When I was a girl, holiday dinners at Grandma's house were formal sit-down affairs. Grandma laid a beautiful table using her best bone china for these special occasions. How she would fuss over the fact that this was Noritake china -- in her opinion, the best there was. In addition to her china, she had a number of other pieces of Noritake porcelain as well. They were her pride and joy.
China is the traditional anniversary gift for 20 years of marriage; and Grandma received her Noritake bone china for her 20th wedding anniversary in 1948. Although it meant nothing to me when I was a girl, the backstamp on the bottom of each dish bore the inscription "MADE IN OCCUPIED JAPAN."
Having been so steeped in the quality of Noritake products from a young age, is it any wonder that I would eventually find my way to Noritake Garden in Nagoya, the home of Noritake? The information and displays here are so enlightening that you don't have to be an aficionado of dishes and figurines to enjoy it.
Noritake Garden sits on the site of the original ceramics factory of Nippon Toki Gomei Kaisha, a company started by the Morimura Brothers of New York, who imported and sold Japanese products in the United States in the late 19th century. As part of their business expansion plan, the brothers wanted to create dinnerware that would appeal to Western consumers.
In 1904 they opened a factory in the village of Noritake, just outside Nagoya, where they worked for 10 years to develop their product before exports could begin. Many of the red brick buildings of that original factory still stand today, housing the facilities that comprise Noritake Garden.
To really appreciate the accomplishments of Noritake, begin with a visit to the Welcome Center in the southwest corner of the grounds. Here you can see a short video about the history of the company and its struggles to develop the right products for export. There are also detailed displays on the history of Noritake's products. Finally, visit Technology Corner, where the industrial uses of ceramics and Noritake's role in those products are revealed. Having only ever known the home uses of Noritake products, this display blew my mind!
Just next door to the Welcome Center is the Craft Center and Noritake Museum. This is the only building in the facility that charges admission (adults, 500 yen; high school students, 300 yen); all others free.
The first two floors are the Craft Center, where you can see just how Noritake's dishes and ceramic figurines are produced. Staff are working at several of the stations, so you can see exactly how it's all done. In addition, there are explanations of what makes bone china "bone" china (the inclusion of cow bone ash in the mix) and why that ingredient is so important to the finished product. You can also see how multiple cast pieces are assembled to make figurines. Such care is taken that the seams are invisible and if you didn't see them in their original pieces you would never believe the figurine wasn't somehow cast whole.
The mechanics of firing and glazing, how shrinkage occurs -- and how important it is -- are also explained.
On the second floor you can see the application of decals to create consistent patterns on dinnerware, as well has hand painting of designs and gold accents on individual pieces.
The second floor is also where you can paint your own designs onto a dish of your choice for 1,800 yen. After you've finished, your dish will be fired and cured and shipped to your home or other specified destination, arriving about 2 weeks later. I wonder what my grandmother would have made of that.
The Noritake Museum on the third and fourth floors contains displays of Noritake products from its earliest days -- what is now known as "Old Noritake" -- to the present. Catalogs and other advertising materials, as well as design books are also on display.
Individual dishes, full sets of china, and various figurines and vases can be given close inspection. It's particularly interesting to observe how both designs and colors evolved to reflect changing consumer tastes over the years. The company's management clearly monitored trends and kept up with what customers wanted. The colors and shapes of the 1920s/30s were particularly revealing.
One wall is dedicated to dinner plate patterns, arranged in chronological order. I was pleased to find Grandma's pattern: "Cardinal". The legend tells me that it was produced from 1947 to 1951, and also shows the backstamp. Elsewhere, I learn that china of this vintage, which contains a fair amount of gold painted trim, has fallen from popularity because it is not microwave or dishwasher safe. Of course, Grandma loved her dishes so much that she never minded washing them by hand. How times have changed!
When you've finished with the museum, move on to Noritake Square, where you can browse among the dinner sets and other dishes offered for sale. There is an entire display of dishes featuring characters from the Studio Ghibli animation "Totoro". Any purchases can be expertly packed and shipped for you. Since dishes need something to be placed on/in them, there is also a corner with teas/coffees and gourmet and exotic foodstuffs on sale. And finally, there is Cafe Diamond Days, where you can grab a snack.
Back outside, the entire northern end of the facility is now a literal garden and is a popular picnic site in fine weather. This is where the tunnel kilns once stood and their remnants can still be seen, almost like an archeological dig. The lower eight meters of the original six kiln chimneys, which when built in 1933 stood 45 meters tall, have also been preserved in situ and lend character to the vista.
There is enough at Noritake Garden to keep you occupied for several hours, if not the entire day, especially if you decide to paint your own dish. Fortunately, in addition to Cafe Diamond Days, there is also a fine dining restaurant, The Kiln, on site where you can enjoy lunch (11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) or dinner (5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.).
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (shop open until 6 p.m.), Tuesday through Sunday Access: Noritake Garden is a 13-15 minute walk from Nagoya Station or a 5-minute walk from exit 2 of Kamejima subway station; it is also a regular stop on the "Meguru" sightseeing bus that runs in a loop from Nagoya Station (Bay 0) to various Nagoya sightseeing destinations.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in Japan. See her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today