It was Ryuta-gama 隆太窯 that brought us to Karatsu 唐津市.
I first came across the Ryuta kiln in a magazine featuring Saga Prefecture, which is in northwest Kyushu, several years ago. The description of the pottery kiln piqued my imagination so I photographed the article to make a note. The picture stayed on my phone over the years. When we decided to go to Kyushu in 2019, the time had finally come to visit Ryuta-gama.
The small coastal city of Karatsu 唐津市 was our first stop after we left Fukuoka. With only a handful of restaurants still opened at a late lunch hour, we peered into a stately traditional Japanese building that housed Takeya 竹屋, a long-standing restaurant that specialises in grilled eel. The matron ushered us inside the historical building which is Karatsu’s first tangible cultural property since more than a century ago. I ordered an unagi-don (grilled eel with rice) from lunch menu. Deftly cooked over a charcoal grill, the eel had a glorious smoked flavour and was not overly sweet.
We strolled briefly around the compact city centre after the satisfying lunch. It was as if the inhabitants of Karatsu were taking an afternoon nap as few people were out and about on that crisp winter day.
Ryuta-gama 隆太窯 is nestled amidst evergreen woodland in the countryside, an approximate 30-minute drive from Karatsu city centre. It was a picture of rustic tranquility. The cold air smelled of wood smoke. Water trickled over rocks in a stream by a traditional Japanese building while a bird called out in the distance.
A young woman greeted us when we opened the door to the main building which turned out to be the gallery and retail shop. After removing our shoes, we entered the cozy room where porcelain ware were on display. The shop assistant returned with a tray with two cups containing a warm fermented red bean beverage and beckoned us to take a seat at the table by a stained glass window. Wood crackled in the fireplace. Were we not visiting, I would have gladly curled up by a window and daydream with a pot of hot tea.
Ceramic cups, plates and bowls in earthy shades were displayed on shelves and windowsills. Amongst them were a few remarkable pieces made by Takashi Nakazato with prices in the tens to hundreds of thousand yen apiece — I didn’t dare touch them lest I broke any! After much deliberation, AB and I picked a few (more affordable) cups made by Taki and Kenta Nakazato, son and grandson of Takashi Nakazato.
Prior to our visit, I was ignorant of the reputation of the Nakazato family. All I knew from the above-mentioned magazine article was that certain top restaurants in Saga served their food on porcelain ware made by Takashi Nakazato and his son, Taki. I learned more about them when we later stopped by Monohanoko, a pottery studio opened by Hanako Nakazato, daughter of the elder Nakazato.
Karatsu pottery is not completed until it has been used. It would change over time and use, depending on the food or items you use with it.
Her pottery “base” is in the Karatsu style, which means “efficient throwing with few moves” with speed being crucial. Being a woman in Japan, she could not take over the family business from her father. However this also gave her the freedom to open her own studio, Monohanako, which means “Hanako on her own.”
Having moved to the United States as a teenager, she speaks fluent English. She shared that she and her partner would split their time between Karatsu and Maine, USA, moving to the latter during the hot humid summer months – this conversation was just before the Covid-19 pandemic started. “There’s not much to do party around here!” she quipped when I asked about the disco ball in her studio.
Hanako shared that the Nakazatos is one of the original potting families in Karatsu with their lineage tracing back 14 generations. According to her, and many others, pottery was introduced into Karatsu when Toyotomi Hideyoshi kidnapped and enslaved talented Korean potters in the late 16th century during the Imjin War. The Korean potters, who were later moved to work in Arita, are said to have set the foundation for what was to become Karatsu-yaki (Karatsu earthernware). Her grandfather, Tarouemon Nakazato, who revived the original Karatsu pottery style based on historical shards, was recognised as a National Living Treasure of Japan in the 1970s.
Karatsu-yaki is made with coarse clay from the area, rendering them a rough texture. Unlike other more decorative styles in Saga such as Arita-yaki, the wood-fired Karatsu pottery tends to have a simple appearance and is typically intended for everyday use.
“Karatsu pottery is not completed until it has been used,” she added. “It would change over time and use, depending on the food or items you use with it.” She explained that Karatsu potters in general are not seeking perfection and their works are intended to be developed and completed by those who use them. How very wabi-sabi.
Next stop: Arita 有田町