Pottery Towns

Trip Start Sep 29, 2009
Trip End Oct 29, 2009

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Flag of Japan  , Kyushu-Okinawa,
Tuesday, October 13, 2009


There is next to nothing in Saga, but it's a convenient rail connection to the pottery towns I want to visit.  There is also a recently-built Comfort Hotel right next to the train station, and the rooms are very pleasant and an excellent value.  I took the train from Saga to Karatsu and back this afternoon.  Karatsu is an old town with a long tradition of making rough, non-symmetrical pottery, some of which looks like it was burned.  It's not my style, but I'm glad I got to see it. 

The train trip between Saga and Karatsu was about a hour.  There were a lot of students, in school uniforms, on the train, as well as an unusually high number of very elderly passengers.  My guess is that this is a sign that this is a declining rural area--with an aging population and not enough school children to justify a school in every town.   

A number of passengers were wearing face masks--in Japan, politeness and civic responsibility require that you wear a mask if you have a cold.  You are also not supposed to blow your nose in public, although it's OK to sniffle.  I wonder if there is an underclass of allergy sufferers who suffer from discrimination, or at least chronic nasal problems from fluid pressure.  On the train back to my hotel from Karatsu, there was a student with either allergies or a cold, and he was really suffering and sniffling away.  At one point, we passed rice fields where they were burning the remnants of the last crop, and the smoke was heavy.  This poor kid pulled his jacket over his head--I'm not sure whether he was trying to use the jacket as a filter for the smoke, or if he was secretly blowing his nose underneath, but I didn't hear anything.  There is a lot in Japan that you aren't supposed to see or hear, and the polite thing is to pretend it doesn't exist.  For example, at my hotel in Kyoto, the staff were very formal and polite when on duty.  I happened to be sitting in the lobby during hotel cleaning hours (at business hotels they want all the guests OUT between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), and the staff put up a little screen between them and me.  Behind the screen, they were talking loudly to each other, very different from how they acted while formally visible to the hotel guests.  Reminds me a bit of that long-neglected hit by Reparata and the Delrons, "Saturday Night Didn't Happen."    

Tomorrow is my big hike--I am taking the train to Arita and walking to Hasami, which should be about an hour's walk, maybe longer.  Thanks to computer mapping, I have a good map of the route, including the locations of convenience stores along the way.  Hasami is a town where there's a company, Hakusan, that makes pottery in modern designs.  


Arita is my favorite pottery town, since it has a Wholesale Ceramics Plaza.  Most items are 30% off the posted prices, and there is a tremendous variety of goods available, in both traditional and modern designs.  I spent a whole day shopping there!  Focus on the stores on the western side of the plaza, they are the largest and have the nicest merchandise.  For modern designs, particularly notable are the Kihara, Yamoto, and Marubun stores.  Kihara is my favorite here for contemporary design. 

To get to the Wholesale Ceramics Plaza from the Arita train station:  From the train station, walk northwest a couple of blocks, then turn right and cross the railroad tracks.  A block past the railroad tracks, you will find a main road.  At that point, turn left to the main road.  Pass Iwao and the Total Fashion Club.  At the traffic light where you see the SuperWest Food Store, turn right to Route 281.  After a couple of long blocks, turn left, go one block, and then turn right.  It's about a 25 minute walk from the train station.  (See my photos of this walk.)


I had my big adventure hike yesterday.  The Hakusan company had been producing traditional porcelain in a little town called Hasami in Nagasaki Prefecture, but then its President heard someone prominent say that design is the future.  So he set out to hire a designer and got Masahiro Mori.  Mori created modern designs which Hakusan mass-produced.  Two years ago, when I was in Nagasaki, I saw some Hakusan bowls at the Nagasaki Prefecture's store.   A year ago, I saw more at the Ceramic Wholesalers' Plaza in Arita.  This year, I was determined to go to the Hakusan Factory Store in Hasami, which has no railroad station.  With the help of www.diddlefinger.com, I was able to make a map of the route to Hakusan from the nearest train station, which is in Arita.  The walk took 2 hours in each direction, but everything on display at the factory store was 30% off the usual price, so it was worth the walk.  Amazingly, there were sidewalks for the entire route, which included some very rural areas.  In Arita, the street furniture included exhibit cases with pottery inside.  Then it was over the river, through the hills, and under the Nishi-Kyushu Expressway.  I passed some rice fields that were being harvested.

