Hello everyone, my name is Béné. I’m French, and now live in Fukuoka. I absolutely love Kyushu and really enjoying traveling around the island, discovering new places, and sharing my experiences.
At the beginning of March, I was given the chance to go on a monitor tour of Saga and Nagasaki. I was chosen, among other foreigners living in Kyushu, to spend a weekend in the western part of Kyushu. The theme was “Hizen Pottery Zone”. Hizen was the name of an old province in Kyushu near Saga and Nagasaki prefectures. In April 2016, after cooperation between local governments, Hizen Pottery Zone was approved as a Japanese heritage site by The Agency for Cultural Affairs. Since then, cities in Saga and Nagasaki prefectures have been doing their best to promote the area to Japanese and foreign visitors. This monitor tour was part of the project.
Okawachiyama is a small village surrounded by mountains and rice fields, and is part of Imari City. From Fukuoka, it took us around two hours by car.
Okawachiyama is all about wooden houses, little gardens, stone paved streets, and ceramics. There aren’t any convenience stores or modern buildings in the village. It’s the perfect place for those who want to experience a traditional Japanese village, but in an easily accessible location as there are buses available from Imari Station.
We were welcomed by a local representative, and he kindly guided us through the village, from the Imari and Arita Pottery Traditional Industry Museum to little streets and shops. At the museum we could, of course, see historic pieces of pottery, but also traditional dolls. The monitor tour took place the weekend after Hina Matsuri (girls festival) so all the places we went were full of Hina dolls and pink decorations.
After that, we had the chance to enter a pottery factory and see craftsman working! I was amazed by their precise and delicate movements. While watching them work, all I could think was, “Wow people actually do that themselves!” It’s surely tough work, and I was moved by the way they put their heart into each piece.
Our next stop was a small village in Sasebo City: Mikawachi. Mikawachi is almost as charming as Okawachiyama, but it’s more difficult to get to as the nearest train station or bus stop is at least two km from the village.
But first, lunch time! After a long time in the car, we were all very hungry. We ate at a place called “Taiheiya” which is located inside a traditional Japanese house. An adorable grandma served us some delicious pickles and vegetables, tasty miso soup, and Hirado style sushi, which is rice shaped into a square with toppings inside, such as seaweed, and topped with eggs. I chose to sit at a table near a window facing a Japanese garden. Is there a more perfect place to enjoy a Japanese meal? I really loved this place, and I’ll definitely go again.
After lunch, it was time for a little walk in the village’s streets and factories. The guide was very funny. He taught us things in a very interesting way so that we could remember. We also went to Mikawachi Yaki Kyoto Museum of Traditional Industry. The museum is divided into two sections, one for modern ceramics and one for antiques. Some were even made a few centuries ago! It was interesting to see the differences between them. For example, modern pieces are much more colorful.
The third stop of the day was nearby Hasami village. First we went to see a doll show. The Sarayama Dolls Theater was opened that day just for us, and we were gifted a performance. The dolls were created in the 18th century, when there was a great famine in Japan. The people of Hasami village built the theater to take their mind off hunger.
The dolls are controlled by men wearing black clothes from head to toe so people can’t even see their face. At first, I thought that I would only be able to focus on the men, but when the performance started I forgot them and only saw the dolls.
The show was, actually, very funny. It’s amazing how only simple movements and music can portray so much emotion. After the show, we we able to practice controlling the dolls. Each doll needs three people to move it; one for the head and right arm, one for the left arm, and one for the legs. The dolls were quite heavy. When dressed up they can weigh up to five kilos!
Then, two local guides joined us for a walk around the village. They took us to the best look out point and to some of the best shops in Hasami.
I really love that a lot of shops in the Hizen area are actually houses. Products are displayed on the first floor, mostly in tatami rooms, and the owner’s residence is upstairs. One of the shops we visited had a kotatsu and the most amazing bathroom in the world! From the sink to the toilet bowl, everything was made out of ceramics. I couldn’t help but take pictures.
