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Culture

Kyushu Ceramics: Discover the Beauty and History of Japanese Porcelain

Southern Japan's rich history of cultural exchange is at the heart of the story of Kyushu's ceramic wares, from the first fired up in the country to the contemporary pieces that continue to capture hearts.

By 4 min read 1

The history of ceramics in Japan is intrinsically intertwined with cultural exchange. Like green tea, soba and udon noodles, the birthplace of Japanese ceramics is Kyushu, a historical hub of transnational webs. With its proximity to the Asian mainland, Kyushu has long been an easy jumping-off point between Japan and the rest of the world, from early monks on pilgrimages to China to Portuguese merchants trading in Nagasaki.

Today, we’ll cover the origin of Japanese ceramics along with distinctive pottery techniques used in towns across Japan’s southern island.

A Brief History of Japanese Porcelain

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A porcelain shrine gate to mark the town’s history with the craft.

The art of ceramic making came to Japan via the Korean Peninsula, beginning with daimyo (feudal lord) Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attempts to invade Korea in the late 1500s.

Hideyoshi was invested in the Japanese tea ceremony, and during his reign, ceramics imported from Korea became a highly prized item among elites. With his attack on the Korean Peninsula, Hideyoshi and his army looted ceramics and even forcibly relocated Korean artisans and potters to Japan throughout his campaigns.

One of these potters, Risanpei, found porcelain near Arita in Saga Prefecture and fired up Japan’s first ceramics piece. Soon after, Korean artisans in other northern Kyushu regions, such as Karatsu in Saga and Hasami in Nagasaki, began producing high-quality wares which continue to draw a robust following both domestically and internationally.

Pottery towns in Kyushu

Looking to visit some pottery towns? Look no further than our top three picks.

Arita: The Hometown of Color-Glazed Ceramics

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The vividness of the overglaze designs with the sheer porcelain makes for a gorgeous juxtaposition.

Known as “white gold” among European aristocrats, Arita-ware has long been prized for its exquisitely smooth, white porcelain, beautiful indigo blue stain for glazing and intricate, colorful overglazing designs.

In 1646, artisans in Arita created the first color-glazed ceramics, drawing beautiful patterns with paints. These stunning pieces caught the eye of the Dutch East India Company around 1650, and soon, Arita’s ceramics became the must-have chinaware among Europe’s royalty. These ceramics remain in demand as they are vaunted for being light and delicate while simultaneously robust. As many historical pieces show, they are impressively resistant to water and staining.

Arita is still a quiet ceramics town and can be reached via the Midori Express train from Hakata station. Plan for a trip during Golden Week (late April-early May) and be one of the million visitors attending the annual Arita Ceramics Fair.

Arita Porcelain Lab

Recommended for: People looking for a refined aesthetic with pops of color. Party hosts looking for conversation pieces also need not look further. 
1-11-3 Kamikohira, Arita, Nishimatsuura District, Saga Prefecture - Map
Nearest station: Kami-arita

Karatsu: Earth Tone Ceramics

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At the heart of Karatsu-ware is the clay whose natural characteristics and texture shine through to the finished product.

Also from Saga Prefecture, Karatsu-ware is best known for its unpretentious appearance and earthy tones, a contrast from the brightness of Arita-ware.

Rather than being marketed for export, Karatsu ceramics became exceptionally successful domestically. In western Japan, karatsu-mono (Karatsu-ware) even became the general word for pottery. Also, karatsu-ware has long been popular as vessels for the Japanese tea ceremony. Indeed, while Ido-yaki (pottery produced in Korea) and Raku-yaki (pottery produced in Kyoto) are the top two choices for tea ceremony goods, Karatsu has traditionally held the third spot.

Decorated with simple images, ranging from nature to human figures painted with brushes or fingers, e-karatsu (brush-decorated karatsu) is the most popular variety of Karatsu-ware and is often shaped into plates, bowls and small dishes. Meanwhile, kuro-karatsu (black iron-based karatsu) has a high concentration of iron mixed into its ash glaze, resulting in strikingly dark colors such as amber, rust, brown or black.

Karatsu is easily accessible from Meinohama station. If you’re in town around Golden Week, stop by the Karatsu Yakimon Ceramic Festival, which features the work of local artists and foods.

Kyouzangama Kiln and Studio 

Recommended for: People looking to match their natural woods with corresponding dishware in earthy tones. A must for tea ceremony fans, too!
4958 Kagami, Karatsu city, Saga Prefecture  - Map
Nearest station: JR Nijinomatsubara station

Hasami: Affordable and Durable Ceramics Since the Edo Period

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Durable, affordable and eye-catching Hasami-ware.

Like Arita and Karatsu-ware, Hasami-ware is from a town of the same name in Nagasaki Prefecture. Soon after Hasami potters adopted the knowledge of Korean artisans, locals began to produce porcelain bowls, bottles and tableware, becoming a leading producer of porcelain goods by the late Edo period.

While Hasami-ware often brings to mind images of indigo blue designs set against white porcelain, it comes in various styles. Indeed, many suggest that it has no specific set of characteristics. Yet, durability and affordability set Hasami-ware apart from their neighbors in Arita and Karatsu.

At the heart of Hasami-ware is a division of labor system wherein each artisan is responsible for one part of the piece, which allows potters to mass produce their wares, keeping costs low and quality high. Kurawanka bowls decorated with simple Karakusa moyou (scroll patterns), in particular, were the most common type of Hasami-ware sold in the Edo period and helped to bring porcelain, once reserved for the wealthiest tier of society, into the households of regular people.

Moreover, as Nagasaki was central to international exchange, Hasami artisans were the first to create konpura (named after the Portuguese word for broker), ceramic bottles intended to keep soy sauce and alcohol fresh during their overseas export journey. And today, Hasami-ware is found on dinner tables, school cafeterias and hospital trays nationwide.

From Hakata station, get off at Arita station and grab a 20-minute taxi ride to Hasami. Visitors to Hasami during Golden Week should browse the Hasami Ceramics Fair for great bargains and a chance to meet the artists behind these works.

Hana Wakusui

Recommended for: People looking for modern takes on a centuries-old craft. Hasami ware’s durability is also great for those prone to breaking dishware!
2187-4 Isekigo, Hasami, Higashisonogi District, Nagasaki Prefecture - Map
Nearest station: Kawatana station 
Have you visited any of these pottery towns? Comment your experience below!

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  • John Gilleo says:

    Wonderful. I did a self directed Kyushu Ceramics Trail over 30 years ago. Started from Fukuoka and traveled through rural Saga Prefecture to embrace my love of porcelain. It was a must to visit the original
    kilns as a serious collector of Ko-Imari Arita ware. I found my self in small towns trying to negotiate travel on bus and trains without schedules in English. A trip to remember

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