The beautiful, relaxing sounds of small bells chiming softly in the wind is the soundtrack to Okawachiyama’s lovely Festival of Wind Bells. These small bells, with paper attachments swirling in the wind are called furin, and are synonymous with summertime in Japan. In this historic village in Saga prefecture, also known as the ‘Village of the Secret Kilns‘, there is an annual festival to celebrate these charming porcelain decorations.
Okawachiyama wind bells (furin) are small cup or bell shaped wind chimes, usually made of ceramic or glass. Inside, a striker is attached to a piece of coloured tanzaku paper, which sometimes has a wish written on it. Okawachiyama Village, however, is better known for its porcelain wares called Imari ware, once a export product of national pride. Visitors can visit the potters and kilns of this charming Japanese village, and take home some Imari ware of their own.
History of Porcelain in Okawachiyama Village
During Japan’s Edo Period, Okawachiyama Village was the centre of Japan’s lucrative porcelain boom. Despite being a small town, Okawachiyama Village was an important place in the porcelain industry. Okawachiyama was the first place in Japan to produce porcelain, along with neighbouring Arita village. The discovery of the mineral kaolin (a white clay, an essential element in porcelain ceramics) made it possible to work with the material, making bowls, pots and urns. Experienced porcelain potters were brought over from Korea after Japan’s retreat from the 16th century Imjin war. These abducted craftsmen were strictly monitored as they practised their trade, keeping their prized skill set a secret.
While just a small town, there was high demand for these exclusive masterpieces. While the country was in the midst of isolationism, political upheaval in China meant that the West ceased trade with China and turned to Japan for its Porcelain. Okawachiyama and Arita pottery was shipped to nearby Imari Port, and then made its way to the Dutch trading station in Nagasaki, and onwards to Europe.
Visiting Okawachiyama Village
Okawachiyama Village is located on the southern island of Kyushu, in the hills above Imari Town. It is very close to the most western point in Japan. Sometimes known as the village of secret kilns, this centre of pottery making is still home to dozens of local pottery workshops which operate today. While the town of Imari on the coast is a modern city, Okawachiyama is much more traditional and rustic, with a mountain backdrop and the sounds of a softly flowing river.
There is a bus that runs from Imari to Okawachiyama, stopping just in front of the Imari-Arita Ware Traditional Crafts Centre. This is also the last place a car can be parked. This exhibition hall, which opened in 1980, is the place to discover historical articles of Imari ware, as well as try your hand at painting your own. From there, the visit to Okawachiyama Village is on foot.
Visitors cross over the Okawachiyama Bridge, a small bridge crossing over a canal and decorated with ceramic tiles in the form of blue dragons. Inside the densely-packed town, traditional workshops are open for visitors to see. Porcelain makers will sell their wares from their shops. There are large, decorative items, as well as everyday kitchenware such as plates and bowls. In the town is an ancient graveyard interring the Korean potters who worked in Okawachiyama, with graves assembled in a large pyramid. It honours those who endured hardships as kidnapped labourers during the heyday of Imari ware production.
Imari can be reached by train, with most visitors taking the JR Chikuhi line (2 hours, 20 minutes) from Fukuoka, the capital city of Kyushu. Okawachiyama makes for a great day trip for those in the area.
Okawachiyama Village Wind Bell Festival
The annual wind bell festival is held over several weeks in summer. The festival begins on June 15th, and runs until the end of August. During the festival, hundreds of the tiny wind bells are hung all over the village.
An opening ceremony is held at the start of the festivities. On July 20, there is a lantern festival where over 3000 lanterns are lit up around the town. Lanterns hang all around the main square, as well as all along the river front. People dress up in their traditional yukata and enjoy the ambience of the evening.
Imari Ware from Okawachiyama
Imari pottery, known as Imari ware, is named after the shipping port in Kyushu, but refers to Japanese porcelain in general. It is prized for its bright colours and skilled craftsmanship, decorated mainly in elegant blue, red, gold and black designs, with high levels of detail. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Imari ware was highly prized by European royals , but today it can be much more affordable for anyone. Nabeshima-yaki (Nabeshima ware) is the name given to Arita ware of exceptional quality. This pottery had strict quality control, and was intended mostly for Japan’s elite.
Okawachiyama is the perfect place to visit for those travelling around Kyushu, and want to find out more about the history and production of Imari ware. Aside from being a charming, pretty traditional town in its own right, Okawachiyama is a great place to pick up some genuine Japanese porcelain from the place where Japanese porcelain was born. The best time to visit is during the furin wind bells festival, when the city comes alive with the peaceful sounds of bells, clinking softly in the summer wind.