Discover a pottery treasure hidden in the mountains outside Fukuoka! History, art and culture combine in Onta, Japan, where ontayaki pottery has been made for the last three centuries.
Our favorite type of adventure is going to small villages to discover cultural treasures and unique experiences. This made visiting Onta, Japan, a small village nestled in the mountains outside Fukuoka, high on our priority list!
Ontayaki pottery is a family tradition
Here, ten families have been making the same type ceramics, ontayaki pottery, for the past 300 years. The men making the ontayaki pottery don’t mark them with their names; instead, they are given a community stamp to show they are part of a greater effort.
The river is put to use to power their traditional wooden hammers, or karausu (“kah-rah-oo-soo”), that pound the clay until it is crushed to a fine powder. Later it is put into a shallow basin, they mix it with water, then filter it and clean it. Afterwards they store it under mats until it’s ready to transfer to large pots. They had several wood burning kilns up and down the streets; some small, some large. Some were the size of a large trash can, but others were the length of a bus!
We parked near the top of the road that goes through this village, in a parking lot (free!). When we got out of the car we could smell the smoke from the kilns firing and hear the constant pounding of the karausu. They give the village an authentic, rustic feel, taking you back through the centuries!
There was a small museum just north of the parking lot that had some unique pieces on display and a video. It cost just a few hundred yen per adult to enter, and it was nice to see the most impressive pieces from the village history. Bonus: They also had a public restroom!
Matt walked toward one of the buildings where a man was at his craft, and the man took time to show Matt what he was working on and how they use the karausu. He told us we could look around so we were able to get up close with the swinging!
Beauty of Onta
We then started walking down through the village, which had new delights at every turn as it followed the river. Many of the homes had their own karausu, clay preparation areas, workshops and kilns to make the pottery from start to finish. It was incredible to see the village built around a river that had provided their livelihood for centuries. The families are very diligent in protecting their clay sources. They won’t take more than the annual limits they put in place, ensuring that clay will continue to be available to make ontayaki pottery for centuries to come!
It was a short walk from the top to the bottom but it took us over an hour as we meandered from one workshop to the next. In some shops, someone would be using a pottery wheel in one room, the next room was filled with drying pieces ready to fire, another was full of fired pieces ready to be glazed, and finally there would be the showroom, where pieces were set out with price tags on stickers or strings.
Purchasing Ontayaki Pottery
The shops selling the pottery were very simple, if not austere, and devoid of anything resembling a typical art studio you might envision. It made me wonder if we were walking into people’s workspaces and not their stores. It was refreshing to see a place so far off the tourist path that none of the culture had been spoiled!
Ontayaki pottery is known for its ruggedness and durability; it is made for day-to-day use. We thought that the prices were very reasonable and purchased a vase and a cup for décor; we are planning on getting our full set on our next trip.
We headed back to Fukukoka, which was about 90 minutes away, happy with our purchases but absolutely in love with this village!
Along the way, we drove through another village, Hita, that had suffered terribly from heavy rains and landslides. Much of the road was damaged, many homes were completely wiped out, and almost a dozen lives were lost. It was harsh reminder of how temperamental Mother Nature can be and how very lucky we are to enjoy the beauty that is all around us.
Onta Area Map