The town of Uchiko, in Japan’s Ehime Prefecture, once enjoyed great prosperity from the production of sumac wax. Although the industry died out early in the last century, some of the grand houses and public buildings that were erected during that golden age still stand: beautiful reminders of a time when this quiet corner of Shikoku was a bustling centre of commerce.
NOTE: I’ve decided to make a two-parter out of my report on Uchiko, mainly because the splendid Kamihaga Residence deserves a separate post of its own. I’ll add a link to that entry once it’s published.
Tuesday, 22 November 2016. I was heading back to Matsuyama from a morning visit to the coastal city of Uwajima (more about that in my previous post). With sightseeing conditions very nearly perfect – bright blue skies, glorious autumn sunshine – and the clock still far from day’s end, I decided to make a short stopover at an old town along the way.
In the 17th century, the farmers of Uchiko (内子) – encouraged by the ruling lords of Ōzu Domain – began to plant sumac trees in whatever space could be spared between their rice fields. The berries harvested from those trees provided the raw material needed for local manufacturers to extract a type of solid vegetable wax. Production went on throughout the Edo Period, but it wasn’t until the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when Uchiko’s wax really took off in a big way, after improvements in the process yielded a particularly high-quality wax suitable for export as well as for domestic consumption. Unfortunately, demand for plant-based sumac wax dropped precipitously as petroleum-derived paraffin wax took centre stage in the first decades of the 20th century. By the end of the Taishō Era (1912-1926), the industry was in terminal decline, and Uchiko’s glory days were over.
Over, perhaps … but not forgotten. The enormous wealth generated during Uchiko’s golden age of wax production was invested back into the urban fabric of this countryside town: transformed into fine examples of cultural, domestic, and industrial architecture that continue to enthrall visitors in our own time.
I’ve read that a tourist loop bus service runs on weekends and holidays, but since it was a normal weekday, I decided to hoof it. (Taxis and rented bicycles are other options one might consider.) My first stop, about 7-10 minutes away from the station…
…was the splendid Uchiko-za (内子座). Completed in 1916 through the efforts of local investors and craftsmen, this kabuki theatre later saw service as a movie house and meeting hall. In 1985, the building was reopened after a three-year restoration programme that brought back its original appearance and interiors.
But before we step inside, let’s take a few moments to admire the exterior. The hybrid style employed in Uchiko-za’s construction is typical of the Taishō Era, when Japan was quite keen on adopting Western ideas whilst tenaciously hanging onto its own traditions. An identity crisis, of sorts, but one that yielded such splendid examples of the architect’s craft, where Western forms are heavily overlaid with native elements. (Another specimen I particularly admire is the Former Taisha Station in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.)
The interiors are no less beautiful than the façade, and exhibit the same rich blended design.
The view from the lower seats is quite good, but if for some reason it doesn’t suit…
…one can always book a place on the upstairs benches and enjoy the programme from there.
Visitors are allowed to descend into the basement area underneath the auditorium, where one can inspect the mechanism that moves the revolving stage.
All very impressive, but Uchiko’s got a lot more to offer. I ventured back out onto the main street and headed northeast, passing a few more architectural gems as I did so.
I can’t remember if the building on the left is of any particular significance – it’s got a nice pre-war feel to it, though – but the one on the right has definitely seen a good few years. It was built in 1879 as a cultural school, and presently serves as a centre for children.
Further on is the Museum of Commercial and Domestic Life (商いと暮らし博物館, Akinai to Kurashi Hakubutsukan), also known as the Uchiko History Museum (内子町歴史民俗資料館, Uchiko-chō Rekishi Minzoku Shiryōkan). It’s been set up to look like a Taishō Era pharmacy, with living spaces in the back for the shop owner’s family and staff.
Normally I’d find life-sized mannequins of this kind a wee bit, er, creepy … but the set-up was rather nice in this case. With the care-worn period furniture and fittings of the shop and house, the whole place has acquired a genuine lived-in atmosphere that makes the experience seem all the more authentic.
I continued on my northeasterly heading, passing buildings both old and not-quite-so-old…
…then turned left into another street (right where the bank building in that last picture stands). I followed the road north, and as I went on, the buildings on either side of me started looking older and older…
…until it seemed as if I’d gone back in time completely.
Welcome to the Yōkaichi (八日市) district, an area of preserved houses and other buildings dating from as far back as the late Edo Period.
It’s a wonderfully picturesque and peaceful spot – at least, until a tourist bus or hired van trundles up to disgorge a load of tourists – and serves as an excellent prelude to what I personally believe is Uchiko’s single most important attraction. A landmark that showcases not just architectural beauty, but also helps visitors learn more about the town’s history and the industry that once brought so much prosperity to this corner of Shikoku…
…but let’s save that one for another post.