Sunday, May 07, 2006

Arita Pottery Tour

March, 2006

While Fearless Husband was away, I tried to mix freelance work and unpacking with forays into the neighborhood and beyond. I took a day trip to the Arita pottery area, where they've been making porcelain, pottery, stoneware and earthenware for over a thousand years. Our little tour group toured a porcelain factory, which looked like a larger version of the ceramic-tile-roof houses one sees everywhere in Japan. If not for the brick smoke stack jutting up, with the name of the factory, one might just think it's a very large house, or perhaps an old fashioned school.

We watched women painting the peach-colored bowls, vases, plates, cups and platters (even porcelain "finger holds" which one puts into the ubiquitous Japanese sliding doors) with what looked like watery black ink. After the pieces are fired, the porcelain turns white, and the black painted parts turn the classic cobalt blue. Each brush seems really big, with a fat bristle end the size of a small plum that tapers very quickly into a point as fine as a single hair--it looks like a giant tear-drop. The women were mostly freehanding their designs, with perfect arches and amazing straight geometric patterns. Another group worked on landscapes and florals. They sat on small stools around low wooden tables, with thick blankets wrapped around their lower bodies (it was chilly in there!) so they looked as if they had grown up out of the floor. The "master painter", the only man painting, sat cross-legged on a raised wooden floor in one sunny corner by the window away from the mere women, surrounded by heaps of the pieces he was painting. The women smiled shyly at us when we trooped through, but "the master" ignored us entirely, bent to his work.

We were shown the two different ways the pieces were formed at this particular kind of clay is soft, like toothpaste, and is extruded into molds, which are removed after the clay has had a chance to harden. Another kind of clay is much harder, and is packed by hand into part of a mold, then the other part of the mold is put on and it's squeeeeezed to form the piece. We were shown the "new" kilns, big brick boxes with doors like safes on the front. There are rails like train tracks sunk into the floor, and the pottery is stacked on special shelves on rolling platforms--put pottery on a shelf, add some cement blocks, put more shelves on the blocks, fill those shelves with pottery and more cement blocks, until the rolling platform is stacked high. Then it's wheeled into the kiln via the tracks, and the door is shut, sealing the kill, with the rolling platform as the floor. These kilns are gas-fired.

Then we were taken outside and up the hill behind the factory to see the "stepped kilns". These are very old--we were shown one that has been in use for over 400 years! They look like fat worms coming down the terraced hillside, a long, lumpy brick structure coated with something like plaster or adobe. Each "hump" is a different level of pottery and earthenware--I think the pieces that need hotter firing are at the low end, and the pieces that don't need quite as much heat are at the upper end. At the very bottom is an oven, surrounded by huge stacks of wood cut into small pieces. The kiln is filled and sealed--the openings are bricked up, then plastered over. Then a very hot fire is built in the bottom, and fed for days, round the clock. The heat rises up the stair-stepped rooms of the kiln--if the long structure was not on an incline, the heat would dissipate before reaching the far end. Two or three months later, the finally cooled kiln is opened and the pieces removed. These pieces are very expensive--not because they are particularly delicate (they're mostly rustic stoneware and earthenware) but because they are made in this labor-intensive, traditional fashion. Our tour leader (the factory foreman) paused for a moment before we left the stepped kiln and thought. Then he smiled and said "This kiln was fired in December. It is ready, I think...would you like to see?" And he chipped away the plaster and mortar around two bricks in one arched opening and pulled them out. This was a really big deal for us to be allowed to look inside--usually a kiln opening is a little ceremonial!

Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything, because it was so dark. So, before he could put the bricks back into place--I stuck my hand inside the dark opening and snapped a photo, counting on my flash. It worked! Everyone gathered around to see the dark cave filled with earthenware, the walls glazed from years and years of heat and smoke and pottery exhalations. I felt kind of like a future alien explorer as we looked into the LCD screen on my digital camera at an image that's stayed the same for hundreds of if I'd taken a photo of the past. I guess in a way, I had.

Afterwards, we headed (of course) to the factory's shop, where most of us bought at least a couple of pieces of porcelain. It's NOT cheap, but it's beautiful. One woman asked about "seconds" and we were told that if a piece came out with any imperfection at all, it was broken on the spot...they didn't sell flawed pieces--or even allow the flawed pieces to survive. Glad they don't feel that way about people! The grounds outside the factory were decorated with a mosaic of broken pottery, so at least some of the flawed pieces (or at least perfect bits of them) didn't end up in the trash.

We left the factory, and headed to the Japanese Ceramics Museum, which was fascinating. I was too slow, reading cards and looking at each piece, so I think I saw less than a quarter of the museum's collection...but what I did see was wonderful. There were pieces for every taste, from very ornate and colorful plates to the simplest of white rice bowls. I tended towards the simple, as I love the shapes (I really fell for some dishes shaped like simple rowboats, some plain teal oval dishes, and an abalone-shaped platter!) and my friend J and her mother R were fascinated by some plates painted with peacock colors. Many of the white pieces are glazed with a green-blue tint, which the Japanese seem to always refer to as a "mysterious green-blue" color. I am not sure what makes it "mysterious", but it is really beautiful, with the hint of color pooling a little thicker at the bottom of each bowl or cup. There was also a huge modern ceramic clock, about 8 feet high, which pulled apart and had a big show of "dancing" pieces with beautiful music every half hour. The dancing figures are children, and there are different figures for each season of the year. The three seasons not currently "in play" are displayed in cases beside the clock. I took far too many photos here, but am only including a couple. For those who have a fascination with this stuff, let me know and I will send you more, individually.

