venture out and try to find it.

Getting to Karatsu was easy, as was transferring to the Yellow Single Man Diesel Car bound for Imari.  As I predicted the scenery alone was worth the trip.  The first train had great views of the Sea of Japan, the second one, the countryside.  This particular part of Kyushu is very appealing.  It is very quaint, quiet, and hilly with rivers and small valleys.  The locals dress in traditional work clothes, there are lots of small vegetable farms, rice fields, old men driving their tractors, and, yes, even cows.

Ceramic Tiled Bridge

After we arrived in Imari and sorted out our train payment, we took a taxi up to Okawachiyama.  The driver kept handing us different pamphlets and maps and eventually dropped us off at a cobalt blue and white tiled bridge.  He was pointing to some building and babbling something about information, but we ignored him and just started exploring (after all he already gave us a ton of information).  We noticed immediately that the village had two streams running through it and that it was literally surrounded by steep, jagged mountains all the way around (except in the direction from which we just came).  We spotted the two large wooden beams which long ago were part of the gate in which they would stop and question everyone coming in and out of the village.

This was, without a doubt, an artisans’ village.  There are pieces of pottery, tile or porcelain everywhere – on the streets, on the walls, on the bridges, in the graveyard, etc.   Everywhere we walked there were artistic compositions involving ceramics of some form.  Even the streams were specially shaped and decorated.  The main street is lined with shops selling pottery, working kilns, and cute little coffee shops.  Side streets lead off to more shops and attractions.  At the end of town is the entrance to a park which is on the other side of the stream.  We followed the trails which traversed the hillside and led to little homes/museums, excavation sites, little shrines, small gravesites, benches and various modern works of art involving ceramics.  At the very top of the park is a fantastic view of the village and surrounding mountains.  On the way back down we saw greenware and some old kilns.

Korean Potter’s Grave

Eventually, we ventured into the large graveyard on the other side of town.  Here lies the Tokumuen Grave (Tomb of the Potters).  It is a pyramid shaped structure built from the accumulated tombstones of the 880 potters who were brought here from Korea to help build the ceramic industry for Japan.  The view of the town from here is most appealing.  Not too far downstream is also a water operated clay crushing mill that duals as a waterfall into a pod filled with coy.  Some pottery wind chimes are housed at the foot of the bridge, which play a tune when you cross the bridge.  I really didn’t want to leave this town since we were enjoying it so much, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

The trip back ended up being just as eventful as the trip coming.  As we boarded the bus back to Imari, we ran into a couple visiting Japan from, believe it or not, Mexico.  The husband not only spoke perfect English (and Spanish), but also Japanese – who would have guessed?  We had an interesting conversation with them about Japan as well as Mexico.  Oddly enough, the Japanese guy we met previously on the Yellow One Man Diesel Car was also on the bus.  Robert learned how to say mathematics in Japanese (sugaku) from him.  Then, to top it off, our incredibly late lunch was with the Sushi Nazi in Karatsu.  It was hilarious watching him correct (and show) Robert how to eat his lunch.  Robert was incredibly uncomfortable having someone so closely scrutinize his eating habits.  The chef had a good laugh when Robert ate the ball of minced dikon (thinking it was a piece of vegetable tempura) that was actually meant to go into my tempura sauce.  He certainly won’t do that again.

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