We are lucky to be in Kyushu, as it homes some of the most famous pottery styles and techniques in all of Japan. One of these is Onta-yaki, a small town rich in decades of pottery history. On a cool, cloudy weekend day, we took a 2 hour drive to Onta.
As we drive, we cautiously watch for signs of a Typhoon 25, which is reportedly looming over the Sea of Japan below Korea.
On our way, we pass a spectacular sight of rock and greenery. There are tunnels carved out of the boulders, and we see a bike go through. It appears to be more of a tourist sight rather than a road for practical use. There is security on the road, as people (including ourselves) pull over to snap our pictures before moving on. Back at home, I research the location to find Yabakei Gorge. It’s a famous autumn leaves viewing area, so I will be revisiting this area again soon.
After a two hour drive, we arrive to the small village of Onta-yaki. Nestled in a sea of blue and green hills, the village is gorgeous and a picturesque haven. Houses, kilns and studios all line up one after another along the one main road in town. We see peaks of red brick chimneys in between trees and buildings. There’s the clear sound of the river nearby being fed into wooden hammers that work away to break up the clay of the area so particular to the region of Onta.
Introduced in the 1500s by Korean potters, they brought new techniques of kiln designs and ash glazing. These traditional techniques are still evident in the town, and Onta pottery was designated an Intangible Cultural Property of Japan. This meant that modern machinery and methods couldn’t be utilized, so traditional methods still remain.
We stop in for lunch at a restaurant overhanding the river. In good time too, because the typhoon suddenly rears its ugly head. There’s a downpour and we are glad to be inside. We order the best udon we’ve ever had and a coffee after our meal. Everything is served in Onta ware.
With only 10 households in Onta making the ceramics, pottery-making skills are passed down to the eldest son of each family. However, we see several woman in the area, and we come to understand that the remaining responsibilities lie with women– the mining of clay, processing, refining, and everything in between. Pieces are never signed by an individual but with the sign of the Onta village. Everyone in the community work together to lay claim to the famous wares.
In one of the stores, we see a young man spinning plates on a wheel he is powering with his foot. We talk to the owner– his father – who has been making Onta pottery since his late teens.
Throughout the day, we visit studios and shop at as many stores as we can. We’ve bought a lot, and take our loot home.
Our first meal on Onta pottery.