By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTOHO, Fukuoka — One of the first places autumn appears is on our tables, as we bring out plates and other items suitable for serving ripe fruits and hot meals. Thinking about this brought Koishiwara pottery to my mind.
Koishiwara pottery often features brown dots or spiral patterns against a white background, or light brown colors. These earthy ceramics have been produced in the village of Toho in a mountainous district of Fukuoka Prefecture since the 17th century. They are mainly items for daily use, such as earthenware pots and mortars.
Muneyoshi Yanagi, the founder of the mingei folkcraft movement, began to pay attention to Koishiwara pottery in the early part of the Showa era (1925-1989), and it subsequently became known nationwide.
The pottery village I had wanted to visit was struck by heavy rains in July. I was worried about visiting, but Aya Suzuki, a 29-year-old friend of mine working for the Fukuoka Prefecture Tourist Association, recommended I go. “Local people are working hard to rebuild, so you should visit,” she told me.
The Koishiwara Sarayama district is a mountainous area about 500 meters above sea level. Roofs of black kawara tiles, factories and climbing kilns line a cobbled street. I couldn’t believe that the beautiful, quiet mountain village had experienced a natural disaster. However, major roads around the district had only just been restored in October. In riverside areas en route to the district, half-collapsed houses and fallen trees remained in a miserable state.
“There are about 50 potteries in the district, and all of them suffered some level of damage, such as being flooded and damage to their kilns,” said Shinichi Yanase, 62, president of the Koishiwara pottery cooperative association. Yanase is the 17th head of the Yamasan Yanase Kamamoto pottery.
It took a month for the potteries to clean out the earth and sand and resume work.
While the number of tourists has declined, the potteries have received encouraging messages from across the country. Many people visited sales exhibitions held to support reconstruction at the Fukuoka prefectural government building and in Tokyo. An annual autumn pottery festival was once in danger of being canceled, but it was held in October without problems, attracting a total of 130,000 visitors over three days.
“We really appreciate this,” Yanase said.
At the thatch-roofed Marudaigama pottery, Kazuya Ota was sitting at a potter’s wheel. He turned clay covered with engobe on a potter’s wheel while applying a thin iron tool to it. When the tool was pulled off, the clay had become engraved with dots.
This technique is called tobi kanna (flying plane). There are other techniques, such as yubigaki, which is creating spiral patterns with one’s fingers, and uchihakeme, applying a brush at regular intervals. The soil and glaze used to produce the pottery are all sourced in the Koishiwara district.
“We can’t depend solely on raw materials,” said Ota, 45, the 15th head of the pottery. Water for kneading the clay and wood for the kilns are all gathered nearby. At his home, his mother always carefully maintained a wide-mouthed pot for preserving rice-bran paste made by a former head of the pottery, passing on a rich lifestyle alongside the pottery tradition.
Just before the district was hit by the heavy rains of July, young potters in the district had formed a group to consider Koishiwara’s next 10 years, aiming to discuss the future development of the district.
Narumi Kajiwara, 49, of the Yamamarugama pottery called for the establishment of the group. “We were able to become more united after the disaster,” she said.
There are no accommodation facilities and only a small number of restaurants in and around the district. Kajiwara dreams of creating an auberge (an inn equipped with a restaurant) and offering minpaku private lodging services at the homes of potters.
Kajiwara came to the district after marrying into a local family. She said, “I was told to carefully take care of customers, who climb up the mountain to come to the district.”
Despite the disaster, when I visited, all the potteries were neatly organized and they welcomed me with tea. I understand now why the district is so beautiful. For a long time, people here have quietly made pottery while thanking the gods protecting the mountain. These people’s lives have created the beautiful landscape over the years.
Tableware for autumn meals
Koishiwara pottery is simple and warm, and popular among young women. Some potteries have modern designs while others turn out cute items. However, Tetsuzo Ota, 67, said, “I’ve been doing things the old way.” He served persimmons, a speciality of the district, on an exquisite plate made using the tobi kanna technique. A brown soup bowl with a unique yellow tone and other pleasant-looking dishes are well suited for autumn meals.
It takes about two hours by air from Haneda Airport to Fukuoka Airport. Take an expressway bus from Fukuoka Airport to Haki for about 60 minutes. Then change to a local bus for an about 50-minute trip to Koishiwara. If you rent a car, it takes about 90 minutes from the airport to Koishiwara.
For information, call the Toho village office’s agriculture, forestry and tourism section at (0946) 72-2313.
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