Okawachiyama Kilns, Imari City 大川内山
During the first century of the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was closed to the outside world, there was one Japanese product that, despite the closure of the country, experienced a major export boom to European royal courts - porcelain.
Upheaval in China, the traditional source of the precious product, prevented trade with the Middle Kingdom. European dealers quickly discovered a new source which had only very recently developed its high skills in porcelain production - Japan.
The Shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo) gave his blessing to the trade.
Most of Japanese porcelain was produced in Arita, located in what is today Saga Prefecture in Kyushu.
Since Arita is an inland city, the wares were shipped out via the nearby Imari Port from where they first went to the Dutch trading station in Nagasaki and from there on the long journey to Europe.
Thus, among the Europeans rich and sophisticated enough to be able to appreciate it, Japanese porcelain in general became known as "Imari ware" - simply because that was the major origin of its shipping.
In fact, however, Imari was not only a shipping point. It has been a real center of porcelain production all by itself for the last 400 years - and is still going strong.
Today, the Okawachiyama kilns in Imari are open to visitors and great bargains can be found at the shops right there. You don't have to be a royal anymore to afford some genuine Imari plates for your kitchen.
The Okawachiyama kilns form a small, densely populated village about 6km from Imari town center. While Imari itself is a modern city, in Okawachiyama, tradition lives on.
The bus to Okawachiyama will stop in front of the Imari - Arita Ware Traditional Crafts Center, a modern exhibition hall and museum right outside the entrance to the valley. All cars have to be parked there as well.
From there, the visit will be on foot. You cross a little bridge decorated with ceramic tiles depicting dragons and are soon in the middle of the ancient kilns.
The mountains surrounding the village are steep and densely wooded. Space has always been scarce in Okawachiyama and thus one old kiln has been built right alongside the next.
This makes not only for great old-style Japanese scenery but precious high-class porcelain is still produced in all the surviving kilns. You can actually see the porcelain makers at work - and you can buy their products right there in the shops at the various kilns.
Depending on what you look for, the variety of products might be overwhelming. While plenty of decorative items are on sale - often for a hefty price - high-quality every-day kitchenware like plates, bowls, tea cups and the like is today the major output.
Slightly faulty pieces, the faults visible only to the porcelain makers themselves and true porcelain aficionados, are (almost) a steal.
Though all the different kilns have different names, Okawachiyama products are generally known as Nabeshima Ware. That's because they all share the same history.
Close to Okawachiyama Village is a large ancient graveyard of Korean potters. They are the ones who started it all.
The Origins of Nabeshima Ware
Though the history of pottery in Japan reaches back to the earliest human settlements on the islands, porcelain manufacture was introduced to the country only about 400 years ago - shortly before the start of the Edo era.
As happens so often, war proved to be the agent of development. From 1592 to 1598, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the ruler of the then newly unified Japan, set out to conquer the Korean peninsula. The campaign, known as the Imjin War, ultimately resulted in a military defeat for Japan.
Culturally, however, Japan gained a lot of expertise. Many Korean craftsmen were brought to Japan during the invasion - and among them were some of Korea's finest porcelain makers.
The local Lord of Saga at the time was Naoshige Nabeshima (1537-1619), who actively participated in the war. He may or may not have personally overseen the recruitment of Korean potters for his area.
The details of exactly how the Arita / Imari porcelain production started are murky and debated among historians. A Korean potter named Yi Sam Pyong is often evoked as the father of Japanese porcelain. It is claimed that after having spent some years in the service of Nabeshima as a storyteller, he eventually discovered local white kaolin resources - the crucial base for the making of porcelain - and that he opened his various workshops then. Today, historians doubt that Yi ever existed.
However, there are no doubts that Korean potters were brought over and that they either started the business or helped to refine a crude but already existing white kaolin pottery manufacturing base to attain the status it eventually attained.
Lord Nabeshima's descendants settled a group of Korean porcelain makers in Okawachiyama, an area with rich white kaolin resources nearby. The quality of their output was so high that the Shogun in Edo himself became a major early customer. The trade term Nabeshima Ware was coined back then.
Okawachiyama - Tourist Attraction
Beautiful landscape, a dense village of historical buildings and high-class traditional products often offered for bargain prices - that sounds like a perfect major tourist attraction, with tour group buses lining up and uniformed bus guide girls leading their charges through the narrow lanes, waving the bus company's flag to keep them together.
In fact, that's exactly the reality of Okawachiyama today, if you go there on a weekend, let alone a long weekend encompassing a holiday.
But if you can afford the luxury of traveling there in the late morning of, say, a regular Tuesday, the place will be all yours and you will be easily able to talk to the actual makers of the porcelain you buy. They will be happy to explain all the intricate details of their precious ware.
Access - Getting to Okawachiyama
Imari is located in Saga Prefecture in Kyushu on the JR Chikuhi Line from Fukuoka via Karatsu (2 hours, 20 minutes) and the Nishi-Kyushu Line (Matsuura Railway) from Arita. From Sasebo, changing in Arita, journey time is 1 hour, 50 minutes. By highway bus from Hakata Station in Fukuoka to Imari is 1 hour, 40 minutes.
From Imari Station taxis are available to Okawachiyama and there is also a bus service.