Kawara Museum

Kawara Museum

Learn about the great artistry that goes into Japanese tiles

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.12.03

Name in Japanese: かわらミュージアム
Pronunciation: kawara myūjiamu

The beauty of Ōmihachiman is thanks in large part to the loveliness of its roof tiles, which impart a great deal of elegance and atmosphere to its buildings.

Until fairly recently, Ōmihachiman was a major producer of tiles, and one of the town’s landmarks is a very tall brick chimney, a vestige of this industry. The production of tiles was an unanticipated side effect of having a moat that also functioned as a canal open to boats. To keep the canal navigable, it was dredged periodically, and the silt was used as fertiliser on fields in the surrounding areas. The clay in these fields, with their high silt content, combined with organic matter from decaying reeds, was ideal for making roof tiles, and Ōmihachiman became a major regional producer of tiles. The canal was also crucial for shipping the finished tiles via nearby Lake Biwa.

The museum itself is a modern building, but it’s designed to harmonise with its traditional surroundings. Grey tiles are used extensively on its complex roofs, as well as embedded in its walls. Old tiles have been repurposed to make the fascinating paths through the complex. There are several subsidiary buildings, including a workshop where decorative tiles are still made.

Exhibits in the museum include an overview of the history of tile manufacture in Ōmihachiman, the processes and tools used, and the place of tiles in traditional Japanese buildings. There are many examples of decorative tiles, reflecting a very sophisticated expressive skill and sensibility. When they weren’t making elaborate roof ornaments, the artisans were showing off their skill by making free-standing art objects with the materials of their trade. One wing is dedicated to a comparison of foreign tiles and tiles across Japan.

From the second floor of the museum, you can look over the tiled roofs of surrounding buildings and admire the beauty of their aged tiles.