|Road to Imari
Beginning of our journey...................
by Alex Gilmore
The road to Imari for me began at Narita International Airport when we traded in our Japan Rail pass vouchers for
actual physical tickets. Purchased only outside of Japan to encourage foreign tourism, this $259 per person voucher
provided me with one weeks worth of rail tickets beginning the date redeemed, and by the end of my week had
represented at least a savings of $800. The savings were great, but the real treat was being able to reserve seats
on almost any train at any time with only a few restrictions. So what the heck, we took the Shinkan-sen bullet train
with reserved seats the whole way to Kyushu. Our first stop however was a night in Kyoto.
Our stay in Kyoto was two-fold, to re-coupe our energy depleted from the flight from San Francisco, and to also
attend an antique show there the following day. Arriving in Kyoto, our hotel was but a short walk from the station, our
foreign internet reservations garnered us an up-graded room at a discount rate, and service that is so generous it is
almost awkward to accept, but more awkward to decline.
After washing up in our modern room, we stepped out for a stroll in the ancient capital. Although not near any of the
famous sights, our late night walk down the narrow streets and through neighborhoods asleep, impressed me once
again with the simple refinement that Kyoto is known for. And that night, I slept like my hound dog back at home, fast,
deep and easily.
The next morning we rode a free dedicated shuttle bus to the antique show from the train station. I have found often
in Japan that an event like an antique show will have complimentary shuttle service to help boost attendance. The
show had about 500 booths on 2 levels of a municipal convention center, and a hosted dining area and food court of
home style cooked meals.
The antiques offered at the show were really impressive, about ninety five percent of the antiques were Japanese
and some Chinese, and a few American collectibles mixed in. Prices are high side for Americans, but the quality is
super with condition being king. I especially liked the antique Japanese lighting fixtures, both old oil lamps and early
electric fixtures with glass shades and beautiful metal work. The big ticket items are anything to do with the tea
ceremony, or swords with their fittings. Lots and lots of imari and kutani porcelain, and excellent Satsuma. Furniture
and screens were offered along with ikebana and other home decorating items and 1000s of items I liked but did not
even know what I was looking at but at the same time fascinating. I was impressed with the number of booths and the
frenzy of buyers for old kimono and textiles. Although Kyoto has an excellent textile history with Nishijin brocade
weaving and Kyo-Yuzen paste resist dying, I was thrilled with the all of the Mingei or country weaving with
predominately indigo blues, kasuri / ikat weaving and rustic domestic fibers like nettle, wisteria and of course hemp
that buyers were vying for. It was very hearting to see the interest in country textiles at such a prominent show as in
Kyoto. By the time we left the show, every isle was elbow to elbow, and people were buying. Oh, and I finally saw in
person one of those 11 inch long Edo period oval gold coins you see in the books. Price, $85,000.
The shuttle back to the train station made a complicated short trip through the ancient city a breeze. Our second
leg of the trip was about to begin and with news reports of flooding in southern Honshu south of Hiroshima, and the
same in northern Kyushu, we got on the Shinkan-sen. With the weather up ahead, all one can do in such a situation
is to hope for the best, enjoy the beer, the pleasant conversation and the scenery at 120 miles per hour. Our target
was the old castle town Hakata in northern Kyushu.
I have found over the last 25 years of visiting Japan, that the farther away from Tokyo you get, the more things look
like "old Japan". This is not a put down of Tokyo, it being one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world, let
alone the safest. But is instead meant as a compliment to the rest of Japan where I have always found people to be
extremely proud of their local heritage and customs and especially their food. Food in Japan is the humble prince
that nourishes the soul so the body can continue. It's so common to hear friends say "Hay, lets go to (anywhere) and
see (such and such)". And sure, they might go and see a temple or a sacred tree somewhere, but at the foot of that
special tree is a special pickle shop, with home made pickles. It's really all about the food, people travel great
distances at great expense to eat great food in Japan.
It might be just a bowl of ramen in the mountains, or fish at a particular seaport. People will take a train ride that
stops at a remote village because they sell at the train station a well known boxed lunch of trout. Hakata is known for
their Hakata ramen made with a rich pork soup stock.
The train ride to Kyushu took only a few hours, and to our surprise it had stopped raining by the time we arrived in
Hakata. After checking into our hotel and having a bowl of ramen at a working mans restaurant, we took a sunset
stroll and found a Shinto temple dating to about 1500. Comprising of at least 10 beautiful wooded acres all tucked
within the center of town we discovered the main large wooden temple, shaded pools, bridges and an endless
number of paths leading to secluded glens. It seemed that we were the only ones there and it was very peaceful.
Also we found across the street from this temple an amazing hand made stone wall that surrounds a property that
contains a tea house.
The wall fascinated us greatly. It was built by incorporating pieces of antique roof tiles and unusual stones as the
wall proper and capped with an elegant tile roof. The pieces and shards of roof tile set in the wall were recycled from
older homes in the area dating back to the civil wars of around 1560 so a sign proclaimed.
