Okawachiyama: Finding Japan in the Small Things

Okawachiyama

Okawachiyama from above

Many people come to this country looking to find the “real” Japan, yet they spend their time fixated on blinding lights, towering buildings, and trains full to the point of bursting. There are people who go to the other extreme, believing only places like Kyoto and Kanazawa are the only remnants of “Japan” and sneering at the materialistic “modern” big cities.

Unfortunately, neither of these views is completely correct. There is no single place in the world that can neatly sum up its country’s history and culture. But if you want to experience many facets of Japan all in one place, I recommend Okawachiyama (大川内山), a small mountain village in Imari City, Saga Prefecture.

Okawachiyama

Walking the streets of Okawachiyama

Saga is a sparsely populated, rural prefecture in Kyushu, sandwiched between Fukuoka and Nagasaki Prefectures and known for its beef and nihonshu (Japanese sake). Imari is a small town developed around exporting of Arita-yaki, a type of porcelain ware that is quite famous throughout Japan (and also expensive). The town has been the site of active production and shipment of Arita-yaki for hundreds of years, and emperors and shoguns have made personal orders and even visited the area in person. Its style has been variously influenced by Korean and Chinese methods, and Arita-yaki is still popular and widely acclaimed in Japan today. Okawachiyama is an artisans’ village located in modern Imari City limits that has been producing its own unique pottery for centuries, and it has historically kept is methods a secret, even from the people living in Imari. The secretive nature of Okawachiyama reached such a degree that it came to be known as the “village of secret kilns.”

My trip to Imari started, as many of my journeys do, with a bone-rattling ride in a cramped seat of a clunker of a bus up an old rural road. It was too early in spring for cherry blossoms, but vibrant green foliage surrounding old Japanese houses dotting a gentle slope made for refreshing scenery. And because it was not yet the season for cherry blossom viewing, there were few people in the village that morning aside from the locals. The bus passed by an old-looking gate before coming to a stop before a narrow, brick-paved street climbing gently toward the village center. Nearby was stream rushing almost silently through a rustic stone waterway.

There are no Kiyomizu Temples, no Great Buddhas, no Sky Trees in Okawachiyama. In fact, many Japanese tourists don’t even bother to visit except when shops are having bargains sales on pottery. As you have probably guessed, Okawachiyama, and Saga in general, do not have many flashy tourist draws. In fact, unless you are interested the finer details of things–the subtleties of Japanese culture–there is really no point in visiting at all.

Okawachiyama

Partially glazed stones outside a residence in Okawachiyama (made with blocks formerly used to support pottery placed in kilns)

Yes, the small things. For example, if you were to get off the bus and, instead of walking directly into town, descend the nearby stone staircase down to the level of the river, you would notice the beautiful glazed ceramic design on the bridge supporting the road you were just walking on. This is the underlying theme in Okawachiyama: not only the goods being sold, but the very architecture itself is permeated with the village’s long-developed craft. Stones in walls outside of people’s houses are partially glazed, giving off the characteristic dull black shimmer often seen on Japanese pottery; thousands of ceramic disks cover pathways, driveways and open spaces in place of rocks or gravel; light switches are topped with vibrant porcelain casings rather than the usual plastic; small gardens are filled with colorful clusters of pots and vessels. Everything about Okawachiyama speaks of its past and present, of its tradition and the livelihood of its people.

Aside from browsing the numerous shops, with goods available in almost any price range (check bins outside the shop near the village entrance if you are on a budget), there are some interesting sights to see in town as well. The gate the bus passes upon entering Okawachiyama was originally a highway checkpoint during the Edo Period (1600-1868), and the village’s function as a highway post town can still be seen in its street layout today. There is a set of balance mechanisms with receptacles that periodically tilt downward, discharging massive loads of water into a pond below–this setup was originally used to pulverize hard material placed underneath the counterweight using the power of gravity, although now it simply scares the carp living in the pond below. Near these contraptions is a set of ceramic bells, which play a tune when you cross the bridge nearby.

