100km (62 miles) N of Tokyo
Mashiko is a small village known throughout Japan for its Mashiko-yaki, distinctive, heavy, country-style pottery. A visit to Mashiko can be combined with an overnight trip to Nikko; both are not far from the town of Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo. Because the major attraction in Mashiko is its pottery shops and kilns, there's little in the way of restaurants and accommodations, so I suggest that you come here just for the day, and return to Tokyo or travel on to Nikko before nightfall. Plan on spending about 3 hours in Mashiko, plus several hours for transportation.
Mashiko's history as a pottery town began in 1853, when a potter discovered ideal conditions in the nearby mountain clay and red pine wood for firing. It wasn't until 1930, however, that Mashiko gained national fame, when the late Hamada Shoji, designated a "Living National Treasure," built a kiln here and introduced Mashiko-ware throughout Japan. Other potters have since taken up his technique, producing ceramics for everyday use, including plates, cups, vases, and tableware. There are about 50 pottery shops in Mashiko (along with about 300 kilns) where you can browse and watch craftspeople at work. Pottery fairs, held twice a year in late April/early May and late October/early November, attract visitors from throughout Japan.
You must first take a train from Tokyo to Utsunomiya; transfer there for a bus to Mashiko.
By Train -- The fastest but most expensive way to reach Utsunomiya is aboard the Tohoku Shinkansen, which departs from Tokyo Station and Ueno every 20 to 40 minutes and arrives in Utsunomiya approximately 55 minutes later; the one-way fare is ¥4,290 for an unreserved seat. Otherwise, take the JR Utsunomiya (also called the Tohoku Honsen) rapid train from Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Ueno Station, which departs approximately every hour and takes 90-some minutes to reach Utsunomiya JR station (¥1,890 one-way). If you're stopping off in Mashiko on your way to Nikko, note that only JR trains (not the Tobu Line) travel between Utsunomiya and Nikko.
By Bus -- Upon reaching Utsunomiya JR station, take the west exit to the bus terminal just outside the station. Buses operated by the Toya Bus company (tel. 028/662-1080) depart from platform no. 14 approximately every hour, taking about 1 hour to reach Mashiko and costing ¥1,100 one-way. Alight at the Sankokanmae bus stop.
There's a tourist information counter at JR Utsunomiya station (tel. 028/636-2177), open daily 8:30am to 8pm, where you can obtain information on buses heading to Mashiko. In Mashiko, the tourist information office is inconveniently located at the tiny Mashiko train station, open daily 8:30am to 5:30pm (tel. 0285/70-1120).
What to See & Do
Once you alight from the bus at the Sankokanmae stop, turn left at the stoplight just ahead for the Mashiko Reference Collection Museum, also called Mashiko Sankokan (tel. 0285/72-5300), a compound of several thatch-roofed farmhouses and exhibition halls that served as Hamada Shoji's workshop and home from 1925 until his death in 1978 at the age of 83. Galleries here showcase about 30 of his works, as well as his private collection of Eastern and Western glass, ceramics, fabrics, furniture, and paintings, including pieces by Bernard Leach and Kanjiro Kawai. You can also see his "climbing kiln," built along the slope of a hill. Plan on at least a half-hour here. Admission is ¥800 for adults, half-price for children. It's open Tuesday through Sunday 9:30am to 4:30pm; closed New Year's and February.
A 7-minute walk from Mashiko Sankokan (reached by backtracking to the bus stop and then turning left at the first stoplight) is Ceramic Art Messe Mashiko, or Togei Messe Mashiko (tel. 0285/72-7555), a visitor's complex devoted to pottery, woodblock prints, and changing art exhibits. Works by Hamada, as well as pieces by Mashiko potters and pottery from around Japan, are on display, along with a former thatched home that once belonged to Hamada. Admission is ¥600 for adults, half-price for children. The complex is open Tuesday to Sunday 9:30am to 5pm (to 4pm in winter).
The main reason people come to Mashiko is to shop. Alongside the Togei Messe complex is one of the largest shops, Mashiko Pottery Center, or Mashikoyaki Kyohan Center (tel. 0285/72-4444; daily 9am-5:30pm). On the other side of the Kyohan Center is the main street of Mashiko, where you'll find dozens of shops offering a vast selection of pottery created by the town's potters. Wander in and out -- you're sure to find something you like.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.