When Ayaka Sakamoto, a tour guide and friend, told me about the city of Uchiko (内子), I regretfully noticed that this name was totally unknown to me but very quickly, my ignorance gave way to an overflowing curiosity !
Last April, the opportunity arose to go and discover this small town in Ehime prefecture and located about 40 kilometers from Matsuyama. So we took the road… As we progressed, the landscape revealed all its beauty and gave place to magnificent forests, mountains and rivers.
We stopped at the local market of Uchiko « Karari Farmers Markets », the occasion to discover the regional handicrafts: cold cuts, rice, alcohols, products made with jabara, a Japanese lemon… But also to enjoy the charm of this place bordered by the Odagawa river.
Then we continued our way to our destination…
Very quickly, I was seduced by Yôkaichi, the historical heart of Uchiko, its quietness and its buildings dating from the Meiji period. We discovered with pleasure small restaurants, local shops offering refreshments, handicrafts but also sublime witnesses of the past.
Indeed, in the 19th century, Uchiko knew a great period of prosperity thanks to the trade of vegetable wax whose high quality allowed it to spread far beyond the borders of Japan. Even today, many buildings testify to the economic boom of the city at that time.
But before going to meet these silent witnesses, we stopped at the shop-workshop « Ômori Warôsoku » (大森和蝋燭) specialized in making natural wax candles since the Edo period.
When we walked through the door, a sweet smell of wax filled the air and I was immediately seduced by the atmosphere of this place. Our eyes then fell on the craftsmen busy working on the making of other candles with a very impressive speed of execution. These candles, unlike industrial candles, do not emit smoke and do not leak.
If you are interested in traditional craftsmanship, stop by and enjoy this place steeped in the transmission of a wonderful heritage.
Let’s go back to the places that were once dedicated to the wax trade. This is the case of the Honhaga residence, former residence of a rich merchant and built at the time when the production reached its highest development, both in terms of quality and technicality. This building shines by the richness of its exterior decoration and constitutes a fabulous witness of the architecture of the time.
Another emblematic building of the district is without a doubt the Kamihaga residence. Open to visitors, the main building was built in 1894 and is classified as an Important Cultural Property of Japan since 1990.
Once you enter, it’s like stepping back in time and immersing yourself in the life of the rich merchants of the time. The rooms follow one another revealing all the charm of this place.
By the way, you may have noticed a similarity between the names Honhaga and Kamihaga. Indeed, the latter is a lineage of the Honhaga family which was the main branch of the Haga family. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice the family’s coat of arms (Kamon – 家紋) depicting an Oxalis flower (Katabami – カタバミ) and visible in multiple places in these two residences. If you are passing by, keep your eyes open 😉
During our visit, I quickly understood that this place was much more than the old residence of a wax trader because we discovered several annex buildings dedicated to the whole manufacturing process of the vegetable wax.
But what is Japanese vegetable wax? In its tourist brochure, the Uchiko tourist office offers a very clear explanation of the process and here it is: « Japanese wax is made from the berries of the sumac tree. The berries are crushed into a fine powder, steamed, and then the wax is extracted and hardened. This is called raw wax (kirô). The Haga family bleaches the wax with their own original bleaching technique to obtain high quality white wax (hakurô). Raw wax and white wax are generally referred to as Japanese wax (mokuro).
Historically, wax production started in the 19th century until the end of the Taisho period (1912-1926). Due to the technical progress and development of electricity, the demand for wax production decreased and the end of this craft came in 1924 when the last wax merchant in Uchiko closed down. Today, the Kamihaga residence is the only place in Uchiko where handmade wax is still produced.
If you want to learn more, I can only recommend you to visit the Japanese Wax Museum housed in one of the annexes of the Kamihaga residence. It is a very interesting space that will allow you to make the link between the tools and equipment present outside and the manufacturing process.
The time passed quickly and it was time to regain our strength. Although there are many restaurants, we chose the soba restaurant « Shimohagatei » (下芳我邸) established in a 140 years old building and in which the owners have recreated as faithfully as possible the atmosphere of the time, whether in the choice of the furniture or the dishes. The meal was excellent and once again, we were able to soak up the atmosphere of this timeless restaurant.
Although there are many very interesting buildings, I will stop for a moment on one last remarkable construction, the Uchiko Theater or Uchikoza (内子座) built in 1916 in honor of Emperor Taishô’s accession to the throne. Built on two levels in the purest Japanese style, I was surprised to find a revolving stage which it is possible to visit the lower part. Named « Naraku » meaning « Hell », I let you imagine why. When we came out, we could boast that we had been to hell and back !
But our adventure did not stop there because Uchiko still conceals other wonders… Thus, thanks to the presence of the Odagawa River, Uchiko was able to start the production of a material of great finesse, the Washi paper (和紙). This tradition born in Uchiko nearly 350 years ago has endured for several generations and is a real treasure that should be preserved.
Our steps led us to the heart of the Ikazaki Paper Factory where we were able to meet the paper maker Chiba-san who explained the basics of the manufacturing process. The paper made is mainly based on the use of Kôzo (楮), paper mulberry tree and Mitsumata (三椏). The former is characterized by long fibers, which increases its strength. Kôzo was also used to make the « Hyakumantō Darani » (One Million Pagodas and Darani Prayers) around 770, the oldest printed text in Japan! In contrast, the fibers of the latter are shorter but allow for the production of a superior paper marked by a smooth, glossy surface.
