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Shisa honored with Tsuboya Festival

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2008-04-04

Tsuboya pottery is Okinawa’s finest, dating back centuries to the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and today marks the start to a festival paying homage to the most famous of hand crafted pieces.

The Tsuboya Festival is all about Shisa’s day, which is today. April is SHI in Japanese, and 3 is SAN in Japanese, making today the anniversary day of Shisa. From festival opening ceremonies this morning, which include Tsuboya Shisa Taiko Drum performances, to exhibitions that run through Sunday, it’s a time to introduce shisa to more foreigners, as well as locals.

Naha’s Tsuboya District has been the hub of Okinawan pottery since 1682, although the earthenware first began being made about 6,600 years ago. Today, dozens of workshops are still operating after being passed down from generation to generation. The most famous of the pottery is tsuboya-yaki, a product that has gained fame far beyond the islands of Okinawa.

There are actually two forms of tsuboya-yaki produced in Naha City’s Tsuboya District. Arayachi tsuboya-yaki is an unglazed pottery, often coated with a mud or manganese glaze. Typically, arayachi pottery is formed into large pieces that become storage vessels for awamori, water or bean paste. It’s also crafted into small masu-bin items such as bottles for measuring awamori.

Joyachi is a colorful glazed tsuboya-yaki made into vases, teapots, pots, bowls, plates and even awamori traveling flasks. Tsuboya-yaki pottery was influenced by both Chinese ceramics first introduced in the 12th century, and a mainland Japanese Kyushu pottery.

Tsuboya District really got going when the Chibana, Wakuta and Takaraguchi pottery districts merged into the single district by a royal decree of the Ryukyuan empire. It came about because of the Kingdom’s increased trading schedule with China and southeast Asia nations increased demand for the products.

World War II took its toll on Tsuboya’s craftsmen, who were directed by the Japanese Imperial Army to create battery cases and saucers for military use. After the war, a shortage of necessities for everyday life inspired Tsuboya District to quickly begin producing needed items. As Okinawa bounced back from the ravages of war, Tsuboya was forced to change. Kilns were deemed an annoyance in the downtown area, sending some artisans to the outlying areas to continue their trade. Others resisted, and Tsuboya District is alive and thriving today, although with electric kilns that don’t pollute the air with smoke.

An exhibition at Tsuboya Pottery Museum’s third floor gallery will run through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. There will also be special sales today only.

Sunday will feature something special, an opportunity for visitors to experience Shisaa making, using Okinawan clays. The participation fee is ¥1,500. After making the pottery piece Sunday, the artisans will fire it in their kilns, then have it ready for pick up on April 26th.

Entry to the Tsuboya Pottery Museum is normally ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for high school and college students, and ¥100 for middle school and younger students, but is free this week. The museum is normally open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Tsuboya Pottery District is located in downtown Naha City, in the Kokusai Street area. Across from Okinawa Mitsukoshi Department Store on Kokusai is Heiwadori, a shopping arcade. After walking through Heiwadori arcade, visitors reach Tsuboya District. For those traveling from military bases, travel south on Highway 58 to Naha City, then turn left at signs for Kokusai Street.

Another route is to travel Highway 330 south into Naha City. Just before Naha Police Headquarters is Yogi Park; the Tsuboya pottery district is on the right side of Route 330 just before Yogi Park. There’s limited parking in the pottery district, so it’s best to park in a paid parking lot, or take a taxi or walk from Heiwadori or Kokusai Street.

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