China Town

Posted by on Nov 23, 2011 in Saga, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
China Town

If you’re going to go for something, don’t hold back. Take a leaf out Arita’s book. Four hundred years ago, it became a porcelain hub and now, well the entire place is beautifully breakable. There are porcelain fittings for light switches, porcelain dolls to mark out the ladies and gents bathrooms, odd chunks of broken porcelain sucked into stone walls for some higgeldy piggeldy decoration.

Elsewhere, there’s a frankly bizarre puppet show with porcelain dolls covering robot skeletons. If that’s not a microcosm for Japan, I don’t know what is.

All of this might sound like a rubbish novelty, a theme that the town has picked on a whim to transform itself into a tourist spot. But it’s not, they’re really serious about it in Arita, and they have been for a very long time. Alongside all these unusual items is perhaps the world’s best selection of Japanese porcelain. Confusingly, the globally recognised brand name is Imari porcelain, but don’t let that fool you – Imari is nothing more than the port used to ship the good stuff, the Arita product, around the world.

In the early 17th century a Korean immigrant to Japan discovered a huge deposit of kaolinite (the core ingredient of fine porcelain) on the outskirts of Arita. From there, it was simply a case of building huge kilns to fire the works into pieces of art. The town hasn’t looked back.
In fact, for a few families, in some ways nothing has changed since those pioneering days. There are currently three living national treasures residing in Arita, the descendants of bloodlines that go back hundreds of years. The Kakiemons, for example, can trace their ancestry through fifteen generations of porcelain makers. It’s hard to imagine what kind of pressure that must bear down on a person: having their entire family tree rooted into the top of their head. If they wanted to be, say, a doctor, then the whole thing would come tumbling down.

One major incentive to keep with it is undoubtedly the money. Porcelain shops line the streets of Arita, and some of the larger, more bespoke items can command several million yen. The clientèle are as bespoke as the products: royal dignitaries from around the world buy their pottery here; a Pope visited once; and Japan’s own Imperial family has been shopping in Arita for centuries.
In May, the entire town is besieged by tourists arriving for the annual porcelain festival. The ordinarily sleepy Arita has a million visitors over that week, thronging the streets in the hopes of finding a bargain. Doubtless a great many spend far more than they intended to – if it hadn’t been for the virtual guarantee of their total destruction in our increasingly-tattered luggage, we’d have gone wild in the aisles. As it was, we spent most of the day terribly afraid of making the wrong turn in the loaded shops, our giant camera bags hanging off our backs like out-sized turtle shells.

We instead went for the altogether safer option of painting pottery. We both opted for mugs, with Katy taking the time to make a proper gift for her father, and me graffitiing another to make fun of a friend. If we didn’t understand where the price tags for this stuff came from before, we certainly did after painting. One false move and the piece is stained forever – like a tattoo, you have to (or at least should) think very carefully think about what you’re doing before you commit. Considering the size and scale of some of the pieces we saw earlier in the day, the painting must have gone on for weeks without error.

After an hour or so, we were finished with our (or at least in my case) inferior efforts. From there they joined a long queue of tourists’ works before finally heading off to the kiln. There they’ll be blasted by 1300C heat for 40 hours, then left to cool for another 40. Sometime in spring, we’ll be reunited in the UK. We hope.

Our time in Saga prefecture was made possible by:

Two days of effort by our guide and sometime driver Kazue Yadomi. Our companion throughout Saga prefecture, she was an endless source of information.

The Saga Washington Hotel Plaza, which laid on dinner, and breakfast, and a fast internet connection. It might not sound like much, but places many times more expensive offer a fraction less. They also helped us use the washing machines and dryers – life on the road isn’t all glamour.

A whole host of people in Arita for explaining the long and frequently complex history of high-grade porcelain in Japan. Also for showing us around the following kilns: Koransha, Gen-Emon, Kakiemon and the Porcelain Park. Fascinating, delicate stuff, all day long.

Also a special thanks to the Kajisada kiln for not only laying on a delicious lunch, but giving Katy and I a couple of beautiful presentation bowls for the fabled day in the future when we own a table to put them on. There are no prizes for guessing what the bowls are made of.















1 Comment

    November 23, 2011

    Loving the Bear Mug :)