When the alchemist and charlatan Johann Friedrich Böttger tried to con King Augustus II of Poland into believing that he had cracked the secret of creating gold out of clay, the king proved himself no easy mark by imprisoning Böttger and declaring that he will not be released until he produced gold. Böttger was unable to produce gold, but was successful in producing what was hence forth known as “white gold”. Through his knowledge of medieval chemistry, he managed to replicate Asian porcelain. His discovery laid the foundations of what eventually became Meissen porcelain. Unfortunately for Böttger, the king wanted to maintain a monopoly of this invention and kept the alchemist imprisoned for the rest of his life.
Asian porcelain was in great demand in Europe in the 17th century. It was utterly unlike the earthenware available in Europe at the time. It was much harder and lightweight. It clinked with a metallic sound rather than the dull clunk of heavy pottery. It was bought and sold at great expense between aristocrats and kings. One of the places such porcelain was produced was Jingdezhen in Southern China, another was Arita in Saga prefecture, Japan. “Arita-ware”, also known as “Imari ware” after the port from which it was shipped, was among the main merchandise sold by the Dutch East India Company. It was prized around the world and the small village of Arita still produces some of the best porcelain in the world.
2018 will mark the 115th Annual Arita Porcelain Market. Every year between April 29th and May 5th, a period with a cluster of national holidays known in Japan as Golden Week, the village of Arita holds a festival about all things porcelain. It is a celebration of history, art, and craftsmanship, as well as a great opportunity to find outstanding deals on excellent porcelain items.
Old Porcelain CenterThe famous Arita kilns are located in a small area nestled among the hills on the border between Saga and Nagasaki prefectures. The village is unable to accommodate the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the place during Golden Week, so if you are not lucky enough to reserve a room at the Guesthouse Keramiek or the Minshuku Chaya, the best bet is to book a hotel at Takeo Onsen which is only about 15 minutes by train from Arita. Or you can stay in historic Imari which is only about 30 minutes by train. You might also opt for the many shuttle busses that will be in operation during the week of the porcelain fest. (Don’t go by car. It’s a nightmare to find parking space).
Koransha BuildingThere are porcelain galleries open all year round, but there will be special exhibitions in both Arita and Imari during this period. You will find duplicates of precious porcelain gifted to the Imperial family and foreign dignitaries, and many historic art pieces. Artists will demonstrate how the porcelain is made and cooks will show you how to arrange food on the tableware in open air restaurants and cafes. It is actually fun just to check out the porcelain supply stores looking at the assortment of glazes, brushes, and patterns.
Fukagawa Porcelain Building
The most famous porcelain makers of the area are Fukagawa Porcelain and Koransha. Both companies were founded after the arrival of Commodore Perry and the subsequent opening of Japan to the world in the latter half of the 19th century. Once the floodgates of international commerce were once again opened, these companies revived the status of Arita porcelain in the Western marketplace. Along with Noritake Porcelain manufactured in Nagoya, they found a huge market in America in the Roaring Twenties and the elaborate tableware of bright colors and hand painted gold became the staple of Jazz Age extravagance. There are also dozens of independent kilns that cater to more modern tastes. Some offer cutesy cartoonish items, while others opt for the bleak industrial look. The porcelain of Arita are not just fancy art pieces. The history stirs your imagination. You will find bowls of a design that Dutch pepper-and-tea trade barons might have used. Plates that imperial colonizers might have hoarded. Coffee cups that Al Capone and Duch Schultz might have drank from. Rice bowls that look like something from an anime show or futuristic designs that, maybe, will find its way to a Hollywood movie set. Whatever you fancy you are sure to find something that suits your taste.
In spite of its popularity and long history, the Arita Porcelain Market is still one of Japan’s best kept secrets. There is almost nothing written about it in English. It is truly a trip off the beaten track.