Karatsu

I thought that the last stop on my potter’s pilgrimage, on the island of Kyushu, would be the most remote and provincial, but Karatsu, Japan is a thriving city, the women were fashionable, and it’s a bit of a resort town. Several school children called out “Hello, how are you?” giggling as they tried out some English; non-Asian foreigners were a rare sight. My hotel was on the Niji-no-Matsubara peninsula, right on the beach and surrounded by a dense, wind-blown, four-hundred-year-old pine forest, trunks twisting away from the sea. Rugged and churning, the Japan Sea tossed and turned the stormy afternoon I arrived, yet there was a windsurfer out there riding the waves.

Morning, Japan Sea
Karatsu castle
Windblown forest

Although the rates at my lodging weren’t those of a luxury hotel, the service was; I was treated like a visiting dignitary. Dinner at the hotel was among the best I’ve had in Japan. A table with a sea view had been reserved for me. After it grew dark, I could still see the white lines of the breakers rolling in to shore. Small, mouth-wateringly delicious dishes were elegantly presented on Karatsu-yaki. The sea bass sushi was garnished with a tiny sprig of Japanese maple leaves. A graceful young waiter described some highlights of the all-Japanese menu for me, using an English cheat sheet. He crouched on the floor next to my chair as he spoke, to show deference by looking up rather than looking down at the customer.

Learning of my interest in ceramics, the gracious hotel manager, M.-san, spoke with me, the two of us going back and forth between English and Japanese, about Karatsu-yaki and my travels to other pottery towns. At his urging, I brought my best purchases from the last two towns down from my room to show him. Delighted to touch and hold these small examples of Bizen and Hagi ware, he declared that I must visit a working pottery studio in his city. A good friend of his was a potter, but it would be difficult to get to his studio without a car, so he offered to take me in the morning.

We started with a drive up a nearby mountain to take in the view. As he drove, my impromptu tour guide noted that the trees were wearing their spring colors and that there were sixteen curves or switchbacks in the road.

Although his potter friend wasn’t in, his wife welcomed us. There were several people at work in the studio: two people trimming pots, one by hand and the other on a kickwheel, two others mixing clay, and one tending the area behind the kiln. Drying pots were spread along planks of wood and balanced high above on ceiling beams. Wooden tools, most handmade, were arranged along one wall. Large coarse paintbrushes were used in hakeme brushwork, a thick slip applied in circular motions, creating swirls of white glaze over a dark brown clay body.

Potter at work
Potter’s tools

We walked along the length of the hill kiln he had helped build as he described assisting his friend during firings, throwing in wood to fuel the blaze, keeping watch together on the progress of the firing. M.-san encouraged me to crawl into one of the low side openings and imagine how I would load pots into the kiln. I’m afraid that few of them would have survived the loading process!

After the studio, he left me at an exhibit hall, a showcase of local artists’ work, where he and a gallery employee mapped out some other places of interest for me to stop in town that afternoon on my own.

Around town

Wall tiles
Gallery entrance
Gallery sign

On this journey, I came to a greater understanding of the concept of wabi-sabi, a Japanese way of thinking. Wabi represents the appreciation and contemplation of beauty in the imperfect, the simple, the humble, and modest, a connection to nature. The sabi part refers to that which becomes more beautiful and flawed with age. It’s a philosophy that I would try to keep in mind after returning to the eastern metro area and wading back into the stressful work world.

My hakeme Karatsu plate (my most expensive purchase on this trip)

An earlier pottery trip in Japan to Mashiko, home of Shoji Hamada: A Japanese treasure. Stops along this potter’s pilgrimage: Bizen, Hagi, and Hiroshima (not a pottery town, but a stop along the route).

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

53 thoughts on “Karatsu

  1. Wow, stunning! During my trip to Japan in 2016, I didn’t get to visit as many of the seaside towns as I would’ve liked (most of my trip was concentrated inland, in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka). But being by the sea in Japan is a completely different experience from city life– very peaceful and world’s removed from the hustle and bustle culture. Looks like a calm stay in Karatsu!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That it was. An advantage of living in a place for a while is to get away from the tourist track, as interesting as it may be. My pottery interest led me to discover some places I wouldn’t have otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great opportunity. On all of our trips to Japan, we found people to be very helpful. We were on Kyushu in 1985 at Kagoshima. At that point, few tourists went there, so it was quite immersive. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a very special experience, thanks to your wonderful host. The courtesy that the Japanese extend to guests is something we could all learn from 🙂 I love your purchase and was very interested to read about the concept of wabi-sabi.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You have such a way of describing your adventures that draws in the reader and makes me feel like I’m there. Thanks for sharing your journey and your photos with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You know, Ruth, what’s extra fascinating about your posts is the sense of travel being lead by the pursuit of a specific interest. It’s taken you and is therefore taking us to different types of places and through different types of experiences, including different liaisons. I love reading these posts, they have real and unique qualities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I once traveled for a while with a boyfriend who said “It’s more interesting when you have a mission.” Not all my travels fall into that category, but I do enjoy exploring a culture, art form, etc. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I appreciate you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have 20 year old ceramic bowls from Lisbon (that I use everyday), endless stuff from Egypt with vivid coloring and a few muted items from Scotland. The tile shops in Mexico are heaven…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It sounds like you were saving the best for last on your potter’s pilgrimage. The island of Kyushu looks lovely and the people sound very hospitable. That was very kind of your hotel manager to take you to his friend’s pottery studio. Also, that’s a very nice picture of yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Absolutely lovely descriptions of the hotel and the service. Nothing comes close to Japan, in my experience, when it comes to hospitality in cafes, restaurants and hotels. The hotel manager taking you to the pottery centre… just wonderful. This looks like such an authentic experience well away from the western tourist circuit. Thanks for bringing wabi-sabi to my attention, I was quite in the dark.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Leighton. The hotelier and service were outstanding and quite unexpected. This town and its hospitality took me by surprise, and was truly an authentic experience. Glad to share my discovery of wabi-sabi, a philosophy so Japanese.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So many great pictures of the sea and beach … and it seems you really got lucky with your accommodation! I love the photo of the potter’s tools – so many! And that plate … it is really something special!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love the seamless transition from the general (the tour of Karatsu) to the specific (the pottery). Both give this post such appeal. The description of your dining experience and wabi-sabi will stick with me.

    Liked by 1 person

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