From Arita train station, it's a 2 hour walk to Hasami:  From Arita train station, walk south about 4 blocks through the main part of town, then left on Route 281 for a short distance.  Then turn right to Route 4 towards Kuwakoba, the Arita-Hasami interchange of the Nishi-Kyushu Expressway, and Hasami.  Along Route 4, you will pass the entrance to Arita Porcelain Park, and then you will walk under the Nishi-Kyushu Expressway.  As you reach Hasami, turn left at the Family Mart to Route 1, then a right at the traffic light to Route 104, then a left at the end of the street to Route 1.  Hakusan is straight ahead at the edge of town. 


Imari is the third major pottery town in Kyushu.  By the way, Kyushu became a pottery center because of deposits of clay that produced pure white porcelain, and because Korean experts were brought to the area.  Reports vary about the circumstances under which the Korean experts arrived, but there appears to be some ambiguity about whether their arrival in Japan was voluntary

Okawachiyama, the old pottery village just outside Imari, is actually the remnants of a secret government installation hidden at the end of a valley, which is probably why it was so far from the nearest train station.  Apparently, in the olden days, there was strategic value associated with making the finest porcelain, and high culture was associated with political power.  Okawachiyama was about a 1 1/2 hour walk from the Kami-Imari train station, which is barely a station--there are just four plastic chairs, a few signs, and an unmarked path to a nearby street.

To get from Saga to Okawachiyama:   From Saga, take the Japan Rail Karatsu line to Yamamoto, where you transfer to the Japan Rail Chikuhi Line to Kami-Imari.  (When you transfer, it will appear that you are going back in the direction from which you just came.  Do use www.hyperdia.com to look up the train schedules and get a list of the stations along the way; many of the station signs are rusty and faded.)  From the Kami-Imari station, take the paved path north and keep going in that direction after the path joins a road.  The road crosses a river and then comes to a major intersection at Route 498*.  Turn left to Route 498*.  After one block, turn left to Route 202.  Then turn left to Route 26, and right at Route 251. (This route takes you on a semi-circle around the train station, and then on a long walk along Routes 26 and 251.)

*IMPORTANT 2013 UPDATE:  In the tradition of keeping the location of Okawachiyama secret, it appears that Route 498 has been renamed as Route 239. 

This map might help:  http://www.visitkyushu.org/2013/03/29/okawachiyama-imari-and-nabeshima-clan-kiln-park/     I don't remember for sure, but I think the pottery area is actually a little further out on Route 251 than the destination point they show on their map. 

Beware that the walk from Kami-Imari station is 1 1/2 hours each way, and most tourists don't make that walk.   As described in the VisitKyushu link above, there is a Saihi bus from the Imari JR train station that will take you to Okawachiyama. 


The most amazing thing about trains in Japan are that they are always on time.  You can figure out when to get off the train by looking at your watch rather than the station signs!  Last week, when a typhoon hit, there were unavoidable weather delays--my train was 35 minutes late.  That would be just a normal day for most U.S. train systems.  This was a typhoon that was the main story on the TV news!    

And nobody takes cell phone calls while in their seats.  If you get a cell phone call, or need to make one, you head for the area between the cars, where you can talk without annoying the other passengers.


A  tote bag marked in large letters:  "Le Freak, C'est Chic."

A stadium with a large sign reading "Best Amenity Stadium."  Unfortunately, it was 9 a.m., so I couldn't smell the popcorn.

Tosu has a factory outlet mall, and rumor has it that there is also a Uniqlo store out on Route 34, but neither is visible from the train. 

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