Okawachiyama

Originally used for pulverizing raw material, now used to scare fish

Climb to the top of town and you will find a sprawling park, at the summit of which is an observation platform providing a view of the little village and the jagged mountains surrounding it. In part of the park called the “Pocket Area” (ポケットエリア), peculiar modern art combining concrete sculpture and pottery is on display. There is also a uniquely designed “ascending kiln” (登り窯) nearby.

Finally, I suggest you stop in at one of the local coffee shops to kick back and chat with the locals. You’ll find people in Okawachiyama are very friendly toward outsiders. And don’t forget to try some savory Imari Beef, which can be found in town near the train station. My companion and I almost missed our highway bus back to Fukuoka while waiting for an Imari Beef burger, but it was worth it.

Okawachiyama

Yours truly searching the bargain bins for cheap souvenirs

Okawachiyama is low-key, but there are amazing things to see, many down-to-earth people living and working there, and an abundance of traditional and natural scenery to take in. A visit here is also a good chance to experience some of Japan’s most refined Japanese pottery, and to gain an appreciation for the people behind a local art form that has spread around Japan and the world.

As our bus cut through the mountains toward Fukuoka, it finally hit me: there really are few places in Japan like Okawachiyama.

Access: A day trip from Fukuoka to Okawachiyama is possible, and in fact recommended if you don’t have any other planned destinations in Saga. The best way to get from Fukuoka to Imari is by highway bus departing from Tenjin or Hakata, using Showa Bus’s Imari-go line (approx. 1 hour 40 minutes). You can also get there by train (from Hakata Station, approx. 1 hour 50 minutes on the JR Sasebo Line, or approx. 2 hours 20 min. on the Kuko Subway Line and JR Chikuhi Line), but this is less convenient and more expensive than the highway bus. From Imari Station (where the highway bus also stops), take a local bus (approx. 15 min) to Okawachiyama. Be sure to check the timetable for the local bus, as departure times are few and far between, and local buses don’t run late in the day (although highway buses and trains do). Taking a taxi between the Imari Station and Okawachiyama is also an option.

Also check out Okawachiyama’s promotional sightseeing page (Japanese only), as well as this informative article by a Saga local (English).

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6 Responses to Okawachiyama: Finding Japan in the Small Things

  1. frank says:

    Thanks for always uncovering hidden gems like Okawachiyama! I can really appreciate your point about gems like these mainly being interesting to people who are into “subtleties”.

    I also feel that “the art of subtlety” is one of Japan’s biggest strength as a tourism draw: the pinch of wasabi flecked expertly on the underside flesh of maguro, the three or four “chappa” most Japanese pay attention to (tea leaves) floating at the top of their green tea, the underlying meanings in everyday communication which aren’t apparent in the voice, eyes or body language, etc …

    It can sometimes be maddening for a foreigner living here, but it’s also unique and irreplicable.

    Sadly, a lot of Japan is succumbing to the dizzying pace of the world at-large, and not adhering to its own, losing its attention to “subtlety” in the process.

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  3. John says:

    I have to say this village was in my top 10 list from the 1st time I read your blog. 😀
    Since we dislike buses we will take the train(s) from Hakata to Imari. If we choose the route via Arita, hyperdia gives us 9m transfer time from JR Sasebo to Matsuura lines.
    IF you remember/know, is it possible for a newbie tourist to buy tickets in only 9 minutes and board the train ?
    I can speak some Japanese but I don’t think I would need much for the ticket, a simple 伊万里へ would suffice I hope 😀
    Unless of course if we can pay with suica somehow.

    • I think that transfer is possible since it’s a short transfer distance. The fare to Imari is 410, so just buy two tickets at the ticket machine and get on whichever train leaves first (it’s the terminus, so all trains head toward Imari). If you have time, try some Imari-gyu beef if you have time (it’s probably available at a restaurant near Imari station). Enjoy!

      • jousis says:

        Great, thanks !
        The plan is Okawachiyama (spring market), Imari (+Lunch), Arita (old town) and back to Fukuoka. But, who knows 😀

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