“A man’s accomplishments in life are the cumulative effect of his attention to detail.” ~ John Foster Dulles.
As my neck tilted up the steep stone staircase to reveal a unique blue and white porcelain torii gate, I felt a deep sense of fulfilment to finally be standing here in Arita, Japan. For many years, I’d wanted to visit this small town in the Kyushu region, but it had always felt a little too far out of the way for my previous Japan itineraries.
But when planning my Nagasaki trip itinerary, I realised that nearby Arita was ideal for an immersive day trip into Japanese history and culture. This was it, after years of Arita being a “someday” destination, its time had finally come – and it didn’t disappoint!
Featuring traditional buildings, narrow laneways, dozens of little porcelain shops and scenic vantage points, Arita is a charming, sleepy little town that isn’t on the mainstream tourist radar. You won’t find it in Japan travel guidebooks! For a small town, it is steeped with incredible attention to detail throughout.
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Where is Arita?
Arita borders both Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures on the island of Kyushu, Japan’s western-most island attached to the mainland. Situated north-east of Huis Ten Bosch and north of Nagasaki city, it can easily be access by rail in under 1 hour 20mins.
Where to stay in Nagasaki
For your day trip to Arita, I recommend staying in Nagasaki for more accommodation options.
As mentioned in my honeymoon itinerary for Japan, there are two options when staying in Nagasaki, and you can do both to split your time:
- Stay in Huis Ten Bosch, Sasebo: I stayed at the Hotel Okura Huis Ten Bosch, which was incredible and had beautiful panoramic views over the area. It’s in Nagasaki’s north, and the adjoining Dutch-themed park is famed for its winter illuminations (which I highly recommend while you’re here, read my full guide and review of Huis Ten Bosch Japan for details!).
- Stay in Nagasaki City: I enjoyed my stay at Dormy Inn Premium Ekimae, a few moment’s walk from JR Nagasaki Station. The room was on the small side as expected but in a great location for exploring the city on foot.
TIP: If you’re staying in both locations as I did, I do recommend doing your Arita day trip from Huis Ten Bosch to save time. Plus, you’ll be able to experience Huis Ten Bosch easily too!
How to get from Nagasaki to Arita
Note that Arita has two train stations, JR Arita in the south-west and JR Kami-Arita to the north-east. They are only 4mins apart by train, but it’s easy to walk between the two.
I chose to arrive at JR Kami-Arita as this is closer to the main sights and old town, and throughout the day made my way over to JR Arita Station to head back to my hotel in the afternoon.
- If staying at Huis Ten Bosch: Kami-Arita Station is 55mins on local JR trains.
- If staying in Nagasaki city: Kami-Arita Station is 1 hour 20mins on the Nishi Kyushu shinkansen (bullet train) with a transfer at Takeo Station to the local JR Sasebo line.
These journeys are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
NOTE: From my observations, there is very limited English used in Kyushu outside of the main hotels, if at all. It’s a good idea to learn some basic Japanese phrases (and possible responses) for tourists with my free cheat sheet so you can be prepared. Also, find out how I learn language for travel fast here.
Arita Day Trip Itinerary: 9 Inspiring things to do in Arita Japan
We’ll start the day by heading from Kami-Arita Station to the Arita Uchiyama District (Old Town).
Kami-Arita Station is very tiny and usually unmanned. As soon as I stepped foot outside the station, I felt as though I was in a super quiet, rural area. Honesty systems work so well here; there are no ticket turnstiles. Just pop your used train ticket in the marked box.
Believe me when I say there is porcelain to be found EVERYWHERE. The streets are lined with small porcelain objects, the directional signs are made of it, and many stores have their prized pieces on display outside. It’s so lovely!
With that said, let’s start this Arita day trip itinerary by heading to the Tonbai Wall Alleys.
Explore the Tonbai Wall Alleys
At first glance, these may seem like regular old walls in a residential street. However, the Tonbai Wall Alleys are more than meets the eye.
Creating porcelain was competitive 400 years ago as Arita became the first place in Japan to produce it. The pottery masters that once lived in these streets built the walls to hide their techniques from prying eyes.
Made from discarded fireproof bricks (known as tonbai) that were once used in kilns for firing pottery, I love that these walls have been left as a reminder of the town’s dedication to this craft.
TIP: See if you can find other interesting uses for old ceramics around the area!
Discover the Arita Ceramic Museum
The Arita Ceramic Museum is a cute little find! I almost walked right by it at first, as it is tucked away behind a wall without clear signage.
Opened in 1954, this museum was the first of its kind in Saga Prefecture and only one of three in the entire world dedicated to pottery.
The building dates back to the early Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) and throughout history has been used as a pottery storehouse as well as a school for teaching traditional Arita porcelain production techniques.
The two-level museum is small, but the detailed pieces housed are very impressive and fascinating. Unfortunately, the verbiage is only in Japanese, however the Google Translate camera app can decipher the Japanese brochure I received on entry into English.
NOTE: Open 09:00 – 16:30 daily except Mondays, the museum costs 120 yen to enter. From 29 April – 5 May, it is open for the local annual pottery fair.
Admire the craftsmanship of the porcelain torii at Tozan Shrine
Also known as Tosa (Sueyama) Shrine, seeing an image of its unique torii many years ago was what ultimately inspired my Arita visit.
Crossing over railway tracks, passing beneath two old stone torii and climbing a very steep hillside staircase reveals a 400 year-old shrine dedicated to the “fathers of pottery” who were brought to Japan from Korea at the time.
Tozan Shrine decorated with stunning blue and white porcelain pieces, my favourite being a large column hand-painted with a swirling dragon above the sea.
TIP: You can also buy lovely omamori from the temple shop, one of which is made from porcelain. My Japanese souvenirs guide explains what these are!
