Journey to Onta – the ancient Japanese pottery village

A world away from the bustle of modern life, on the southern island of Japan sits Onta, a 300-year-old pottery village cradled in the mountains of the Oita prefecture. 

Ten families live here, making their famous onta-yaki pottery – plates, bowls and other everyday items decorated with their signature brown and white etched lines. For centuries, the skills and traditions of making pottery have been passed down from parent to child. Working intentionally to preserve their resources for generations to come, each family has a limit of two potter wheels per studio. There's a self-imposed annual limit to how much clay can be harvested to protect their livelihoods and the craft long term. Trees from the surrounding forest are managed by a custodian who ensures they’re replanted and harvested sustainably for the wood-fired kilns.

The potters use traditional methods, making their wares by hand the way it's been done for hundreds of years. Tumeric coloured clay is dug out of the ground in the surrounding mountainside. It’s refined by hand washing in troughs of water and pressed through sieves until it has the consistency of thickened cream. Then spread over a wood-fired clay oven to take out the extra moisture and thrown into vessels on the pottery wheel. The signature Onta-yaki markings are made with wooden combs.

Making pots on a pottery wheel in the Onta pottery village

A full days journey from Kyoto weaving through picturesque green mountains makes it hard to access and it doesn’t get many tourists. We’re the only ones there on the day we visited. Arriving in the village we see traditional white and ebony houses dotted along the banks of the Oura-gawa river. Pots are lined up outside of every home, on wooden boards and left to air dry in rows in the sun. The village is quiet and has the lulled paced you’d expect from a tiny country town.

Onta pottery village in Japan

Rows of pots drying in the sun at the Onta pottery village in Japan

The only sound we can hear is a methodical thud … thud … thud echoing through the air. Following the sound, we find the kara-usus, giant wooden hammers used to pound clay rocks into powder. An ancient piece of engineering powered by water from the river. Channelled through a trough, water pours into the hollowed-out end of a wooden lever. The weight of the water makes the arm drop, lifting the hammer at the other end. While the water empties back into the river the hammer starts to fall and hits the ground, pummelling the clay … thud! The water fills the lever again, it falls and the process repeats over and over. Because they’re powered by the ever-flowing river the hammers are perpetually echoing their rhythmical thud … thud … thud. The sound is so unique it has been deemed one of Japan’s 100 protected soundscapes.


Onta pottery village in Japan, the water horses that pummel clay

The village as a whole works together to create the pottery. Every family in the village has their own store, but they all use the same signature on the pottery. The artist doesn’t sign his own wares, all Onta-yaki is branded with the mark of Onta to recognise the collective effort that goes into creating each piece.

Onta-yaki is an embodiment of the ideals of the Mingei arts and crafts philosophy. Born from a desire to celebrate everyday objects as art, it was a deliberate move away from the idea that art should be elevated into a museum and out of reach of ordinary people. Mingei promoted the concept that beautiful objects should be expressions of the regions that they’re made in, affordable and used every day at home.

Exploring the village I was in awe of harmony of the system to make the pottery. Every person in the process has an important role to play. Hugged by the beauty of the surrounding countryside we spent hours looking at all the magnificently crafted pottery. I could've filled three suitcases with the objects I fell in love with. I decided on a small brown vase and a set of four tea bowls, all of which I adore using every day at home, just as the philosophers of the Mingei movement intended. 

Rows of finished pots and bowls at the Onta pottery village in Japantraditional clay sieve

onta claySimone having a matcha in Onta

Photos and video by Rae Fallon