After leaving Karatsu, we headed southwest to visit other ceramic towns in Saga Prefecture: Arita 有田町, Imari 伊万里市, and Okawachiyama 大川内山.

Today, the porcelain made in and around Arita is referred to as Arita ware (or Arita-yaki 有田焼), however it used to be called Imari ware (or Imari-yaki 伊万里焼) in the 17th century as the products were shipped from the port of Imari to Europe. In the early days, the ceramics were of the blue-white variety, a copy of the renowned Jingdezhen pottery from China. Over time, the style of Arita-yaki evolved to feature brightly coloured enamelled designs which have continued to present time. That said, some contemporary artists and studios in Arita have taken the minimalist route, playing with colour gradients and textures as well as unconventional forms.

I prefer the comparatively rustic Karatsu-yaki which tends to be less decorated and in more muted shades than Arita-yaki. To me, Karatsu-yaki provides the user with more mental space to enjoy whatever it contains. It is less distracting while serving as a backdrop that complements and enhances one’s appreciation of the food, drink or flowers set within in. It may have also been due to the galleries that I visited in Karatsu which produced pieces on a smaller scale and thus have a more artisanal vibe to them. 

While I am not as taken with the Arita-style pottery, it was interesting to learn about its history as we visited some of the following places around Saga Prefecture.

Okawachiyama village 大川内山

A small village in the mountains near Imari, Okawachiyama is known for producing the finest porcelain in pre-modern Japan.

For almost two centuries starting from 1675 during the Edo period, Okawachiyama was the official kiln of the Nabeshima clan which ruled the Saga Domain and produced porcelain for the nobility. This included diplomatic gifts to the shogun and other feudal lords as well as porcelain for domestic use by the Nabeshima family. The production of the exclusive Nabeshima ware (or Nabeshima-yaki 鍋島焼) was largely undertaken by highly skilled Korean potters and the village was heavily guarded to prevent the technology from being leaked and any of the makers from escaping.  

The kilns were eventually shut down in 1871, shortly after the end of the Edo period. Okawachiyama village was revived in 1984 and has since become designated as a national historic site. Today, the quiet cobblestoned main street is lined with small galleries and kilns. Its pottery legacy is evident throughout the village, from the bridge covered with hand-painted blue-on-white tiles to moss-covered walls embedded with bits of broken pottery. 

My favourite spot involves an uphill climb to the Nabeshima Hanyo Park where you will get a sweeping view of the village with its protruding chimneys nestled amidst green mountains.

Part of the park features eclectic designs and sculptures using pottery. On the lower part of the hill, remnants of ancient stepped kilns from the Edo period can be seen as well.

Arita Será

If you don’t have time to visit the galleries in the Arita town centre, this is a convenient one-stop-shop for browsing the creations from various kilns. You may also find some bargains amidst this collection of pottery outlets. One of the galleries include Kihara, which I recognised for its distinctive collaboration with Singapore’s SUPERMAMA.

Kouraku Kiln

This family-run kiln established in 1865 where visitors can go “treasure-hunting” in their warehouse for 90 minutes and fill their chosen baskets (valued at 5,000 and 10,000 Yen) with whatever catches their fancy.

Even though it was near closing time when we arrived, one of the staff kindly took us on a tour around the site and even gifted us with a pair of blue-white porcelain dishes bearing the “VOC” monogram of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). For most of the Edo period, the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan. Ours were recent copies of the antique dishes that were commissioned by the VOC for their officers during that era.

Gallery Arita

We stopped by here for lunch. For a personalised touch, choose from one of the over 2,000 sets of Arita cups on display to use with coffee or tea at the cafe.

Where we stayed: Guesthouse Ne Doco 猫床

We spent a few nights at this cozy bed-and-breakfast in a rural corner of Imari, using it as our base to explore Arita and Okawachiyama Village. Misa, the owner of the guesthouse, had inherited this traditional Japanese farmhouse from her grandmother. The guesthouse is about 10 minutes by car from Imari town centre and provides a quiet respite after a day of exploration. Misa also prepares a tasty traditional Japanese breakfast upon request.

Next stop: Yame 八女市

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