Concealed by an unassuming (sometimes overgrown) pathway behind this shrine is our next stop.
Take in sweeping valley views at the Monument of Lee Sam Pei
Arita’s rise to porcelain fame was thanks to Korean potter Lee Cham-Pyung (Lee Sam Pei). Captured by Hideyoshi’s forces in Korea in 1592 and brought back to Japan as a prisoner, he eventually became a naturalised Japanese person.
In searching for quality clay for his pottery, Lee Sam Pei discovered kaolin at Mt Izumiyama.
He realised this white clay-like material was perfect for producing quality porcelain, thereby leading a chain reaction of events. Not only did he kick off Japan’s porcelain production industry, but helped grow its popularity by exporting to Europe.
From this hillside vantage point with views over Arita’s grey rooftops and mountainous backdrop, this monument is a grateful dedication to his achievements in helping build the prosperity of the town.
Enjoy lunch at Arita Porcelain Lab
By now I’m sure you’re probably hungry! Our lunch stop is quite unique for Arita, so if you’d like to eat from exquisite hand-made porcelain and have the chance to purchase a high-end souvenir or gift, you’re going to love this!
Formerly Yazaemon Kiln and founded in 1804, Arita Porcelain Lab creates Japan’s finest porcelain in their own local factory. Employing the exact techniques passed down for 7 generations, each piece is hand-made and painted in painstaking detail by skilled local artisans.
Alongside the shop is a café, serving delicious local ingredients for lunch and dinner. Presented on a stunning gold dish, I ordered the delicious Japanese curry which was served alongside salad and vegetables in their signature style porcelain.
TIP: I purchased two exquisite cups (the pink and blue ones pictured below). They were packaged very well for my flight back to Australia. To give you an idea of price, they were 5,000 yen each.
Be left in awe at the giant Gingko Tree of Arita
Believed to be 1,000 years old, the Giant Ginkgo Tree of Arita would be an impressive sight. With a height of 30 metres and trunk circumference of 9 metres, it in 1926 was designated as one of Japan’s natural monuments.
TIP: To be transparent, I did skip this one as I visited Arita in the middle of winter. It would have been completely bare, and it’s a little out of the way. However if you’re visiting at any other time of year (especially during autumn when its leaves are golden), you may wish to make the trip!
Witness exceptional stone craftsmanship at Keiunji Temple
On first glance up the narrow pathway to Keiunji Temple, you’d likely not realise it attracts over one million visitors per week during the annual Arita Porcelain Festival and Ceramic Bazaar are held here during Golden Week!
With two exceptionally-carved stone guardians standing watch at the temple’s entrance, Keiunji Temple was built in 1620. Since 1896, important ceramic-judging competitions have been held here, and are considered so serious one could hear a pin drop during the judgement time.
A golden hand with raised index finger is the main attraction here, believed to be the hand of a one-thousand armed goddess. Worshippers come here to pray for skilful hands in their field of work.
I was blown away by the intricacies of the guardian carvings, their stone features taking on the appearance of soft, flowing cloth. I’m sure you’ll agree they’re just incredible!
TIP: The Arita Porcelain Festival is held annually from 25 April – 5 May. 450 stalls line the town’s main street, and you’re sure to pick up a few porcelain bargains!
Admire the porcelain vases decorating Higashinomae Bridge
Having taken a wrong turn for Arita Station, I stumbled across this little gem on Higashinomae Bridge. There are tow, one on either side and make an otherwise regular bridge handrail fascinating.
Although the vases are modern replicas of their 17th century counterparts in the Kyushu Ceramic Museum, the paintwork and gold details are very beautiful. The accompanying porcelain tile reads:
“This jar is representative of the beauty and the romantic story of the Old-Imari exported to Europe beyond the sea. It is a replica of the original jar displayed in the Kamohara Collection in the Kyushu Ceramic Museum. November 1986.”
Find the porcelain handrails and details at Arita Station
Meandering past old stores, bridges and streams lining Arita’s main road, Prefectural Road 281, your afternoon in the town will soon draw to a close as you near JR Arita Station.
Don’t forget to pay attention to the white porcelain handrails decorated in blue cherry blossoms, and the beautiful painted tiles on the platform walls. They’re lovely to admire as you wait for your train back to Nagasaki!
More things to do nearby Arita Japan
Some of these sites may be reached more easily if you hire a car, as public transport is limited:
- Izumiyama Quarry – The site where Lee Sam Pei discovered kaolin. It’s no longer a functioning quarry, but open to visitors.
- Tengudani Kiln Ruins Site – Built along a mountain slope, it’s one of the oldest former kilns in Arita and was used by Lee Sam Pei.
- Arita Porcelain Park – Covers the history of porcelain in Arita artefacts displays. The main building, Zwinger Palace, is based on the palace of the same name in Dresden, Germany. Features restaurants, a brewery, porcelain making workshops and more.
- Kyushu Ceramic Museum – Houses collections of porcelain from every corner of Kyushu, detailing their history and character.
- Okawachiyama Village – Believed to be one of the most remote villages in Japan
- Imari Town – Port city known for exporting ceramics, pottery and porcelain to the world during the Edo Period.
Concluding this day trip to Arita
As you can see, there are a number of historic and cultural things to see and do in Arita, especially for visitor who love exploring cities from centuries past. From dining on some of Japan’s finest porcelain to discovering a unique shrine, to beautiful vantage points and endless shops to find some bargains, Arita is bound to delight you as it did me!
While you’re here, find out what you’re forgetting to pack for Japan, learn, find out more tips for how to prepare for a trip to Japan, interesting Japanese snacks to look for, and more itineraries for less-visited destinations on my Japan travel blog!
Until next time,
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