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We love hearing about your trips when you return — especially if they were a bit unusual. Here, we talk with one couple about how their specialist created a slightly off-piste trip to Japan for them.

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Meet the travelers: Kathy & Van

Kathy & Van in Takayama — © Kathy & Van
Kathy & Van in Takayama — © Kathy & Van

‘Deep is a good way to describe Japan,’ says Kathy. ‘It has so many layers.’

Kathy McAuley and her partner, Van Perdue, had both passed briefly through Japan over the years — she for work and he for just one night, during his time in the military.

However, neither had ever had time to explore, even though Van had been captivated by the country since he was a young boy. ‘I think it was a Life magazine cover with a picture of a fabled Zen garden that first entranced me,’ he reminisces, as Audley Traveler sits down with the couple — virtually, of course — to chat about their trip. ‘I’ve been fascinated ever since.’

Kathy, who’d previously been to South America several times with Audley, knew she wanted an in-depth trip and allotted three weeks to explore. The couple asked to take in the highlights of the country — Tokyo and Kyoto, a ryokan stay — as well as a stop at Okinawa, where Kathy’s father had fought in World War II. They wanted time to explore on their own, they told Japan specialist Tesia. Oh, and one more thing...

‘We really wanted to explore the country’s pottery,’ says Van, his eyes lighting up. Van is an enthusiastic potter — just a hobbyist, he’ll hasten to point out — and the couple thought that this would add a special slant to the trip.

Meet the specialist: Tesia

Kaiseki dinner
Kaiseki dinner

‘That was an exciting challenge,’ says Tesia. ‘On the one hand, it’s easy to see pottery in Japan. It’s an important part of the culture, and, honestly, it’s everywhere you go. But I wanted to make sure Kathy and Van would see the best pottery they could, wherever they went.’

And so, Tesia — who used to live in Japan — added pottery-inspired touches to the trip. One of the hotels featured works of pottery in the decor, for example. She also had Kathy and Van stay in a ryokan that serves an exceptional kaiseki dinner.

In these traditional, multi-course feasts, each dish is carefully composed on a plate or bowl that’s been chosen to specifically complement that delicacy.

The challenge: explore Japan’s pottery in depth

Street in Kanazawa
Street in Kanazawa
Pottery waiting to be fired
Pottery waiting to be fired

‘However,’ Tesia notes, ‘really digging into the artistry of any craft in Japan can be tricky, especially if you don’t speak the language. The best artisans are revered masters and very private: they usually work behind closed doors.’

To that end, she made a point of seeking out the sorts of intimate experiences that would, in her words, let Kathy and Van ‘glimpse the process behind the finished product, so to speak’.

The best place to do that was Kanazawa, Tesia knew right away. ‘It’s been at the heart of Japan’s craft tradition since the late 1500s, when the local daimyō, the Maeda family, spent decades carefully cultivating the arts and sponsoring artisans from across the country.’

Today, Tesia tells us, the city is still home to a robust community whose members work hard to maintain the traditions of craft and culture. ‘As a result, the central district is overflowing with galleries and shops showcasing artisanal work.’

Here, Kathy and Van could also explore a well-preserved samurai district, an Edo-era fish market, and Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of the finest gardens in the country (and the world). ‘Most people explore Kanazawa for two days,’ continues Tesia, ‘but because Kathy and Van are particularly passionate about the arts, I knew they’d need more time.’

Tesia’s initial trip outline surprised the couple. ‘We hadn’t heard of Kanazawa,’ admits Kathy. ‘We couldn’t understand why you’d want to stay there for three nights. I have to give Tesia credit — we could have stayed even longer.’ The couple’s first full day in Kanazawa included a privately guided tour focusing on two of the city’s most prominent crafts.

At the Ohi Museum and Gallery, they’d take a behind-the-scenes private tour with a master of Ohi pottery, followed by the chance to watch a Yuzen silk-dyeing master at work.

The trip: tea with the Ohi Grand Master

11th grand Master, Ohi Toshio
11th grand Master, Ohi Toshio

As a passionate potter, Van was most excited about the stop at Ohi Museum. Located in the heart of Kanazawa, it’s in the ancestral residence of the Ohi family, a lineage of grand master potters who create the style of tea bowls that are synonymous with their family name.

‘The Ohi style dates back to the 1600s,’ Van explains, ‘when a famous raku potter named Chozaemon was invited to create tea bowls for the lord of the ruling Maeda family. Since then, for 11 generations, one potter has taken the name “Chozaemon” when he assumes the title of grand master.’

‘The Ohi style is used mostly to make tea bowls that are used in ritual tea ceremonies,’ Van continues, ‘and it’s made from soft red clay, without a wheel. The bowls are shaped using tools that have been handed down for hundreds of years,’ he says, unconsciously making shaping motions with his hands. ‘Bowls are fired in a wood-fired kiln that brings out the warm amber glaze.’

‘Artists come from around the world to learn from the current grand master,’ he enthuses. However, the chance to tour the gallery and museum with one of the masters was rare.

‘Our guide went to speak with the receptionist when we arrived, and when she came back, she was bubbling with excitement. She was just beside herself,’ interjects Kathy. ‘It turned out we weren’t going to be escorted by one of the masters. We were going to be escorted by the Grand Master himself.’

Ohi Toshio, officially named Ohi Chozaemon like his ancestors before him, is a broad-shouldered man with a steady gaze and quiet charisma. He assumed the title of 11th Grand Master in 2016 when his octogenarian father retired.

‘He showed us different works made by each of the past grand masters, and told us how they make the tea bowls and a little about the family’s history in Kanazawa,’ Kathy explains.

‘The gallery and museum used to be the family’s original home and studio,’ continues Van. ‘But air-quality regulations meant that the wood-fired studio had to be moved to a less-populated area.

‘We then learned that Ohi Chozaemon’s father, the tenth Grand Master — who was 93 years old — was in the museum that very day, working on a personal commission for a tea bowl for the current Japanese emperor.’

At the end of the tour, the 11th Grand Master invited Kathy, Van and their guide into his personal tearoom. They sat down together on the tatami matting, and he performed the tea ceremony himself.

‘We drank tea from bowls made by past grand masters, and talked more about the history and philosophy of Ohi pottery,’ says Kathy. ‘We were just… floating on air.’ Next to her, Van grins broadly at the memory of the day.

The following morning, without a guide, they made their way back to the gallery — Kathy wanted to buy another tea bowl and some tea as a gift for her son. The receptionist remembered them from the previous day and went to find the grand master. ‘He invited us to join him for another tea ceremony, and we talked some more. It was really just….’ Kathy beams. ‘It was really just wonderful.’

Make it yours

This classic Japan itinerary is a good starting point for your own exploration. Your specialist can help you create a trip around your personal passion, whether it’s gardens, food, or exploring traditional Japanese crafts in Kanazawa.

Read more about trips to Japan

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

View All Tours in Japan

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