Text and photos: Melissa MacLean
Looking for a fun day trip outside of Fukuoka, my partner and I wanted to visit somewhere that wouldn’t usually be on our radar. When the opportunity to visit the town of Arita to experience an exclusive tour of a famous kiln came up, we went for it. Typical of many other millennials, we know nothing about ceramics, so it was nothing to lose and everything to gain!
Booked on a morning train, we skipped breakfast, hopped on our bikes in Yakuin, and cruised to Hakata Station. We arrived with just enough time to pick up some breakfast sandwiches and two large piping hot coffees before heading to the platform. Bellies full, brains caffeinated, and feeling ready to take on the day, we settled in for the hour and fifteen-minute ride to Arita.
At the nearby tourist information center, we met Hanneke, a Dutch Japanophile living in Arita, where she works as a bilingual guide, translator, and guest house owner. Her upbeat personality and sense of humor made the day even more enjoyable. After a concise overview of the town, including an explanation of how the stone used to make porcelain was discovered here about 400 years ago, we began to understand how Arita porcelain became so famous worldwide.
The tour began with a short taxi ride to Kakiemon Kiln, where we viewed hand-crafted ceramics being made in the famous Kakiemon Style. This included a firsthand peek at what Sakaida Kakiemon XV, head of the family kiln, is currently creating. Sorry, but we were not allowed to take photos of that; it’s a secret, so you’ll have to see it for yourself.
Admittedly, the detailed explanation of the porcelain and history was a bit overwhelming to us novices. Still, we gained an appreciation for this long-standing culture, and it was an opportunity to meet the talented artisans that keep it alive.
After visiting the museum and shop, we followed Hanneke through a giant wooden door restricted to the public. There we saw the kiln and artisans hard at work. It truly felt like we were breaking a sacred rule being on the other side of the door.
We had an explanation of the kiln and how porcelain is fired to perfection, a delicate process that requires constant supervision.
Next, we visited a workshop where artisans gracefully formed pieces using spinning wheels while in another room, artisans meticulously paint pieces. Intensely concentrated on their art, they probably weren’t aware we were there.
The tour included a rare opportunity to talk with Sakaida Kakiemon XV. In our conversation with him, we understood his aspiration for others to appreciate the intricacy that goes into each piece’s making. “It’s not just a cup.” he says, “it is Japanese history being recreated time and time again.”
After this, our crash course in ceramics and staring at empty cups and bowls made us feel hungry. Scouring the town for food, we passed by what felt like a million ceramic shops and discovered a small café. Neither of us can read kanji, so we rolled the dice and pointed at the menu and hoped for the best. After enjoying a delicious lunch, we were ready to explore the town on foot.
We took Hanneke’s advice and headed straight to an alleyway lined with tombai walls – made from ceramic scraps. Indeed, the entire town felt as if it was built of porcelain. Even the river had colorful broken pieces of ceramics scattered along the bottom.
Curious about this world-famous craft from four-hundred years ago? Hop on a train from Hakata and stroll through the streets lined with ceramic shops and galleries. Or go for a deep-dive with a guide as we did.
Exclusive Private Walking Tour of Arita’s Kakiemon Kiln
And learn more about Arita in this article or maybe book a similar tour ” Arita – The Origins of Japanese Porcelain “by Fukuoka Now