Hakata is an old castle town with gracious hotels and all very charming, but for us it was the last overnight stop for
the real reason (other than the food) for going to Kyushu. We walked out of the hotel at 5:30AM and it was about 75
degrees and 90% humidity and we left Hakata by the earliest train bound for Arita and Imari and a surprise hidden
The first train we took south was one of a brand new and very modern fleet of local trains. The interior design had
the appearance of Danish Modern furniture with polished teak wood trim along with stainless steel. This express train
was very quiet and fast. After an hour we switched to a local train, a one car affair that dated to at about the 1950s.
We departed the station on a spur track that headed into the mountains. The mountains of Saga Prefecture are
steep and dramatic with rock outcroppings that appear to defy gravity, and the greenest foliage you can imagine.
This particular local train has a special route, not all local trains stop at the ancient Sarayama quarry and kiln site in
Kami (upper) Arita. Many trains go past but few stop. The reason they do not stop becomes apparent right after the
mountain pass, when you pull down into Kami Arita and realize that despite of all its fame it is not much more than a
sleepy community in the mountains of Saga.
The location of Kami Arita is so steep on the mountain side, a larger adjoining section of town lower in the valley
developed on a greater scale in the Edo period. This lower main portion resembles a small city and is referred to
officially as Arita and along with Nishi (West) Arita make up the greater Arita area. I understand that in the later Edo
period, there were kilns scattered throughout the greater valley area, not only in the town of Arita but in the little
valleys associated near by. Kami Arita's main street today comprises of a very narrow 2 lane road running up thru
the middle of town that continues farther up over a mountain pass in one direction and the other way down thru Arita
and on towards the coastal city of Imari about 30 miles away. The small Sarayama Arita (ancient Arita) district is
within Kami Arita and contains the original kaolin quarry, a few small pottery shops, studios and retail stores usually
within old homes.
The lower you progress in the valley the more populated it becomes, and being a wider valley floor it contains the
major portion of the pottery studios and museums.
We got off the slow local train in Kami Arita at 8:30 in the morning,
A fine mist was in the air, a threat of rain kept us on our toes as we began to walk to the upper reaches of the town
limits. It was not difficult to find the kaolin quarry because being an important historical site it is marked with stone
monuments explaining the past.
A short path with wonderful recycled brick walls leads down to the quarry area. All of the walkways are inlaid with
antique decorated Arita porcelain shards.
Its is very lovely walking on this path. The shards are artistically placed within the cement to create a colorful
historical current leading to the source of the raw material that has been the key to the production of one of the
worlds most famous products.
These paths I would guess were laid in the last 40 or 50 years as a way to dress up the location for visitors. The
brick walls along the way are similar to those found down in the town itself, and are eye catching in all aspects of
their manner. The bricks are recycled and were originally used for building the firewalls of the kilns in the ages past.
So I would guess that some of these bricks are 300 years old. You can see many sizes and shapes and colors.
Some were used as structural elements and are regular in form, other bricks are free formed and look like they were
used to act as a plug or to fill up an irregular void in the kiln wall.
The special color and sheen that each of the recycled bricks possess contains its own chronology. Each was
subjected to the high temperatures of the kiln coupled with all of the different combinations of pottery glazing
compounds over the countless decades in the form of associated air borne dust particles. If you assemble all of
these re-occurring events of fusing in a totally random organic haphazard way, well, what you end up with are the
brick walls of Kami Arita.
That morning I began to see that some of the unintended or sidebar events of an artist endeavors; like the mistakes,
the throwaways, sketches and supporting props or structures, often reflect in a casual way the direct focused intent
of the artist of craftsperson. For instance the wood shavings on the floor in a cabinetry shop formed from a wood
plane. Set aside in their own right they intrinsically possess an un-intended artistic appeal that in some ways displays
the craft as much as the finished wood up on the bench. And being a casual cast-off contain a pure energy of their
own that is the ying of the yang or the unseen portion of the finished piece.
These brick walls in Arita actually possess in minute portions, elements and particles of all of the Arita porcelains in
the world, the unadulterated shadow of greatness. This alchemized mixture of sweat and ingenuity remain on the
bricks from the kilns in this form for the future generations as reminders of past labors, fused forever.
In the early hours of that misty Sunday morning none of the shops were open, only a few people were out and about.
Two grandmothers heading down the street on a regular mission, a man out running for exercise and another
walking his dog. Each of these four residents without exception took a few moments to wish a good morning, and to
express some little pride in their historic surrounding.
