A Modern Kakiemon Tiger

Contributed by Mathew & Patricia Welch

With only a 24-hour stopover in Nagasaki allotted on the cruise ship’s schedule, we knew we had to prioritize–and top of the list was a visit to Arita’s famous Kyushu Ceramic Museum. Neither of us speaks more than a few words in Japanese, so the first challenge was finding a Japanese taxi driver willing to be hired for the 4-5 hours the trip would take. With the help of Google Translate, we negotiated what we felt was a semi-reasonable fee (roughly US$150), and with the help of Google Maps, arrived at the museum in roughly over an hour’s drive. The Museum is located on the top of a small hill at Tosyaku Otsu, off Route 35 in Arita, not far from the Arita College of Ceramics. It is open Tues-Sun 9-5 and admission is free unless there is a special exhibition.

Porcelain production in Japan dates back to the 17th century when kaolin was discovered in Arita at Izumiyama on the island of Kyushu. From the Arita kilns, the ceramics were exported from the port at Nagasaki, via the Dutch trading post built on the artificial island of Dejima, which we visited on the same trip on our way back to our docked cruise ship.

We began in the lower exhibition hall with the Shibata Collection, 1000+ pieces of Arita porcelain, primarily from the Edo Period (1603-1867), meticulously arranged in chronological order in knee-to-ceiling-high wall cases. For porcelain lovers, to walk amongst these cases is akin to being in paradise. All these beautiful porcelains, produced at the request of the Dutch VOC to fill their ships when Ming Dynasty China suddenly banned private trade in an effort to concentrate wealth in the court, are there for collectors and connoisseurs to study alongside their predecessors and successors. Such an opportunity to study these porcelains in depth is a rare gift as few museums have such complete and extensive collections.

Upstairs, Exhibit Room Number 3 introduced us to the ancient ceramics produced in Kyushu’s kilns, such as Kogaratsumade in Hizen Province, early Imari, and other porcelains produced in the Kakiemon style or at the Nabeshima clan kiln. Another room detailed the history of ceramics across Asia, and included such details as maps of ancient trade routes, VOC trade ports, displays of the various types of kilns and kiln furniture, and drawers of representative shards.

After a short stop in the museum shop, we drove to the main shopping mall known as the ‘greatest shopping mall of Arita ceramics in the world’, the Arita Toji no Sato Plaza, located by the Hasami-Arita interchange (a 20-minute walk from the JR Arita Station). We were so overwhelmed by the selection, we were paralysed with indecision and bought nothing. However, having found our taxi driver and driven off for twenty minutes or so, we both realized that we had seen one artefact that we couldn’t get out of our minds. A modern Kakiemon (in Japanese: 柿右衛門) tiger.

The name comes from Sakaida Kakiemon (1615-1653), the potter who pioneered this particular style of overglazed enamel Japanese porcelain in Arita, now known the world over, for its elegant  colored overglaze designs on a milky-white porcelain body (nigoshide). Sakaida had so wonderfully perfected the representation of persimmons (kaki) and the associated colour palette, that his lord bestowed the name ‘Kakiemon’ upon him.

Our tiger cost us roughly US$600 but has brought us many times that value in pleasure over the years.

The Kyushu Ceramic Museum, Arita, Kyushu, Japan