History and great buys in Okinawa's Tsuboya Pottery District

History and great buys in Okinawa's Tsuboya Pottery District

The traditional Okinawan industry still lives in the hills and back streets of Naha. Here's where to find it

In Okinawa, statues of mythical creatures called "shisa" are placed around homes to ward off evil spirits. The air is fresh from a recent rainfall as we step onto a tiny street in Okinawa’s capital of Naha. On a cloudy day, it’s even more apparent that this city -- with its chunky concrete buildings designed to withstand typhoons -- would never make a “Most Beautiful Places in the World” list.

But it does have its share of charming nooks and crannies.

One of them is the centrally located Tsuboya Pottery District.

“People from mainland Japan come here to get gifts,” says my guide, Keiko Gibo, as we stroll along the winding, coral-and-limestone-paved Tsuboya Yachimun Street. “Okinawan pottery is well known. And it's very good quality.”

Long history

The origins of this area date to the 17th century.

At the time, craftsmen and pottery kilns were spread out across Okinawa. The administration of the former Ryukyu Kingdom decided to centralize the industry in Naha.

Okinawa's pottery heyday lasted for about three centuries. “The soil was good, the water was good and the [transportation] was good,” says Gibo. “They made roof tiles and everyday pottery here.”

That continued for about 300 years until the 1970s, when many in the industry had to relocate again because the smoke from the concentration of kilns was having a negative impact on Naha’s air quality.

But the legacy of that period endures.

Just off Tsuboya Yachimun Street, Gibo shows me the remains of a crumbling kiln, sheltered by a traditional red-tiled roof. Several cylindrical-shaped pots lean against a tree. Another tree sits atop a pile of broken wares, its twisted mass of roots seeming to hold hundreds of fragments together.

Stores galore

Guma Guwa More interesting are the stores and galleries that line Tsuboya’s main street.

Our first stop is Guma Guwa, a shop so small it can fit fewer than a dozen people. Glazed mugs, bowls, plates and pitchers line the shelves, some bearing delicately painted designs.

Guma Guwa and its sister shop, Kamany, are operated by Ikutouen, a family-run business that's been making earthenware for six generations and which offers pottery lessons. We reach Ikutouen’s hilltop location after walking down a quiet back alley.

Yonaha Another boutique that captures our attention is Nchazēku, which sells mugs, hashioki (chopstick rests), soy sauce dishes and coffee pots with custom filters.

We also wander through nearby Yonaha, which specializes in shisa, the Ryukyuan statue that looks like the product of a lion and dog coupling. People in Okinawa place pairs of shisa -- one with an open mouth and one with a closed mouth -- on their roofs or beside the gates to their homes to ward off evil.

Chatarol Cafe Those who want to learn more about the history of Okinawan pottery should to head to the Tsuboya Pottery Museum to browse the exhibits and multimedia displays.

In this district you'll also find Chatarol Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall that offers tasty meals, desserts and coffee. It’s here I meet Jonas and Jutta Martens, honeymooners from Finland enjoying a quiet moment filling out postcards to send back home.

"It looks really cozy," Jonas says of the Tsuboya Pottery District.  "It's more traditional Okinawa than what we've seen in the bigger parts of the city."

C. James Dale is a Canadian journalist based in Tokyo.

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