Teacups, Tanuki, and Thrown Clay: The Art of Mashiko Pottery
Mashiko is a well-known yet relatively unexposed jewel in the wilds of Tochigi Prefecture. The town dates back to the nineteenth century and is famous for its earthenware folk pottery called Mashikoyaki. Located approximately 140 km northwest of Tokyo, it is an ideal day trip from the big city.
The ‘yaki’ part of mashikoyaki translates as ‘baked’ and in this case refers to the firing of pottery in wood burning kilns. Early on, Mashikoyaki was distinct from other forms of Japanese pottery in its reddish-brown color and sturdy, rustic forms. These days, however, mashikoyaki refers to all pottery made in Mashiko and embodies many different styles, traditions, and aesthetics. Most commonly mashikoyaki is thrown on a wheel and formed into tea sets, sake sets, and serve ware.
The most common non-serving ware pieces of Mashikoyaki are statues of iconography from Japanese folklore - frogs, tanuki, koma-inu, and owls. These pieces of statuary look fantastic in both the living room and the garden and, as with mashikoyaki table ware, can be found in all manner of styles, colors, and sizes.
Shopping and Things to Do
The main shopping thoroughfare of Mashiko runs from the fabric dying house of the Higeta Indigo Dye Workshop to the pottery collective sales office (益子焼窯元共販センター / Mashikoyaki Kamamoto Kyouhan Centre). Although narrow, the street has been recently repaved and is clean and easily navigated. Shops fill both sides of the streets. Many of the shops sell small, select galleries of mashikoyaki by one or two artists and are happy to engage visitors in conversations about the work. Please note, however, that many of the shops ask visitors to not take pictures of their wares.
Away from the main street, there are many interesting galleries, restaurants, and shrines and temples. Grab a map from the local train station or city office and explore. Mashiko is a very tourist friendly town and many shop staff speak at least some English. Mashiko is small enough that most places can be easily accessed by foot.
Aside from shopping, one of the more popular activities for visitors to Mashiko is making their own mashikoyaki. Visitors can sign up for a classes at the studio of Shoji Hamada or at the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art. Participants are given a few minutes instruction, then turned loose on pottery wheels to have a go at throwing pots. Their finished pieces are collected and taken away to be fired. Glazes will be applied by staff after the pottery has been fired and the finished pieces can be collected some time after that. The curious can also be taken on a tour of a kiln or view works on display at the attached museums and galleries. Appointments may be needed for classes.
And, speaking of lining the streets, there is an abundance of charming, quaint cafes in Mashiko. Serving everything from slow roast coffee to vegetarian French fare, many of the cafes have sprung up in the past decade, taking advantage of the slow pace of rural life to provide excellent food at (relatively) low cost.
Away from the main street are several walking or biking trails. Maps and routes are available in the visitor’s centre or at Mashiko station.
Finally, for any pet owners in our readership, Mashiko is a very dog-friendly town. Many cafes allow pets in porch or patio seating, with a few allowing pets inside as well. Standard courtesy rules for cleaning up after your pets do apply.
When to Go
Mashiko is a lovely town all year round. However, the best time for shopping is during one of the two yearly sales festivals, one during the Golden Week holidays in May and the other in November. During these times, many stalls and vendors are set up in plazas and along the streets selling all manner of mashikoyaki (often for a discounted price) as well as handcrafted leather or wooden items. And food, of course. Lots and lots of food.
Getting There / Getting Around
Getting to Mashiko is equally easy by train, bus, or car. Mashiko is served by the Moka train line which connects from the JR Tohoku and Mito lines. Buses leave from JR Utsunomiya Station approximately every hour or so. Travelling by car is easiest but, during busy seasons, can also take the longest.
Navigating around Mashiko is no problem. The signs have clear, good English, and tourist maps in English are available in several varieties.