After harvesting, a long treatment process follows which will allow the finished product to reveal all its beauty. The plant material is first steamed and washed with water to extract the fibers. Then, these are shredded to make a pulp that will then be mixed with Neri (ネリ), a substance containing starch and used as a dispersant in a kind of vat, the Suki-bune (漉き舟). The craftsman then takes a bamboo sieve, Suketa (簀桁) which he dips into the vat. With a repeated rocking motion, the material settles on the sieve and the excess water is drained off. The sheets are then stacked, dried naturally and pressed with the aim of reducing the volume of water contained in the paper and removing the roughness. Finally, the sheets are placed one by one on a metal dryer.
From the place of observer, we quickly moved to that of actor because we had the opportunity to make our own sheet of paper without the first step of drying and pressing. The result was a « raw » but authentic paper, sublimated by its defects.
Being particularly admiring of the craft, this experience allowed me to feel, for a moment, all the quality of this know-how and to measure its difficulty. Indeed, when we look at a video or photos, we see a craftsman who has been practicing for years and for whom each gesture has been rehearsed many times. When I took the Suketa in my hands and plunged it into the water, I felt its weight. My movements were uncoordinated, but I felt the full value of this moment and this encounter.
Once our sheet was ready for use, we participated in a second workshop to make our creation into the cover of a notebook bound using a Japanese technique, the Fukurotoji (袋綴) pocket binding.
But what are the characteristics of this type of binding? First of all, the sheets of paper are folded and stacked on top of each other before placing the cover and sewing the whole thing together. But the special feature is the folded edges of the sheets that make up the notebook. As you can see in the photo below, the fold is on the outer part of the booklet. Thus, it is the free part of the paper which is sewn and when one observes this last one, it appears in the shape of a tube. Thus, in my hands, I held a fabulous souvenir impregnated with the magic of this day and which will accompany me during my next trip…
Our trip to Uchiko will soon come to an end but we ended this day by passing by the store located opposite the workshop.
For stationery lovers, this is a must stop to appreciate all the diversity of papers produced in Uchiko and to stop at the beautiful examples of gilding on paper, a technique developed by Hiroyuki Saito (齋藤宏之) who followed the teachings of Gabor Ulveczki, a painter of Hungarian origin and settled in Paris since 1983. The latter opened his own art studio which led to the creation of the ULGADOR brand, a French company specialized in the manufacture of wallpapers, wall panels, etc. From 2008 to 2009, he spent two years in Uchiko as part of a project to modernize the tradition of Washi paper.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, stop off at the origami dispenser! This atypical machine will allow you to take home an original souvenir, the weight of which will have no impact on the limits imposed by airlines.
Uchiko has yet to reveal all its secrets, however, and although I didn’t have the opportunity to visit it, this small town is home to a museum dedicated to kites, allowing everyone to marvel at the diversity of these objects twirling in the four winds, as well as to deepen their knowledge of the region’s history.
What’s more, you’ll be able to take part in an experience that will unveil the making of the charcoal used in the tea ceremony. Located in the Ishidamami district, to the east of Uchiko, the workshop produces charcoal that looks like a chrysanthemum flower !
If you’d like to find out more, take a look at the Uchiko Tourist Office’s « Uchikogenic » website, which offers an immersion course in English, with links at the end of this article.
Thus ends this wonderful human adventure made of meetings and teachings. From the beginning to the end, this day was a succession of magnificent surprises so if you plan to travel to Shikoku, go to Uchiko, soak up its atmosphere and let yourself be charmed by its richness!
I would like to thank Ayaka Sakamoto for the organization of this day, the energy and the time she devoted to this project and without whom I would not have been able to write this article. I would also like to thank Michiko Miyoshi from the Uchiko Tourism Office for her hospitality and for allowing me to carry out this project, without forgetting Chiba-san and Aoyama-san who guided us in the two workshops we attended.
For more information, please check the links below:
Ayaka Sakamoto :
- Instagram : Ayaka/Tourisme Designer & Organizer, Guide🇯🇵🇫🇷🇬🇧 (@unetokyoite) | Instagram
- Facebook : Une Tokyoïte | Facebook
- Website : Une Tokyoite – Your local guide & unforgettable experiences in Tokyo/Shikoku-Setouchi/Online
- YouTube : Une Tokyoite – YouTube
Uchiko Tourist Office :
- Facebook: Visit Uchiko Japan | Facebook
- Website : UCHIKOGENIC – Uchiko Town Tourism Official Website
- Paper manufacturing: Paper-making workshop – UCHIKOGENIC
- Origami dispenser: Origami vending machine – UCHIKOGENIC
- Kite Museum: Ikazaki Kite Museum – UCHIKOGENIC
- Coal experience: 【ISHIDATAMI】Charcoal kiln and Yuge shrine Tour – UCHIKOGENIC
- YouTube : 内子町観光協会_Uchiko Tourism Association – YouTube
- Instagram : 【公式】五十崎社中 ( いかざきしゃちゅう )・天神産紙 (@ikazakishachu) | Instagram
- Facebook : Hiroyuki Saito | Facebook
- Website : 五十崎社中｜和紙・ギルディング・壁紙の手工業所｜愛媛県内子町五十崎 (ikazaki.jp)
- YouTube : 【公式】五十崎社中_IKAZAKI・天神産紙工場 – YouTube
Omori Warosoku Store and workshop :
- Instagram: 大森和蝋燭屋 (@omoriwarosoku) • Photos et vidéos Instagram
- Facebook : 大森和蝋燭屋 | Kita-gun Ehime | Facebook
- Website : 大森和蝋燭屋 (omoriwarosoku.jp)
« Shimohagatei » Soba Restaurant :
- Website : 蕎麦 つみ草料理 下芳我邸 (shimohagatei.com)