The last stop of the day was Ureshino City. Ureshino is well known for its hot springs and tea production. We ate dinner in a traditional izakaya and ate delicious local food, including the famous onsen yudofu! This Ureshino speciality is made with soft tofu which is slowly simmered in a hot spring water pot. After a while, the tofu starts to melt and becomes creamy. It is absolutely delicious and is one of the tastiest dishes I have ever had. Highly recommended!
After the dinner, we went to Sansui Global Inn, our hotel. What was fantastic about it was its picturesque baths, painted by two Japanese artists.
I also loved the provided shampoo and body soap. Both were made of green tea and left my skin and hair smelling of sweet tea. It seems that they are only sold in Ureshino and I wished we had time to do a little shopping. The baths were opened in the morning for a quick dip (and more tea scented soap!) before departure. The water is said to make the skin smooth and beautiful.
On the morning of the second day we headed to Arita, which is one of the most famous pottery villages and said to be the origin of Japanese porcelain. While men were sightseeing, the women went for a kimono dress-up experience! I was given a pink and white kimono with a black and red sash and it looked really pretty.
When everyone got dressed, we walked to a traditional Japanese house to have lunch. No Japanese food this time but… French cuisine ! The idea of a French girl in a kimono eating French cuisine in Japan made everyone laugh.
One by one, the dishes, served on Arita porcelain, looked like paintings and tasted fantastic. The taste was exactly the same that I use to experience in France. Unfortunately, the restaurant was only open for a limited time.
The second part of our journey was a walk in the city. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time, and after 30 minutes we had to go back to the kimono shop to change. From what I saw, Arita had a bigger city atmosphere than the previous villages we visited (Ureshino aside) but it was quite pretty too, especially the fire-resistant brick walls called tombai which you can see all around the center of the village.
The last stop of the tour was Takeo City. I think Takeo is most known for its hot springs, but it has some other treasures, such as the stunning Mifuneyama Rakuen. First we went to the mountain to visit more pottery shops. Behind one of these shops was a hill made of pottery! Items which couldn’t be put on sale (because of an abnormality, for example) used to be thrown away here and the broken pieces eventually became a hill. Even now you can find a lot of pottery pieces and some are very old.
After that we tried a ceramic painting workshop. We were given a plate and had to decorate it using two colors: red, which will turn black, and blue. It was actually quite difficult! I was so ashamed that my plate looked like it was decorated by a child while other people managed to do beautiful drawings. Can you guess which is mine?
Then, we had a tea ceremony at Teahouse Mifune-Jaya inside a beautiful Japanese garden called Keishu-en. Tea ceremonies in Japan have a very formal image where you sit, silent in seiza, while the tea master makes your tea. However, in the tea house we went, people sit at a table and make the tea themselves following simple illustrated instructions. The trickiest part was to make the froth. I was the only one who attended tea ceremony lessons in the past, but the only one who didn’t manage to make a lot of froth. How embarrassing! It was still really good, but I’ll take my revenge one day!
Before coming back to Fukuoka, we had a meeting where all participants and local governments’ representatives shared opinions about the area and the tour itself. We, also, talked about how difficult it is to promote an area when many nationalities have different priorities and ways of travelling.
These two days were busy but highly interesting, and I came back to Fukuoka delighted. I was able to learn new things, make new acquaintances, had a lot of new experiences, and also discovered that Hizen pottery is much more than just beautiful tea cups and plates.
Hizen pottery zone is not well known among foreign tourists, but the wonderful landscapes, rich culture and history, and the great food will appeal to many, for sure. Kyushu residents and travellers, how about making a trip to Hizen and learn about the pottery world?
When planning a trip, make sure to check out the different pages below.
Saga Prefecture: http://www.saga-tripgenius.com
Nagasaki Prefecture: http://visit-nagasaki.com
Text and photos for Fukuoka Now by Béné no Fukuoka (April, 2017)
Check out her blog at: http://en.benefukuoka.com/