While at the quarry site, a runner stopped to say how quiet the morning was now, but only how just one month ago
when they have their annual pottery festival it is so busy and so many people flocking to the area. And he spoke
while pointing out in the distance how dangerous it is over there where the kaolin cliffs can be seen, white and chalk
looking with rubble at the base. The dog walker also mentioned that the large portion of the cliff that was obviously
laying freshly at the base had broken off in the middle of the night not too many months before, and surely more
breaks would happen easily. It could clearly be seen where the giant piece had detached itself. From 100 feet up, it
now lay on the ground, one main raw piece of kaolin 10 or more feet thick and 40 or 50 feet long with debris about.
It must have weighed hundreds of thousands of pounds. When you pick up a piece of kaolin you realize that
although stone, it has no inherent structure to provide sheer strength.
After walking away from the quarry and heading down the street towards lower Arita, we decided to go to the Kyushu
which is within a 5-10 minute walk from the train station in lower Arita. You can take a taxi to the museum or walk, but
the walk is partly uphill as the museum commands a view of the Arita valley.
The museum opens at 9:00 and believe it or not is free. Only 5 other people were in the museum when where were
there. There are other museums in the Arita area but this is the biggest and most complete and is composed of
about 6 or 7 large galleries all of which were built in the 1980s to house the collections of major donors. The largest
of the donations was provided by Mr.& Mrs. Shibata from Tokyo.
The Shibata's collected over 10,000 pieces of Saga Prefecture porcelain and donated it over a period of a few years
as the seed collection of the museum. A remarkable assortment containing all of the important kilns and makers from
the earliest 17th century up to the 1860s. The volume of these historic pieces is great, and the collection displays
the progression of Saga porcelain in a fully documented way, possibly unique in the world in scope and detail and
easy to follow. The museum also has an excellent shop with reference books for sale. I am definitely going back to
this museum a second and third time.
And now to Imari, the main port and harbor for the Saga Prefecture is only about 10 miles down the valley from Arita,
so by train 15 or 20 minutes. Imari is not a big city in any sense of the word, but it does have an old town feeling and
everywhere you can see samples of local porcelain either set into walls of buildings with mortar,
incorporated into public clocks, entrances to bridges and so forth. Sadly to say we did not tour the city beyond a 45
minute walk around town, but I would like to go back there and go to antique stores and visit other museums. We
were anxious to take a bus ride.
The Okawachi valley is the jewel in the Imari area porcelain composite. Only about 5 miles outside of the town of
Imari, and easy to get to by bus or taxi, it was the location of the secret Nabeshima kilns that date back to the very
early 17th century. This valley cannot be easily detected until you get relatively close because the mountains rise
abruptly from the coastal plain, and there are a couple of blind turns as the valley begins to form.
A lot has been written about the Nabeshima, but not much about the amazing valley and the thing is that you can go
there and many of the local shop owners and home owners are truly direct decedents to the pottery dynasty of Edo
Japan. There are no homes for sale there, no real estate brokers. These people live there because their families did
before them, and just a few generations removed from the time when the gates were locked and closed and secret
to everyone. They were locked in, all others were locked out. No exceptions under penalty of death. Such was the
value of porcelain. The valley we visited, the modern Okawachi valley with its few porcelain shop has to be one of
the most charming places I have visited in Japan.
The whole valley is in length not more than one mile long, and climbs abruptly at least at a 15 percent grade and in
many places steeper.
There is a main street that threads upwards always winding, only10 feet wide mostly, and there are many smaller
streets branching off, always steeply uphill from the main street. The smaller of these "streets" are footpath wide or
at best 6-7 feet, but all lead somewhere and have kilns or shops or homes on both sides.
And water everywhere, lush gardens, lovely old brick walls and thousands and thousands of pieces of Nabeshima
porcelain incorporated into these walls and waterways and footpaths and bridges, old blue & white, colorful
porcelain, fragments and whole pieces, compositions and full scale displays as maps or histories.
Around every corner high and low you see porcelain used to decorate the town. Being set in mortar of course it is
not for sale, it is a gift. A gift that as they say, "keeps on giving". There are lots of kilns or smoke stacks of kilns
made of brick up through the valley.
I even saw old hillside style kilns in storage sheds alongside of farm tools. With the dissolution of the Nabeshima
Clan in 1867, the gates were open for strangers to enter the valley, and with that pressured the residents of the
secret valley to join the new world of commerce. They did a good job retaining the heritage and integrity, this is not a
Disneyland of ceramics, it is a working village of ceramicists, and it has been so for close to 400 years. We had
coffee with an 82 year old grandmother, a descendent of potters. She, like so many others we met in the valley, tend
to carry themselves with a straight strong back, a necessity to living in a steep mountain side village.
On a hillside across the river is a cemetery, filled with monuments. There is one particular monument that is a
dedication to unknown or un-named potters and craftspeople of the early times.
These were the workers who were forbidden. Their lives both domestic and creative were under the thumb of the
Nabeshima lord. Their names untold, their wares famous and living.
I walked alone in the cemetery, the late afternoon sun diffused thru the bowing clouds blanketing the ever upwards
mountains. I hope you will have your chance to cross that little river someday.
This trip was made in May, 2005
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