Ureshino is a small onsen town, most famous as a stop-over town for its beautifying hotsprings and Ureshino green tea. I am no expert in green tea, but there is something special about Ureshino tea. It has a unique sweet after-taste. Tea plantation is also open for visiting. My first impression about this town is "It has so little to see, yet so much to see". My first visit landed in the main shopping streets filled with tourist-packed hotspring inns, aged "Snack" bars, karaoke pub, izakaya and run-down shops. There is a unique sense of decadence with a punch of perseverance. Not until my 3rd visit to Ureshino that I started seeing the richness of this place.
Famous pottery towns like Arita, Hasami, Imari, Karatsu are all within 1-hour drive. Ureshino is overshadowed by its infamous neighbors and remain quaintly as a hotspring destination for tourists. Most visitors make quick stop-over for its onsen hotspring and green tea, but I urge you to look deeper. In1600s, Ureshino (then part of Hizen) was once an important porcelain pottery town producing affordable utilitarian ware for civilians. Back when pottery towns like Imari were guarded by feudal Lords to produce intricate high-prized porcelain ware for the upper class.
Shida-ware 志田焼 of Hizen Ureshino ceased production in the 80s. The old commercial factory built in the 1915 (大正三年）is now Shida-yaki Ceramics Museum. I particularly love visitng this place because it is vast and quiet for wandering. The beautiful wood utilitarian buildings are well-kept with everything intact, feels like production got frozen in time. Local organization runs school tours and workshops in the space, so you can see modern equipment mixed in with historic tools and kilns. It has also become a place for local folks to hangout leisurely and do pottery. Last time I was there throwing some bowls, a group of middle-aged ladies in the workshop got curious about me, I noticed they were "usuals" there, all having fun making ceramics lampshades. The friendly, unpretentious but culturally-rich location makes it very unique.
Nearby up in the hill is Yoshida (known for its Yoshida-ware 吉田焼), a small town taking pride in being small and working-hard. I was introduced to Yoshida area by a unplanned encounter. We roamed into a Japanese confection shop and met Kumiko san, who literally "insisted" to take us to a special night event. There was a first-ever Night Open Studio event up at the pottery hill village, visitors roams in pitch black small streets where all the kilns locate. What a nice surprise it was, with live DJ playing music, a massive candlelight installation and a range of night activities including open studio, workshops and retail.
The small union of kilns is working hard to maintain production among the highly competitive porcelain big players from neighboring towns like Hasami and Arita. I am very impressed by the persistency, creativity and agility. Young makers with old masters, leveraging foreign creative resources as well as technology. Creating wonderful events. The outcome is some high-quality, fun, energetic/modern work without losing some of the old Yoshida flavor.
It was a quick whirlwind night-time tour, we meet local makers and saw some amazing work. Ureshino is hidden gem. Just like peeling onion skins, the cultural quality of this town is very intact. It is a very unique town that has a lot to offer, if one spends time to dig a little deeper. And I will keep returning to discover more. Special thanks to Kumiko san from Hashizume Confectionary (橋爪菓子) for showing me the authentic side of Ureshino. I was telling her while she drive us back from the event that if there wasn't typhoon that forces us to change our itinerary, we would not have met nor travel up to visit Yoshida pottery studios together. ご縁ね。Serendipity.
On a side note, Kumiko san is a very impressive lady. I was surprised by her English proficiency and she humbly showed me all her flash cards and note books that she carries in her apron pocket everyday. She sees the importance to communicate with foreign visitors and show them the best omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) from town information to confection preference. Her diligence mirrors what Ureshino is all about. Hashizume Confectionary (橋爪菓子) is one of the old resident of Ureshino, established 90 years ago!
Ureshino tea: as with many tourist destination, there are souvenir shops set up along the main street selling a range of sweets and modern-designed packaged tea. But I recommend the tea shop shown in the photo above. (Can't really tell the name of the shop from the sign with all the overlaid past names). Go in and talk to the nice lady. She will offer the most welcoming service and the same Ureshino diligence.
Note: JR Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train) is expanding to Ureshino. In no time, there will be Ureshino-Onsen station right at the downtown location. Curious to see the development of this historic town.