Arita is, in many ways, like other small cities and towns in Japan. Its origins only vaguely visible through the fog of ancient history. But somehow, Arita’s destiny was to give birth to Japanese porcelain.

Reverence for nature is the foundation of all Japanese spirituality, and in certain places its meaning speaks more loudly. These are towns where the confluence of earth, wind, and water, fertile valleys and the mountains that stand sentry over them give rise to thriving communities, which accumulate practices and experiences that come to define them, generation after generation. And thus, culture is born, and destiny fulfilled.

In all cases, it begins with the earth, the very soil. In Arita that soil was rich with the mineral kaolin, the body of porcelain. But the farmers of 17th century Arita might never have known the bounty their land held, had it not been shown to them. Pulling porcelain from the earth was not as simple as pulling radishes.

Like most births, the birth of Japanese porcelain was indelicate.

Like most births, the birth of Japanese porcelain was indelicate.

A time, a place, a gift of nature…

Arita, at the heart of Saga Prefecture, lies about as far to the west as Japan extends. Japanese civilization progressed from west to east, so the layers of history run especially deep there.

Just across a narrow slip of sea lies the Korean peninsula, and the thread that connects all East Asian culture wends up through there, back to its source, China.

At the beginning of the 17th century the entire region roiled with internecine rivalry for the reins of nations. Incursions, alliances, intrigues — the entire gamut of events encompassed in the chaos of human conflict took their toll on the populace, but also fed its vitality. As the smoke cleared, an individual stood out.

Born in Korea, now living for a score of years on Japanese soil, on Arita’s soil, Lee-Sampyoung knew from experience that this rare land was filled with precious kaolin. It was Lee who, in 1616, brought Arita to the world’s stage by showing it the treasure beneath its feet and in its surrounding hillsides.

Joining him were others whom the whirlwind of war had placed on Arita’s land. Some were from China, the very name of which became synonymous with porcelain ceramics. These artisans were able to recall the complex, asymmetric enameling patterns China had become known for, and they shared them, artist to artist, person to person in a single-minded enterprise to renew porcelain’s legend on Japan’s shore.

Porcelain, for all its luminosity, gracefulness and refinement, is born of fury. To become porcelain, clay must be fired at unusually high temperatures for a great span of time. The high-heat, low oxygen technology, called reductive firing, requires specialized kilns, and consumes immense volumes of fuel. But getting trees down from the nearby hills was never the challenge. To generate the heat needed, the huge, multi-tiered kilns must be sunk deep into the bowels of the earth, at ascending levels of elevation. This was another of Master Lee’s great contributions, and which the terrain of Arita accommodated.


What is it about porcelain?

The science of what makes porcelain so unique is straightforward. The rarified manner in which the kaolin clay is fired causes vitrification — it becomes, quite literally, glasslike. It transmits light like no other ceramic, and like glass, is impermeable to liquid. It can be made as hard as rock, yet as thin as a leaf. Its purity and molecular integrity make it resonant — ringing it like a bell is one way experts judge its quality. Its imperviousness to chemical corruption, unmatched qualities as a high-voltage insulator, resistance to thermal shock… Science can tick off the ways it’s become one of the most versatile materials in modern-day industrial and practical use.

But the reason it’s sought throughout the world as ceramic’s highest expression isn’t science, but magic, that which we accept without explanation.

It’s the magic of porcelain that has stoked the fire of imagination the way the artisans of Arita have stoked its massive kilns, unceasingly, for centuries. Imagination powers the wings that lifted Arita porcelain above the capricious trends of eras, and across oceans. That Arita porcelain appears on everyday dining tables throughout Japan as well as in the cupboards of its emperors, must be magic. Magic is what is meant when an entire nation calls a place, Arita, a national treasure.

It’s the magic born of nature’s impenetrable order joined to human drama, a quality of unexpected coming together, as an unlikely collection of craftspeople came together over four centuries ago — a constant quest to render nourishment of the spirit as we render nourishment of the body, from the earth.

It begins with the earth…

Seminal work of Sakaida Kakiemon (1596–1666). The kiln, enamel technique, and spare color palette that bear his name remain central to Arita porcelain. Kyushu Ceramic Museum, Shibata Collection