Arita: An idiot’s guide to porcelain

Arita, 90 minutes or so by train from Fukuoka or Nagasaki, is a historic town in north west Kyushu famous for porcelain production. Now I am no specialist, but porcelain appears to be a kind of medieval plastic. Piles of the stuff were splashed with colour and pretty designs to catch the punter’s eye.

Nobody seems sure of its true value. This was illustrated by one lady who discounted an item I bought without telling me. Later, I discovered a pair of chopsticks had cost me as much as 2 teapots – yet taken up 1% of the space in the suitcase. Yet, in Tokyo pieces of this china, or should I call it japan?, can go for hundreds of thousands of yen an item.

Four national living treasures work in the town heading production teams apparently. Perhaps most famous is the dynasty founded by a Korean, Ri Sampei who moved here in the early 17th century. The current descendant, the 14th apparently learns Korean purely to speak to customers from his ‘homeland’.

Factories in the town have seen a dramatic drop in employment, at one place I heard they have gone from 300 to 15 employees in 30 years. They can’t compete with the price of ‘new china’. Yet it is a real shame because there is nothing quite like old china. Their firm handles, the clink of cup onto saucer, the intrinsic artwork and the proper porcelain itself surely helps make the tea taste better. One old lady – a different one this time, anticipating my needs perhaps, told me I could get rid of black tea stains with a bit of bleach. Bless her china socks.

The heavens were moody, both rumbling and sweltering. Fortunately you could hear the rain before it landed on you; it normally gave just enough warning to run under a shop awning. In one shower, I stopped at the clear river running through the centre of the town, astonished to see its bottom was scattered with broken plates.

Property is dirt-cheap here apparently; marked in chalk on a blackboard, a house was advertising for inhabitants. This echoes a pattern across the country, cheap homes – but no jobs in the countryside, rising house prices but no rise in wages in the cities. Leaving the town early in the morning, from a train window I glimpsed four baseball uniforms racing their small bicycles through grubby back alleys and between tall narrow red brick chimneys. They looked like an anachronism, a grainy newsreel report of a place in the past I will never visit.

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