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Imari ceramics

Imari ceramics have an interesting history. From what makes them unique (the name, the colours and patterns) to their roots that begin in the Korean peninsula. 

"Imari" is actually the name given to Arita porcelain. Imari ceramics are so-named because Imari was the port in Saga Prefecture from where Arita porcelain was shipped off to Nagasaki and then onwards to Europe via the Dutch trading routes. Arita porcelain, known locally in Japan as Arita-yaki, became very famous throughout Europe during the period 220 year period that Japan isolated itself and restricted trade with the rest of the world.

Origin of imari ceramics (arita-yaki)

The main district in Saga Prefecture that produces Imari ceramics is Arita, although there are other towns including Okawachiyama that continue to produce fine, high-quality Imari ceramics.

Okawachiyama's claim to fame is that the Nabeshima clan (a Japanese samurai class) who controlled Saga for many centuries took a talented potter from Korea and hid him away in the mountains so that his pottery skills and techniques would remain secret and unique to the area. This potter's name was Yi Sum-Pyeong in Korean (Kanagae Sanbe in Japanese).

In addition, the designs, illustrations and colours used on the porcelain moved aways from the predominantly blue and white Chinese influences of the time towards drawing upon Japanese traditions, flowers and patterns, plus adding colourful over-glazing and golden touches.  It also emphasised the use of empty space on the design.


Sample of old and new styles of Imari ceramics at the Arita Ceramics Festival.

Imari porcelain is characteristically sold in sets of five pieces since the number 5 is an auspicious number in Japanese tradition. 

The colours of Imari ceramics can vary. The most classically recognisable of the style is the more modern look of the 1600-1800's and onwards with the white porcelain painted with blue, red, green and yellow worked throughout its floral designs. These are very bright, bold and colourful - almost extremely so. Since the addition of colour to the porcelain became popular, the potters also began applying gold to the designs, further increasing their value.

However, the many surviving antique pieces of Imari ware dating from circa the 1500's feature a simple blue under-glaze with Chinese foundations.

Despite the differences, they are both genuine Imari porcelain.

the valley of the secret kilns  - Okawachiyama

Porcelain-inlaid bridge at Okawachiyama

Okawachiyama is a beautiful and tiny village that has many surviving and productive kilns still in operation.

The village has been well-preserved and tastefully beautified by the addition of porcelain set into the bridges, footpaths and small corners of the streets. As you walk around the streets you can visit several family owned porcelain shopfronts in the village. However, I do get the sense that this tiny place would not cope well if inundated by tourists as people make their homes in Okawachiyama. The tourist should be mindful of their noise to help keep this tiny village the quaint and quiet place that it is today.

I was so inspired by beauty of the stunning Imari ceramics of this tiny little village that I named my daughter, Imari!

saga ceramics walking tours

Watching a potter
Mould for a porcelain teapot

While Saga Prefecture is one of Japan's smallest prefectures and does not have international recognition, it is a beautiful place to visit. It's rich in history, innovation and traditional arts and crafts too!

Click here to read about the Autumn Arita Pottery and Porcelain Festival.

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