In 2016 the small Japanese town of Arita celebrates its 400th anniversary. Many of its original ceramics kilns are still operating.
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The small historic town of Arita remains a crucible of Japan’s elegant porcelain production and a treasure trove of history. In 2016 it will celebrate 400 years of production from its myriad kilns.
Arita is in the Saga Prefecture situated between Fukuoka and Nagasaki, and near the port of Sasebo, on Kyushu’s western coast. In the early 17th Century, brilliant Korean potters were forcibly brought there, to pass on their famous and highly valued skills to the local craftsmen. The Korean potter Sanpei Lee discovered the wonderful kaolin (white clay) deposits which can still be seen in the Izumiyama quarry. Sanpei is honoured to this day in the hilltop Tozan shrine, the only shrine in Japan with porcelain tori [gates].
The town was declared an “Important National Historic Treasure” in 1991, and is a wonderfully authentic place of timber houses with traditional gardens, of mountainsides of terraced tea plantations dotted with shrines, of thick pristine forests and streams full of carp. Its winding laneways are lined with stone walls, called “tonbei” walls – made from the bricks from some of the disused kilns, encrusted with beautiful glazes accreted in layers over the years. Remnant shards of the pottery and bricks are visible in the lanes and forests that thread through and surround the town.
One hundred kilns are still in operation, and still follow traditional production methods. One of the oldest, Genemon, continues to use traditional wood firing a couple of times a year. Genemon also still produces bespoke porcelain for the Japanese Royal family, using the royal chrysanthemum crest.
Inhabitation is along a long narrow strip, following the Arita River that runs through a high valley between surrounding mountains. The main street aka the “Champs Elysees”, cuts through the centre of town and is the remnant road which was used to carry the precious cargo in and out — on hand drawn carts full of protective straw. Guards at either end of the road controlled the access — for the secrets of the kilns were sacrosanct, and the patterns and mixtures were and still are highly protected, and the porcelain more valuable than gold. Many teacups were need for the ceremonies of the samurai, and fine celadon glazes were preferred — so fine that the warriors could see through the porcelain and tell if their tea had been poisoned or not.
Outside Genemon kiln, beautiful red pine bundles are stacked ready for the bi-annual firing. Approximately 600 bundles of pine are used for each firing, at the cost of US$7 each. Many kilns, such as Kakiemon, are operated by descendants of original owners, 14 generations on. Access to the workshop areas is restricted, as patterns and methods are kept highly-guarded. Artisans sit at benches with fine brushes made from deer hairs to apply the decorations and decals. Contemporary patterns are also receiving accolades, the Yazaemon kiln being awarded the Milan Salone prize for its ‘Snow’ series under the LAB brand. Happy Lucky kiln hosts artists-in-residence programs which encourage much international attention.
Museums abound in the town, recording the history of porcelain. The Shibata Collection is housed in the impressive modern Prefectural Museum of Kyushu Ceramic Art. Mr and Mrs Shibata were collectors who donated their whole collection of Arita porcelain dating back to 1610 to the museum from 1990 amounting to over 10,000 pieces. Some of their collection was also donated to the British Museum.