Whether you are sitting at a dining table or walking through the aisles of a souvenir shop, the eyes are automatically drawn to the colors and craftsmanship of traditional Okinawan pottery. Known as yachimun in Okinawan language, these plates, bowls, figurines, and much more, are functional, elegant and part of everyday life on these islands. Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that yachimun pottery also has an interesting story to tell about Okinawa, its history, and its people’s appreciation for aesthetic beauty that matches its surrounding physical beauty.
There is no better way to get a quick introduction to the history and charms of this Okinawan craft than to visit Naha’s Tsuboya Yachimun Street. While only a short walk away from the tourist hubbub of Kokusai Street, the limestone paved road running through the small district is just the first indication that you are entering one of the most charming parts of the city. Somewhat miraculously, the Tsuboya area escaped much of the devastation inflicted on the rest of Naha during the Battle of Okinawa, and the streetscape with its narrow winding alleys, known as sujiguwa in Okinawan language, gives a glimpse of a time gone by. It is a place of pottery workshops handed down from generation to generation, quaint ateliers selling exquisite works, and boutique cafes with fine teas and coffee served in splendid crockery.
Yachimun born from trade and aesthetic sense
Naha Municipal Tsuboya Pottery Museum, which conveniently stands near the West entrance to the street, is a great starting point for an introduction to the history and diversity of yachimun products. While earthenware in the Ryukyu Islands has a history stretching over 6000 years, it wasn’t until the 12th century when pottery imported from China appeared on the Ryukyu Islands in the various trading fiefdoms of the Gusuku era, centuries before their unification as the Ryukyu Kingdom. As the trading networks expanded during this period, so too did the varieties of imported pottery and potting techniques coming from as far as Southeast Asia.
Partly instigated by the need to produce and store one of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s most important products, awamori alcohol, large storage vats and other items started to be fired in kilns in a number of areas on the Okinawan Main Island during the 15th and 16th centuries. These early yachimun were predominantly unglazed and functional vases, jars and roof tiles, made from a mixture of the black soil and red clay found in the southern areas of Okinawa Main island. This type of yachimun, known as “arayachi”, with its distinctive burnished red color is still found in Okinawa in a wide range of usages, including Okinawa’s iconic Shisa figurines seen adorning roofs and entrances to buildings throughout the islands.
The second common variety of yachimun, “joyachi” is a glazed variety made from red clay and the white soil found in the central and northern parts of Okinawa Main Island. Originating in Korea, the firing technique defining joyachi was introduced by the Satsuma fiefdom, as Japan started to exert control over the Ryukyu Kingdom at the beginning of the 17th century. The production and techniques were further refined by incorporating ceramic and glazing techniques brought back by craftsmen sent to China, and later Japan, helping an original Okinawan yachimun aesthetic to take shape.
Tsuboya at the heart of yachimun
The Tsuboya area’s journey to becoming the epicenter of yachimun was born in tragedy when in 1660 the Shurijo Castle was burnt to the ground. To restore the castle to its former glory vast quantities of roof tile were needed, and this prompted the government to relocate the island’s pottery to Tsuboya in1682 to concentrate production and ease the reconstruction process. Tsuboya had several things in its favor to be designated as the pottery quarter. Proximity to both Shurijo Castle and a port to supply raw materials and ship finished goods was important, but the area was also sitting on suitable clay deposits and was hilly enough to build the “noborigama” climbing kilns commonly used to fire the pottery.
Concentrating the art of yachimun into this small village on the outskirts of Shuri helped distill local materials and aesthetics with the diverse range of imported techniques made possible through regional trade. Yachimun was becoming a refined and distinctly Okinawan art form, increasingly valued by the Ryukyu Kingdom as gifts for tributary powers in China and Japan. The golden age of royal patronage for yachimun came to a close as the Ryukyu Islands were absorbed into Meiji Japan. Suddenly Tsuboya’s yachimun artisans were forced to compete with imported pottery and responded with innovation and raising their craftsmanship to new levels.
After the city’s devastation in WWII, the relatively unscathed Tsuboya area became a beacon of hope and activity as artisans turned their hand to producing the necessities of daily life for Okinawans. In an increasingly overcrowded part of the rapidly expanding Naha, the wood-fired kilns produced so much smoke the future of yachimun production in Tsuboya became untenable. By the 1970s artisans wanting to preserve wood-fired yachimun relocated to the Yomitan area to the north, while the remaining yachimun workshops converted to gas or electric-fired kilns to produce their wares without causing a disturbance.
Getting to know the sujiguwa
If you can’t catch a tour of the area, the complimentary museum map of Tsuboya is a useful guide that allows you to see firsthand the evolution of yachimun as you walk the quiet small streets known in Okinawan language as “sujiguwa.” Situated next to the pottery museum is a fenu-kiln, an authentic climbing kiln used for firing arayachi, and deeper within Tsuboya lies agarinu-kiln with its separately fired 9 chambers used to produce joyachi pieces. Also of note are a number of wells, sacred sites, and buildings of historical significance found nearby. Dotted around the area are also potters at work, many with open studios you can enter and see the artisans producing works ranging from the very functional to the most elaborately designed pieces incorporating modern techniques. A number of studios also have yachimun experience classes, where you can try your hand at making some household wares or figurines.
The change of pace and aesthetic appeal of this quiet neighborhood, and its iconic yachimun wares, makes Tsuboya Yachimun Street an ideal destination for anyone wanting to get in tune with the artistic side of Okinawa. Wandering through the dozens of ateliers with their vast array of yachimun work is not only a visual treat but gives you the chance to pick up superb and classy souvenirs for yourself or loved ones.
Posted on January 24th, 2020
Text by Steve Jarvis
Steve Jarvis is a long-term resident of Japan who has recently relocated to the Okinawa Prefecture.