Japan Today

Mashiko: A center of folkcraft pottery

By Vicki L Beyer

As the most famous center of pottery in the Kanto area, Mashiko is always a good bet for a day trip from Tokyo, but the Mashiko Pottery Fairs, held twice a year — in November and May — are an especially good time to go. The 2012 November Pottery Fair began last Thursday and runs through Monday.

Mashiko has produced pottery for over a thousand years. The village and surrounding area boasts nearly 400 kilns still active. For the most part, Mashiko’s pottery, known as Mashiko-yaki, is not like the fine porcelain produced in some of Japan’s other famous pottery centers. Rather, it is earthier. The dishes are often thick and heavy, with the glazes being predominated by earth tones: brown, black, white, persimmon, and amber. It is today regarded as a fine example of Japanese folkcraft.

The main pottery centers within the town of Mashiko are in Sayado and Jonaizaka, which begins about a kilometer from Mashiko Station. Bicycle rental is available at Mashiko Station, but if you’re visiting during one of the Pottery Fairs, you may find it too crowded to bicycle comfortably (and parking the bicycle can be a problem).

An easier strategy is to catch a bus from Mashiko Station to Mashiko Sanko-kan (bus stop: Mashiko Sankokan-mae) and then work your way back to the station on foot, a distance of about three kilometers.

Mashiko Sanko-kan is the former home, workshop and kiln of Shoji Hamada. As you will learn when you visit, Hamada, who died in 1978, had been designated as a Living National Treasure in 1955 for his art. One of Mashiko’s most famous potters, he is widely credited with elevating Mashiko-yaki from the status of mere kitchen ware to that of folk art and modern tableware. A number of his most famous works are on display here.

To make your way back toward Mashiko Station while thoroughly exploring Mashiko’s ceramic heart, follow Highway 230 (also sometimes referred to as Jonaizaka Street). As you pass through the Sayado and Jonaizaka districts of Mashiko, this road is lined with shops and galleries featuring Mashiko-yaki. You can wander at will through the shops and workshops. During the Pottery Fairs, many are selling their wares under canopies along the roadside. Some areas, including the Mashiko Pottery Cooperative on the southeast side of the road, also feature a number of other locally produced handicrafts and handmade items. There are also plenty of food stalls, restaurants and cafes, many in beautifully restored early 20th century buildings.

At the lowest point in Jonaizaka Street is the Mashiko Pottery Sales Center, easily identified by the giant ceramic tanuki standing guard in the parking lot. This is a veritable supermarket of Mashiko-yaki and other locally-produced handicrafts, with very reasonable prices. During the Pottery Fair, the parking lot is turned over to stalls for vendors.

In the center of Jonaizaka, on a hill above the Mashiko Pottery Sales Center, is Togei Messe Mashiko, a museum/theme park celebrating Mashiko-yaki. This is a great place to learn more about Mashiko-yaki and see excellent displays of some of the very best items produced from Mashiko’s kilns. At times, hands-on experiences are offered here.

You will encounter “noborigama,” traditional earthen kilns that snake up slopes, in various places in Mashiko. This structure, built on a hillside, is really several adjacent wood-fired kilns taking advantage of the fact that heat rises. Gas and electric kilns, more readily temperature-controlled, are now in common use in Mashiko, but these traditional kilns are much more interesting!

In fact, there are several kilns in this neighborhood, and further afield, that offer the hands-on opportunity to throw a pot, or paint a biscuit-fired dish and have it fired as a souvenir. The best way to source these is to inquire at the Tourist Information Office at Mashiko Station when you first arrive.

You will know you have reached the end of Jonaizaka when you come to a major intersection called “Jonaizaka.” At the northeast corner of this intersection is the Higeta Indigo Dye Workshop, where you can see displays of how indigo-dyed cloth is produced. While Mashiko’s fame as a pottery village overshadows the renown of its indigo dyes, indigo dye is also a major product of this area, and the historical displays are quite interesting. By this time, perhaps you’ve begun to feel you’ve had enough of pottery for one day, anyway.

From here, as you continue toward Mashiko Station, pottery shops and galleries begin to thin out. But there is still plenty to see, including three “float parks,” warehouses where the floats used in the annual festival of Mashiko’s main shrine. These buildings are open to the public and you are free to wander in and have a closer look at the floats.

From anywhere in Tokyo, to reach Mashiko, first make your way to Oyama via JR’s Tohoku Shinkansen, Keihin Tohoku line or Shonan-Shinjuku line. From there, take the JR Minto Line to Shimodate and then the Moka Railway to Mashiko. The trip takes about two hours.

On weekends and public holidays, in addition to enjoying the delights of Mashiko itself, even the trip to Mashiko can take on special significance, as the Moka Railway runs a limited number of vintage steam locomotives on the line. On Saturday and Sunday, the Moka Railway steam locomotive departs Shimodate at 10:36; the return train from Mashiko departs at 3:02. Of course, sometimes missing the opportunity to ride on the train is a good thing, as instead you are afforded to opportunity to photograph the steam locomotive in action.

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