We had the opportunity to meet an extremely talented local ceramic artist over the Lunar New Year period this year and she recommended that we visit the small village of Mashiko on our upcoming trip to Tokyo. Having a great interest (bordering on fetish) in Japanese ceramics, we were, of course, thrilled to hear about this thriving pottery town, some 100km north of Tokyo; the only thing that was standing in our way from jumping on the first train to Mashiko, was the journey.
To begin, there isn’t much information on the internet about Mashiko, and even if you are so fortunate, it’s in Japanese – thankfully, we managed to piece together bits of information which we used to plan my maiden journey.
We decided to take the leap of faith this week, hopping on the subway to Ueno where we boarded the JR Utsonomiya (which departs every 30mins; one way fare JPY1,890). Unfortunately, we missed the rapid express and the journey (on the local train) took 2 hours instead of 90min. Pulling into Utsonomiya was just half the battle – next up was catching the Toya bus to Mashiko (which takes another 60min, and departs only every hour!). We recommend spending some time gathering information at the JR information counter at Utsonomiya on Mashiko and the various JR and bus timetables as this will really save you time on the way back – plus they speak a smattering of English (just about the last you will hear on this trip). If you have time before you catch the bus, there is much to see, drink and eat within the terminal itself, especially on the ground floor.
The bus journey is long, but, you will be treated to precious views of the Japanese countryside, meandering streams and snow-capped mountains along the way. There will be an English announcement shortly before you arrive at your destination telling you to alight for visits to the main pottery area (just past the big Lawson’s mart) and you can make your fare payment of JPY1,100 on your way out (remember to show your driver your ticket which you have collected as you boarded the bus).
The best time to visit Mashiko is in Spring where the Spring Mashiko Pottery Fair is in full swing (there is also another fair in late Oct/ early Nov). It was eerily quiet when we arrived with nary a soul in sight. Thankfully, while many of the shops appeared dark from the outside, they were open. There are at least 30 stores on the main street selling pottery, often spilling out of the stores onto their doorsteps, with prices ranging from JPY80 to JPY240,000 and above, so go with the intention to shop! Many of the stores sell wares that are quite unique and distinct and differ in quality and price range, so take your time perusing before making your purchases. We settled on a shop which has the cutest coffee cups, tea pots and sake flasks, and ended up filling our entire suitcase in one fell swoop, which we had brought for that sole purpose.
We also made time for a short trip to the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art (Togei Messe Mashiko), set atop ‘Pottery Hill’. This museum is home to a collection of works by the late Shoji Hamada, designated a “Living National Treasure” who built the famous climbing kiln in Mashiko and introduced Mashiko-ware throughout Japan. The visiting exhibition, ‘A day in the life of Vanguard Court’ was excellent and showcased art from renowned ceramics artists Edmund de Waal, Julian Stair, Chris Keenan, Carina Ciscato and Hveieona Kim.
You can also have a go at pottery making at their pottery studio or at some of the 300 pottery kilns in town. At the 3 kilns listed in the link below, you can observe the whole process of pottery making and participate in the pottery making class (do note that it takes 2 months to bake the pottery so do check whether International postage is available).
Other points of interest are The Mashiko Reference Collection Museum, The Pentax Camera Museum and the Tsukamoto Memorial Art Museum, in addition to the numerous temples and shrines you can visit to enjoy the rich cultural heritage of this town.
We highly recommend a trip to Mashiko if you appreciate Japanese ceramics, either as a day trip from Tokyo (beware of traveling time!) or as what most would do, as a side-trip on the way to the very popular, Nikko. Whatever you decide, do ensure that you have additional suitcases for the shopping you will be doing!
For transportation information to Mashiko and list of pottery kilns, click here
p.s. We visited Mashiko the day before the epic 9 magnitude earthquake – we hope all the people in Mashiko and their beautiful pottery are well.