Onta ware is a type of traditional Japanese pottery produced in the tiny village of Onta, in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu. Unlike the pretty porcelain created in other pottery towns of Kyushu such as Arita and Imari in Saga Prefecture, Onta pottery is functional; designed for daily, practical use within the home.
Onta Pottery Village
The village of Onta is nestled in the mountains of Oita, a 20-minute drive from the town of Hita. Only fourteen families, ten of whom are pottery artisans, are permitted to call Onta home. Some of these artisans are direct descendants of the founders of the village. Onta Pottery Village and the pottery production process are recognized as an Important National Intangible Cultural Property in Japan, and as such are preserved.
One of the family homes in Onta Pottery Village with newly made dishes drying in the sun. Photo by Estelle Pizer
One of the potters kneading the clay before working it on the kick wheel. Photo by Estelle Pizer
The Process of Making Onta Pottery
Onta pottery is still made using the same methods that were first introduced to the area over 300 years ago in 1705. No modern-day machinery is involved in the production process. The clay is sourced as rocks in the local mountains and prepared using water mills known as karausu. The sound of the thump, thump, thump of these wooden hammer water mills, echoes throughout the village from morning to night. This unforgettable sound is listed as one of Japan’s Top 100 Soundscapes.
The karausu, water mill, in action. Photo by Estelle Pizer
The flow of gushing water from the little river that weaves throughout the village controls the seesaw motion of the karausu, which repeatedly pounds the clay into fine dust. The powdery dust is placed into water baths, where it is washed and filtered many times, then the clay is dried in the sun before being ready to use. The whole process of the preparation of the clay can take up to two months before it can be worked with.
The karausu, water mill, pounding the clay rocks into dust. Photo by Estelle Pizer
The pottery is created using a kick wheel – a pottery wheel without a motor. The spinning of the wheel is controlled with great skill and effort. The kilns are powered with firewood and the glazes are created using natural materials such as straw, copper, iron and ash. The main colours used stem from nature: green, brown, cream and black.
Some of the typical patterns and glazes used on Onta pottery. As you walk around the small village, you may see artisans like this one at work. Photo by Estelle Pizer
The specialist techniques of Onta pottery are handed down in a patriarchal lineage: from the father to the eldest son. Women and other family members participate in the preparation of the clay and glazing. Though there are ten families producing Onta pottery, the dishes are not signed with individual family names. Rather, all dishes produced are simply stamped as Onta ware.
One of the ten kilns. The number of kilns is limited to ensure the natural resources in the surrounding area remain plentiful. Photo by Estelle Pizer
The popularity of Onta pottery skyrocketed in the 1920’s thanks to the Mingei folk art movement which sought to honour and preserve the artistic value of works created by local artisans for daily use. Soetsu Yanagi, an art critic, who was the founder of the Mingei movement, wrote about the beauty in the everyday objects of Onta ware and introduced the world-renowned English potter Bernard Leach to the area. Leach had two artistic residencies in Onta Pottery Village sharing techniques and he also brought Onta-yaki, Onta pottery, to the attention of the international community.
Each family also has a shop selling a range of Onta pottery at prices much lower than you’ll find in Tokyo or online. Photo by Estelle Pizer
Due to the remote location of Onta Pottery Village, driving by car or taking a taxi is recommended. It takes about 20 minutes up the winding, mountainous roads to reach the village from the closest main town, Hita. Hita is sometimes referred to as the Kyoto of Kyushu due to its historical areas and riverside establishments which resemble Kyoto. It was at one stage the political epicentre of Kyushu so the town, though very quiet, is well signposted with historical information. To reach Hita from Fukuoka, take a Shinkansen from Hakata Station to Kurume Station, then transfer to the JR Kyudai Line. The fastest trip will take around 90 minutes.
- Ontayaki Pottery Village (Ontayaki Pottery Museum)
- Oita Pref. Hitashi Motoemachi Sarayama 138-1