Bizen — literally "before (the plain of) Bi" — is an ancient province known for precisely one thing: Bizen-yaki (備前焼), the oldest and most revered form of pottery in Japan. Unglazed and fairly simple in appearance, the pottery gets its cachet from the complex earthy reddish-brown tones that form when the clay is fired. Nearly anything — dishes, cups, vases, bowls, pots — can be made from it, and according to legend it improves the taste of anything you drink from it.
Modern day Bizen is in legal fiction a "city" (shi), but in practice an expanse of Okayama's suburbs and rice paddies. Most pottery kilns and shops, however, are concentrated near the station of Imbe (伊部).
The JR Akō line connects Imbe to Okayama, where connections to the Shinkansen network are available. Trains depart about once per hour and reach Imbe in 35 minutes (¥570).
Bizen is a sprawling area, but Imbe is easily covered on foot from the train station.
An elaborate piece of Bizen-yaki
Bizen's sights are mostly dedicated to its famous pottery and sword-making. In October, the Bizen-yaki Festival is held near Inbe station, drawing some 150,000 visitors.
Bizen Pottery Art Museum (備前陶芸美術館 ''Bizen tōgei bijutsukan''), 1659-6 Imbe, ☎ +81 0869-64-1400. Tu-Su 9:30AM-4:30PM. Just to the north of JR Imbe Station, this concrete block displays both old and new examples of Bizen-style pottery.¥500.
Shizutani School (閑谷学校 ''Shizutani Gakko''), 784 Shizutani, ☎ +81 0869-67-1436. 9AM-5PM. Ikeda Mitsumasa, a lord of Okayama, commissioned Tsuda Nagatada to build this school. Completed in 1701, it was open not only to samurai but also farmers — exceptionally rare in that period. Now designated a national treasure, the school is still in its original condition, and the shining ebony floor is an impressive sight. Naturally, the roof tiles are made with bizen-yaki. The kai (楷) trees (called "trees of learning") on the grounds are lovely, especially during cherry blossom season and the autumn. It's about 10 minutes by taxi from JR Yoshinaga Station (¥1200), or a longer ride from JR Imbe (¥2500).¥300.
Kei Fujiwara Museum of Art (藤原啓記念館), 3868 Honami, Bizen-shi, ☎ 086-967-0638. 10AM-4:30PM. A museum featuring the artwork of Kei Fujiwara, a reknowned Bizen pottery maker who was designated a Living National Treasure in 1970.
Many kilns around Imbe will let you try your hand at making your very own Bizen-yaki. A chunk of clay, firing and shipping anywhere in Japan (overseas delivery also possible) will set you back around ¥3000.
Bizen-yaki Traditional Pottery Center (備前焼伝統産業会館 ''Bizen-yaki dentō sangyō kaikan''), ☎ +81 0869-64-1001. The easiest place to give the lathe a spin, as it is located right on the third floor of JR Imbe Station. Workshops are held every weekend.
Bishugama (備州窯). Advance reservation required. The charge is ¥2,625~3,675 (plus postage), and they'll ship 3~4months later.
The town of Imbe seems to consist nearly entirely of Bizen-yaki shops, and the large gift shop in the Pottery Art Museum has a fairly representative array of local pieces. Prices are generally steep, with even the simplest tea cups costing several thousand yen and more complex designs going for millions.