400 Years of Porcelain History

We have arrived in Arita, the famous porcelain town in the Southern Japanese Island of Kyushu. Japanese porcelain was first made here in this village 400 years ago this year. It is the site of the naturally occurring, weathered porcelain stone, which was discovered here by the Korean Prisoner-of-War, Ri Sam Pei. He was a trained pottery who was captured by the war Lord Hideyoshi and brought to Kyushu. He was familiar with the techniques of making porcelain from a single stone back in Korea and the story that is told here says that he recognised the special cloudy quality of the water that was running out of the nearby hills. I’m presuming that it was a cloudy white colour because it contains some dissolved kaolin and white sericite mica. The river that runs through the town here is called the ‘shirakawa’ river, which translates as ‘white river’. He presumably also recognised the shape of the local hills and the special look of the local stone, once you get up close and personal with it. Weathered acid volcanics of this kind have a particular set of fracture angles that is quite specific.

This porcelain stone occurs all around these hills where the local white granite has weathered down into a softer white to off white, mixture of kaolin, silica, felspar and specifically sericite. Sericite is a white, plastic mica. This means that it is throwable on the potters wheel as well as vitrifying to a translucent glassy matrix when fired.

This week is the special Spring Festival week called Golden week. It has been traditional for the Arita town Council to have a Ceramic Fair on this week. They close off the main part of the Old Street and all the local pottery businesses set up pop-up stalls all along the street, selling everything that you can imagine that is made from ceramics. There is something for everyone, with pots starting from 10 cents going up to tens of thousands of dollars.

It is very busy. I am told that there will be about one and a half million visitors coming through here over the holiday period.

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We stop for coffee in the back lane where it is a bit more relaxed and not so busy and the disposable coffee cups are made of waxed paper, but have been specially printed in blue and white Arita porcelain coloured  print.


We don’t need any more pots, but with millions of pots on display, we manage to restrain ourselves to 2 beautiful little sake cups and a small pickle dish. Quite a good effort. It takes at least 6 hours to walk up the main street and we still don’t manage to look at every stall. We need to go back 3 times, over three days, to get a reasonable coverage of what is there, but still we miss a lot.

We suffer ceramic shopper blindness after a couple of hours and need a break. It’s just like gallery blindness and museum blindness. You just can’t take it all in in one go without a break. Coffee helps!

Best wishes from the two dropped shoppers