The final stop before we headed home was an amazing, cluttered place, filled to the brim with pottery, porcelain and china of all kinds. There were some beautiful pieces and some real junk, all heaped on table after table after table, and on shelves covering every square inch of the walls. It was really overwhelming! In the back of the store was an area similar to the "paint your own pottery" places in the US, but with six potter's wheels to one side. Each of us on the tour were given the choice beforehand to either paint a piece of pottery or make a piece of pottery. I've painted before, so I chose to make a piece, as I'd never sat at a potter's wheel before. Our teacher demonstrated how the wheel worked, and from his fingers flowed a spherical vase, an elegant bowl, a thin and beautiful scallop-edged plate. He made it look so easy!

I made two misshapen Frisbees that drooped into unworkable masses (I was aiming for that delicate plate!) and even though the teacher had no English and I have only "excuse me", "sorry" and "thank you" (all of which I'd used a lot already) in Japanese he let me know kindly but firmly that my third try was also going to be my final try. Period. So...I made a little flared dish that I decided afterwards was a candle-holder for a small pillar candle. Or maybe it's a ring dish for my dresser. Or...well, you get the picture. Our pieces were glazed with a really lovely clear glaze that turned the warm terra cotta to a slate color, with a tiny film of pale blue...not really an irridescense, more like a tint or a veil. They were fired for us, and sent to the base--I picked up my whatever-it-is last week. I have a whole new respect for potters, and now I desperately want to take a class!

My favorite "take-away" from the whole experience was a brochure put out by one of the factory owners. He provides it for free to all the pottery factories and shops to give to tourists...his niece, from a neighboring city, did a school report on the pottery area, and he was so proud of it, and thought it so educational, he printed it as a booklet to give away. It's in Japanese, with an English translation alongside. The language is flowery and wonderful with the stilted prose of an earnest 14-year-old, and it's both educational and interesting--more so, I think, than if it had been written by a professional looking to "sell" the area to tourists. The proud uncle's introduction as he talks about his surprise at the scholarship and dedication of "these two innocent young maidens, who walked unflagging through the heat to discover the heart of Arita" is part of the charm, as you can almost picture him with tears in his eyes and a hand over his heart, the national anthem playing in the background as the camera zooms in on a young girl's sweet face...It's funny, but charming, interesting, and very human.

Check out the geometric pattern on the spherical vase waiting to be glazed and fired--it was painted lines drawn before she just took brush in hand! It was amazing to watch!


Anonymous said...

that's an interesting perspective! i have never been to japan but am currently taking a class at the university of new mexico that teaches the ways of arita specifically... it would be amazing to actually visit!

Carolie said...

Thank you for visiting! Your class sounds really interesting...I'd love to hear more! Feel free to contact me at carolie(AT)wordmagix(DOT)com!

ben said...

i also took to unm course
and am goig to japan next week
can you give me any info on getting there?
did you fly t nagasaki?
are ther trains right to arita
ant info will really help

Carolie said...

Hi, Ben! Please contact me at carolie(AT)wordmagix(DOT)com. I flew in and out of Fukuoka and then took a bus or train to Sasebo, but you can probably fly in and out of Nagasaki just as easily. You can get a train to Arita (and Hasami and Imari and Mikawachiyama) easily from Nagasaki or from Fukuoka, though you may have to change trains. You can also take the bus from either town. It's REALLY easy to do the trains and buses in that part of Japan, much easier than the complex Tokyo subway system! Once you are in Arita, you can walk around, or take a taxi if necessary.

If you get the chance, I HIGHLY recommend getting to Imari, and taking a bus or a taxi to Ookawachiyama, which is really fantastic! If you have to choose between Ookawachiyama and Arita, go to Ookawachiyama! It's absolutely gorgeous, and the entire little town is kilns and shops. The history is amazing as well (it's the walled area where they kept the Korean "guest" potters, to keep them "safe" -- they were actually prisoners!)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information about your trip to Arita.My husband & I do ceramics at home so we are looking forward to this trip.We noted that it said to have yen available,what is the average price range for a modest purchase?Do they take American money or credit card?MMQ

Carolie said...

Thank you for your note, MMQ! The prices vary a great deal. In some places, especially right along the main street in Arita, you can get very inexpensive porcelain for as low as 200 yen (about $2.75). However, if you want a nice piece, count on spending quite a bit more. I have several pieces I got on sale for under 500 yen, several pieces for around 2,000 yen, all the way up to my very few big splurges, which include a single Imaemon saucer for 25,000 yen and a beautiful little Gen-enmon sake pitcher for around 30,000 yen.

Do carry yen everywhere, because many (most!) restaurants don't take credit cards. The larger department stores and the more expensive kilns take credit cards (mostly Visa), but smaller places generally do not. I remember a place in Imari with exquisite small bowls that I craved, but they didn't take credit cards, and I didn't have enough yen.

DO go to Ookawachiyama in Imari if you get the chance. Wandering the twisty streets there, under the shadow of the craggy mountains is a fantastic experience, and quite different from the streets of old Arita Town.

You can reach me at carolie(at)wordmagix(dot)com if you would like to talk further! I'm actually headed back over this month!

Carolie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolie said... for American dollars, only China on the Park will accept American dollars. Change your dollars (or travelers' checks) at the Tokyo airport on your way through.

Anonymous said...

very ugly nothing about japanese image and spirit really, looks like western design

Carolie said...

Really, anonymous? That's interesting! Especially since most of the photos of porcelain are from the porcelain museum, of antique Japanese pieces (which heavily influenced Western porcelain).

I have to admit, I'm a little taken aback by your anonymity and your mean-sounding comment. I'm not quite sure how I offended you. I would guess you are not Japanese, because I've never met (or heard of) a Japanese person who would be so rude.

Lis Harwood said...

Thank you for a great post. I have shared the link on my blog which features a little Arita plate that I saw in the Bowes museum.