In my previous post, we saw some of the splendid buildings that the town of Uchiko was endowed with by its leading families, back during its heyday as a centre for sumac wax production. Now let’s take a look at one more architectural treasure, and at the same time learn about the industry that once brought great prosperity to this quiet corner of Japan.
Before anything else, let’s have a reminder of our present whereabouts.
As I approached the northern end of Uchiko’s Yōkaichi district – an area of preserved historic buildings, featured in my last post – I came upon this rather grand-looking façade…
…which happens to be part of a sprawling Meiji-period mansion known as the Kamihaga Residence (上芳我邸, Kamihaga-tei). This was the home of the Kamihaga family, a branch of Uchiko’s prominent Haga clan, whose fortune was built upon their successful wax-making enterprise.
The larger, more public spaces of the main building (built in the 1890s), which no doubt served as a venue for conducting business and entertaining guests…
…yielded to smaller, more intimate settings as I progressed towards the rear of the house and entered the private wing. Comfortable, yet incredibly refined, as befits the home of a well-to-do family with discerning taste (and deep pockets).
It has all the modern conveniences – well, “modern” for the time anyway – such as a heated bath and three-person shared loo.
Now the kitchen might not have been fitted with a proper gas range, or refrigerator, or microwave oven, or anything of that sort … but how many of our present-day kitchens can boast of a built-in well?
Lovely piece of architecture, this. It’s not far from my idea of a dream house, with perhaps some additional inspiration taken from the beautiful tea rooms at Takamatsu’s Ritsurin-kōen. (But I’d throw in some modern bathrooms, of course. And Western-style chairs – I for one can’t sit seiza-style or cross-legged for any extended period of time.)
Right, so we’ve seen the fruits of the Kamihaga family’s labours. Now it’s time for us to learn more about the source of their wealth: the sumac wax industry.
The Kamihaga Residence is attached to the Japanese Wax Museum (木蝋資料館, Mokurō Shiryōkan), the core exhibits of which are housed in this rather splendid-looking hall just behind the mansion. It blends into the compound quite nicely thanks to the traditional exterior, but there’s a thoroughly modern facility within.
In the 17th century, the farmers of Uchiko – encouraged by the ruling lords of Ōzu Domain – began to plant sumac trees in whatever space could be spared between their 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. One of the key reasons behind this spurt was an improved refining process that yielded a particularly high-quality white wax, deemed suitable for export as well as for domestic consumption.
In 1900, the Honhaga family (relatives of the Kamihaga family) increased the international exposure of Uchiko wax by showcasing the commodity at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. With producers unable to meet the growing demand from both foreign and local buyers, a number of unscrupulous establishments stretched their stocks by adding less-expensive, lower-quality wax sourced from other places. Seeking to protect their brand, the Haga family employed a new trademark featuring the image of a crane set against a rising run (asahi-tsuru), which in due course came to symbolise top-quality, pure Uchiko white wax.
Note the English text in this version of the label, representing the global reach that the product eventually attained.
During the heyday of the sumac wax industry, which spanned the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926) eras, Uchiko’s 23 wax producers alone accounted for nearly half of the entire prefecture’s output. Unlike the more familiar modern set-up of factories relegated to separate industrial zones, often far outside the city centre, some of the town’s wax-making facilities were set up right next to their owners’ residences. Such was the case with the Kamihaga compound, which gives us a rare glimpse at both the domestic and commercial spheres inhabited by a wealthy Japanese wax merchant’s family of the early 20th century.
The domestic, represented by the house…
…and the commercial, represented by the storehouse and work areas located just metres away from where the family lived.
To know more about the business side of things, I popped over to the wax extraction building (rōshibori-koya) located a short distance away from the exhibition hall. Completed in 1988, this structure is a working replica of a wax-maker’s facility, one that allows visitors to follow the process of manufacturing sumac wax from start to finish.
Berries were normally harvested from sumac trees in the winter, when farmers weren’t occupied with tending to their crops (as they would be during other seasons). The collected berries were brought into this room, known as the konashi-ba, where they were prepared and ground into a fine powder.
Next, the powder was steamed in the kama-ba, using receptacles set above basins filled with boiling water.
The resulting substance was brought into this room, the shibori-ba, where a large wooden press was used to squeeze out liquid wax from the ground and steamed sumac berries.
The process continued in another building some distance away, where the extracted wax was melted down and mixed with lye. After allowing time for impurities to settle, the liquid was channeled into a vat of cold water. This caused the wax to crystallise into small clumps known (rather poetically) as rōbana, which literally means “wax flowers”.
The rōbana were spread out on wooden trays and left to bleach in the sun, with the colour gradually changing from brown to white. The finished wax was then melted down, poured into moulds, and packed into boxes for transport to customers both at home and abroad.
This process, repeated many times over across scores of manufacturing facilities in and around Uchiko, yielded large quantities of white wax that brought a steady stream of revenue into the coffers of the town’s principal manufacturers. According to an information board in the museum hall, when the Honhaga family set up their exhibition at the Exposition Universelle in 1900, they claimed to have 67 workers turning out a yearly output of 900 tons, worth 225,000 yen at the time – roughly equivalent to 1,000,000,000 yen in today’s money.
Unfortunately, it was not to last. Within a couple of decades, demand for plant-based sumac wax dropped precipitously as petroleum-derived paraffin wax gained favour with consumers. By the end of the Taishō Era (1912-1926), the industry was in terminal decline, and Uchiko’s glory days as a centre of wax production drew to a close.
On that note, it was time to draw the curtain across my visit to Uchiko – with, as always, the hope of returning someday. I hailed a cab and travelled back to the railway station, where I managed to do just one bit of trainspotting…
…not on the platforms, but outside the front door.
This grand-looking beast mounted in the station plaza is a JNR Class C12 steam locomotive – unit “C12 231” to be precise. Built in 1939 by Nippon Sharyō, C12 231 served for three decades on railway lines in the Sendai area, up north in the Tōhoku region. It was then transferred here to Shikoku (quite a long journey, that), where it ran on the Uchiko Line for less than a year before finally being retired in March 1970. By this time, it had racked up a whopping 1,209,334 kilometres of travel over its entire service life.
And with that, I bade farewell to Uchiko and sped back to my waiting hotel at Matsuyama – there to dream sweet dreams of more sights to see on the morrow.