By Takehiro Ito / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterECHIZEN, Fukui — Fantastically shaped rocks dot Echizen’s coastline. Sheer cliffs face the ocean and behind them sit scattered settlements. The Sea of Japan, which nurtures the Echizen-gani snow crabs that are winter delicacies, also used to be the route for transporting Echizen-yaki pottery — another local specialty — to other parts of the nation.
“Ships carried them as far as southern Hokkaido and Shimane Prefecture,” says Tadatsugu Nakamura, curator at the Fukui Prefectural Museum of Ceramics, which features an archive and a tea garden. “At its peak during the Muromachi period [1336-1573], this place developed into the biggest site for kilns along the Sea of Japan.”
Items used in everyday life, such as pots, jugs and earthenware mortars, were especially prized.
Soon after World War II ended, renowned pottery scholar Fujio Koyama coined the phrase “six ancient kilns,” which referred to six major centers that have been producing ceramics since medieval times — Seto, Tokoname, Echizen, Shigaraki, Tamba and Bizen. An exhibition about the six ancient kilns I saw in Tokyo this spring was the impetus for my trip to Echizen. The simplicity of Echizen ware and its subdued sheen had a presence that was mesmerizing.
About 80 pottery producers in Fukui Prefecture, especially in the town of Echizen, continue to make ceramics. Uichiro Oya of the Furaigama workshop said, “Wood ash becomes a natural glaze, which creates the elegant texture Echizen ware is known for.” These days, potters make a diverse array of items including tableware, sake drinking sets and vases, many of which feature a glaze.
“The coarseness of Echizen’s clay really suits me,” said Oya, 48. “It’s not like the roughness of a warrior, but rather the rusticity of farming folk. It matches the atmosphere of the land.”
How did Echizen ware pottery develop?
According to the prefectural museum, the region’s geology is paramount. Good-quality clay that can withstand high temperatures enabled the creation of sturdy items. Also vital are mountain forests. The slopes could be used when building kilns, and the forests provided a supply of firewood. Water from the Tennogawa river flowing through the area also helped refine pottery clay while carrying the clay downstream. I keenly felt that the geology, topography and differences in elevation — keywords I remembered hearing on a TV program — were the links between industry and nature.
Ever since the Edo period (1603-1867), Echizen ware has at times faced declines due to reasons such as competition from other pottery-producing regions, disasters and war. The pottery’s revival has centered on the Echizen Pottery Village established in 1971. Spearheaded by the prefectural government, what was then the village of Miyazaki and other entities, the initiative invited young potters from around the nation to the area. The village features the prefectural museum of ceramics, an old kiln museum, workshops and shops selling ceramics directly to the public.
I was shown around the area by Tomoe Masuda and Taichiro Kawanami, volunteer tourist guides with an Echizen association of local residents well versed in the world of pottery.
A spacious 12-hectare park features 15 monuments created by people including sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi, artist Taro Okamoto and area potters. Visitors to the cultural exchange hall can drink coffee in vessels made by potters of their choosing. I found a piece made by the Furaigama pottery and sipped an iced coffee.
“Echizen ware can be used for a long time without it becoming dull,” said Masuda, 70. “I’m very fond of my beer cup, which makes the foam very smooth.”
As Kawanami, an 86-year-old former potter, showed me the site of a chambered climbing kiln, he said: “The temperature can exceed 1,000 C. If you’re not careful, your hair could get singed.”
People making ceramics, people transporting them, researchers and guides — nature is a vital element of pottery, but ultimately it’s the people who underpin this local industry. I raise the beer mug I bought at the store as I recall the people I met on my trip and the simple Echizen ware I saw there.
Oda clan’s birthplace
Echizen is said to be the birthplace of the Oda clan, whose most famous member was Oda Nobunaga. The clan’s members had been priests at Tsurugi Shrine in the town. Nobunaga expanded his power in places such as Owarinokuni (modern-day western Aichi Prefecture), but he is still revered in Echizen and protects the shrine as a patron deity.
The nearby Oda Cultural History Museum displays documents related to the Oda clan and a temple bell made in the Nara period (710-784) that is a national treasure.
Local fish on local rice
Restaurants along the Echizen coast have teamed up to serve a dish featuring the best local ingredients. The “hama no katsudon” dish is available at about 20 restaurants in Echizen, the town of Minami-Echizen and Fukui city.
To qualify as hama no katsudon, the dish must have seasonal fish as the main part of a set meal or atop a bowl of rice, use rice grown in Fukui, be served only for lunch and be available year-round. While these are among the conditions that must be met, the exact content of the dish changes depending on the season and day.
In early June, the Kanitei Uotake seafood restaurant served up the version of the dish shown in the photo. Slices of yellowtail, horse mackerel, flounder, bonito, flying fish and other fish were liberally placed atop a serving of rice in a sumptuous dish that cost ¥1,404. The highlights were the strong umami of the yellowtail, the tender horse mackerel and the rich sweetness of Echizen shrimp, which the local residents also call gama ebi.
Mamiko Imamura, president of Uotake and chairwoman of the Echizen coastal tourism federation, said, “Echizen-gani snow crabs in winter are just one of the many delicious foods we have here.”
Mineral-rich salt comes in many flavors
Echizen salt is made from seawater drawn from the town’s coast. The impurities are removed, and then the water is concentrated in a greenhouse and reduced manually. Rich in minerals, the salt comes in a basic type and roasted in a pouch (¥278 plus tax), and in small bottles. The bottled salt comes in several flavors including curry (¥283 plus tax), wasabi and cherry blossom. Also popular is a type of salt that goes well with rice and is perfect for onigiri rice balls. Echizen salt is available from places including the Echizen michi-no-eki roadside rest area.
From Tokyo, take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Maibara Station and transfer to the JR Hokuriku Line. Get off at Takefu Station and take a taxi or rental car to Echizen. Total travel time is about 4 hours.