Okawachiyama – The Village of Secret Kilns and Hidden Mountain Shrines
One of the things Saga prefecture is known for is pottery. Arita and Imari are the most famous towns to visit, shop and even do workshops. Not far from Imari, in the middle of the mountains, there is a hidden gem called Okawachiyama, known by the locals as the village of the secret kilns (because it is enclosed by mountains on three sides). You can reach it via a local bus or taxi from Imari station (you can get a timetable and information from the little tourist information office across the road from the JR station, under the MR station; the bus stop is just outside the office).
Walking Around the Village
As soon as you get off the bus, sightseeing starts. You see the mountains in the background, narrow roads, pottery and porcelain everywhere, a stream, and cute little bridges over it.
Here, everything is decorated with colorful hand-painted tiles, from the bridges to details on houses, shop signs and even door handles. The most impressive bridge is probably the Nabeshima Clan kiln bridge with little tiles, as well as a central piece depicting dragons.
There are a few coffee shops and the public toilets are next to the bus stop. Even if everything is closed, just a tour around is amazing, but remember to be considerate, as many people live here.
There are many kilns of different styles, some built 300 years ago, and high chimneys. Okawachiyama is actually historically very important, as it was home to the Nabeshima clan, who built special stepped kilns to produce fine porcelain for the successive shoguns and emperors during the Edo and Meiji periods.
The secretive location was chosen to avoid information leakage regarding their production technology and access was very strictly controlled. The process starts with shaping clay by hand or on a potter’s wheel and involves many steps of painting, firing and glazing. The Imari-ware can be classified according to the color scheme used, such as iro-Nabeshima (red, yellow and green over pure white or blue and white), Nabeshima-sometsuke (indigo blue paint over a white base) or Nabeshima-seiji (blue-green glaze using extracts from a green stone).
Walking Up the Mountain to a Hidden and Very Intriguing Shrine
The tour around the village was very nice, but I love nature, so I started walking towards the south edge and found what looked like the entrance to a shrine, with the water ochouzu (お手水), guardian dog statues, a stone gate and steps leading up.
After a very long time climbing up through the forest, I finally got to the top, where I could see a shrine inside the rock, water and some magnificent views of mountains, towns and the Imari Bay. This is the Gongendaki Shrine, a Japanese power spot (spiritual spot). The whole thing is quite mysterious and like a weird combination of different cultures, including even some decorative pieces that look like warfare. Walking around, at the back, there are many Buddhist statues, which can be found all around the mountain also continuing through a narrow little trail.
At the top of the stairs, a 300-year-old cedar is also marked with a rope and an information sign. I went in July, but I would definitely recommend going in the spring or autumn, when the weather is less hot and stuffy, especially if you want to go all the way up to the Gongendaki Shrine. You can see more images here.