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Country Atmosphere in Tsuboya, Naha’s Ceramics District

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2001-02-02

The Tsuboya area is a few minutes walk from Naha’s main shopping artery, Kokusai Street. It is surprising to find a series of winding lanes with plenty of greenery and traditional ceramic tiled roofs, so close to the busy heart of Naha. There are few cars and it is closer to the atmosphere of a quiet country town than a big city. The easiest way to get to it from Kokusai Street is to walk through the covered market and out the other end, which brings you directly into Yachimun (Ceramics) Alley.

This street, stretching all the way to Himeyuri Boulevard, is the place to go if you want to buy shisa dogs, teapots, cups, plates, pots, urns, and all manner of ceramic cats, dogs, dragons and ornamental glaze and earthenware. Ceramic shops line both sides of these roads which have a sense of peace and uninterrupted history, not evident in other parts of Naha. One shop claims to have been established 300 years ago.

Tsuboya was established as a kiln firing district under the Ryukyu kings in the 17th Century. Tsubo means “pot” in Japanese and Tsuboya is “pottery shop”. During the Second World War the district fortunately sustained little damage. After the war there was a great demand for ceramic roof tiles and crockery that had been destroyed during the conflict. The district also found a new market in exotic glazed and earthenware souvenirs for the occupying American troops.

Two historic kilns can be viewed while wandering around the area. Both are set back from the street and their rustic appearance and surrounding greenery create the illusion of having suddenly entered a rural artisan’s village. The Fenu Kama or South Kiln is right next to a coffee shop of the same name. The café is a wooden cabin reached by some stone steps leading up a green covered mound. Gourmet coffee and tea is served in artistically designed cups amidst shelves of fine pottery for sale. The kiln, a long pillared structure the size of a big bungalow, is out of the back door of the café, shaded by a tree whose enormous roots have overgrown a mass of discarded pottery shards. If you don’t want to go to the café you can approach the kiln from the other side of the mound.

The other kiln, Agarinu Kama or the East Kiln, is the other end of Ceramics Alley, near Himeyuri Boulevard, and features a massive stone end wall and a finely curved ceramic tiled roof.

The Tsuboya Ceramics Museum is near the Kokusai Street end of the district. It has pottery from other Asian countries as well as Okinawan ceramics on display. It shows the wooden paddles, mallets, curved knives and sharpened bamboo shafts used for shaping clay in the Tsuboya style.

There is a life sized replica of a wooden pre-war dwelling which visitors can step into, containing the earthenware household objects which were part of daily living at that time.

A cut-away section of a wall in the museum reveals that the very site of the building is redolent of the area’s history. Thickly clustered pieces of broken pottery in three distinct layers, dating from the 17th century to the Meiji period (1868-1912).

The Museum shows films on Tsuboya’s history, projected onto a large curved wall on the ground floor. They are in the Japanese language, as is the labeling of the exhibits. A brief pamphlet explaining the contents of the museum is available in English, though. The Museum costs ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for college and high school students and ¥100 for juniors. In groups these prices are ¥240, ¥160 and ¥80 respectively.

Anyone who likes pottery could spend happy hours exploring the shops of Ceramics Alley. But there are other sights to see connected with the area’s heritage. The Nishinume Pagoda, near the Museum, is guarded by some fine shisa dogs. The Toya is another small pagoda in the middle of the district and the Binjurugwa shrine is at the end of a small lane nearby.

Potters have always needed plenty of water and there are a five wells in the relatively small area of Tsuboya – probably why it grew up as a ceramics district in the first place. They are scattered the length of Yachimun Alley: the Agarinu-ka or East Well, the Miiganu-ka or New Well, the Ufu-ga or Big Well, the Shimunu-ka or Lower Well and the Banju-ga or Guard House Well. The wells are mostly pleasant spots shaded with greenery, adding to Tsuboya’s village atmosphere.

Directions: Coming into Naha on Highway 330, turn right at the Asato intersection. Take the next left at the Asato junction into Kokusai Street. After a bus stop on the right is Heiwa Street on the left, the main entrance to the covered market. At the end of this pedestrian arcade is the Sunrise Shopping Area which leads directly into Yachimun (Ceramics) Alley.

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