Would you recognize a “Tangible Folk-Cultural Property” if you saw one? If you were walking through a “Traditional Construction Preservation Area,” would you know?
If you went to Uchiko, hidden in the green folds of Ehime Prefecture, west Shikoku, you almost certainly would, as the village is home to such heritage treasures of all kinds. Almost every building in the handsome Yokaichi district, and every craft carried out there, is a survivor from an earlier age.
Two hundred years ago, this now-quiet community of just 12,000 was a thriving mercantile center. Among its industrious inhabitants, some amassed fortunes, and the elegant houses they built still stand. Principal among these are the Hon-Haga residence, and just across the road the even more spacious Kami-Haga complex, constructed by a branch family that rivaled its main house in prosperity.
Both Haga families made their wealth in wax, and the tools used in its production (those “Tangible Folk-Cultural Properties”) are displayed in the Kami-Haga museum. The exhibit also details the uses of wax both past (styling formal wigs) and present (manufacturing computer disks).
Uchiko’s most celebrated residents, however, are now into their sixth generation of that most traditional of wax industries: candle-making. Taro Omori, the latest master, was hard at work when I visited.
He produces just 100 candles a day. Each is made by repeatedly dipping a flaxen core into liquid wax and then rolling it across the palm until smooth. Seen in a cross section, the candles resemble the rings of tree trunks, and well over 20 successive coatings are visible. His hand gloved in dried wax, Omori works in a small room that is sealed and kept at a constant temperature of 25 degrees, to maintain the malleability of the wax.
Omori strikingly resembles his father Yataro, the fifth master, but it is impossible to say how much longer the tradition will survive in the family. Omori’s school-age children have not yet decided about following in their father’s footsteps. “But,” says Omori, who himself began working at 15, “Candle-making is a skilful trade, and I would like to see it continue.” In an iron stand on the genkan, an example of his handiwork burns smokelessly.
If Uchiko — which also boasts kasa (paper umbrella) and hemp workshops — has whetted your appetite for more of Shikoku’s traditional crafts, then head 30 km north to the pottery district of Tobe.
The town’s distinctive gosu (indigo-colored) ware has been produced here for more than 220 years, and in 1971 it won recognition as a national traditional craft. While the pieces displayed in the central Sangyo Kaikan (Industry Hall) have the beauty of true art objects, most Tobeyaki (Tobe ware) is simple and chunky. Decorated with patterns of Nazuna flowers and Karakusa grass, Tobeyaki is popular for domestic use.
Tobe’s Togei Sosaku Kan lets you experience either making or painting your own piece of pottery. Alternatively, go north once more, to the Iyo-Kasuri Kaikan in an eastern suburb of Matsuyama City.
Iyo-Kasuri is the beautiful blue fabric, patterned by leaving some white thread undyed, used for informal kimono, bags and other items.
There are two key processes: ai (indigo) dyeing, and weaving. But the task is far from simple. Once the design has been determined, the thread must be tied so as to leave some portions unstained by the dye. These threads are then fed into the loom in the correct order to produce the blue-and-white pattern.
It takes an experienced weaver, using a foot-treadle loom, almost two days to produce a roll of Iyo-Kasuri, so visitors are given a simpler task: tie-dyeing a handkerchief. Having knotted up your square of white cotton, you don thick rubber gloves and an apron and proceed to the dyeing vats.
Indigo is a vegetable extract, prepared through fermentation, and the smell is off-putting (although it is said to render kasuri moth-proof — and even snake-repellent). After the first dipping, my handkerchief was a soupy pea-green; a second soak took it to an unpleasant dark khaki. Only at a third immersion did it turn blue, then finally to the beautiful indigo of true ai.
While the purchases of visitors support these rural industries financially, their continued survival is due to solely the dedication of individual practitioners — of whom this generation might be the last.