The Pottery Village That Goes Thud in the Night

The Pottery Village That Goes Thud in the Night

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Japan is a modern country, famous for its electronics and technological prowess. Thankfully, a few little pockets of the old, traditional Japan remain. Such as the wonderful little village of Onta.

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Onta, nestled into a narrow green gorge among the hills of eastern Kyushu, has been a pottery village for the whole of its recorded history. Every one of its 300 residents, it seems, either produce pottery, work in pottery shops or run accommodations for pottery buyers from out of town.

Pottery here is a tradition passed down from father to son, practiced in ways that have changed little over time. The same basic tools used to make pottery in Onta today were used a hundred years ago. Visit Onta on a sunny day and you’ll see front yards filled with drying pots and plates. And the clear mountain stream that bisects Onta is still used to pound clay via a kara-usu.

A kara-usu is a sort of see-saw with a large bowl on one end and a pounding hammer on the other. Water from the Onta stream pours into a bowl, lowering it until the water spills out. When that happens the large hammer on the other end of the see-saw comes crashing down into a mound of clay. Then water refills the pot and the process begins again.

What little activity there is around Onta during the day shuts down after sunset. At night the village is completely silent except for the babbling of streams and the gentle thud-thud-thud of the kara-usus. It is completely quaint and other worldly.

Where to stay: Yorozuya Ryokan—traditional Japanese rooms and hot baths located in the center of town next to the stream. No English is spoken (as with the other lodges in Onta) but the staff are exceptionally friendly to international visitors.

updated: 1 Aug 2010
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Water from the stream fills the kara-usu hammers

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The hammers at the other end of the kara-usu

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Questions about travel to Onta (or Japan in general). You are welcome to ask in our comments section:

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Responses

  1. Elise says:

    Awesome Japanese ceramics Photos, Diversity of Japanese Design is wonderful.
    Here, a gallery in Paris, which has nice japanese art pieces:
    Yakimono Art

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. philip porter says:

    thanks for that info. What about accommodation there, is there anything available?
    philip

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. philip porter says:

    Onta indeed sounds magical . I will be in Japan at the end of September and would love to go there. Leaving from Osaka on the Shinkansen where do I get off and what do I do after that?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Philip,

    Onta is indeed magical; it’s one of our favorite little towns in Japan. Unfortunately, it is not well served by public transportation. We drove there on our visit. The closest Shinkansen station would be Yatsushiro.

    ~ SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Ellen Hecht says:

    I was in Japan over 40 years ago. I had married a man from Kyushu. We took a trip to Japan and went sight-seeing all over Kyushu. We went to Onta. My memories include a narrow winding road threading through forested mountains. You had to leave your car and take a bus that went up once or twice a day. The road was too narrow for 2 cars to pass each other and there was nowhere to park cars at the village. I also got the sense that they wanted to preserve the quiet village and not let too many people overrun it each day. Many of the homes opened their sliding doors during the day to display and sell their wares. Each family’s pottery style was different, but all were made with the clay they dug from the surrounding mountain side. I clearly remember the dull, hollow, echoing sound of “wounk (wait for it) . . . . . wounk . . . . . .wounk”, like a heartbeat as the stream filled one end of the hammers. I spoke almost no Japanese so I missed the significance of the “hammers.” I thought they were to mark the passing of time. The most eerie sound! I bought some pottery and lovingly wrapped it so it would make it all the way home to the U.S. Thank you for the photos. Wonderful memory.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Spot Cool Travel Stuff Reply:

    Ellen,

    Wow! Thank you for the re-accounting of your visit to Onta. It really is one of the world’s great small villages. The effect it had on you it also had on me and, I suspect, on many of its other visitors as well.

    ~ SCS

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. ben says:

    hi
    im heading to kyushu in a couple days
    i see how to get to Hita
    but how do i get from hita to Onta?
    thx
    ben

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Margo says:

    Onta is magical! Within this little town you see the history and process of producing and creating Japanese ceramics unfold. From mud to clay to beautifully formed vessels – it’s all there. Go there with someone special – you will want to share the experience!

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Cate says:


    Twitter:
    This is a great find. I used to live in Japan but never made it to Kyushu. Another great place famous for its pottery (red glazes) is a small town called Mino, just on the outskirts of Osaka. Thanks for the good post.

    [Reply to this comment]

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