SHIKOKU

The wax and wane of Uchiko

by Chris Bamforth

To the enormous surprise of absolutely no one except the most irrepressible Pollyannas in or closely connected with the construction industry, the 19 years since the opening of the first of the gargantuan civil-engineering white elephants that go by the name of the Honshu-Shikoku bridges have not witnessed any torrent of tourists storming their way onto the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.

That Shikoku manages to retain its quaint air of being resolutely one of Japan’s backwaters, however, adds to the whole charm of the place. For the grand experience, the tourist makes for the high-profile sights on the other islands. For an appealing, intimate glimpse of tucked-away regional culture, you head for a spot like Uchiko.

This town in the northwest of the island is still surrounded by many of the remote, wooden valleys that local-boy-made-good Kenzaburo Oe, born just 10 km from Uchiko, described as his birthplace in his 1994 Nobel Lecture, after winning the prize for literature. Arrive in Uchiko toward the end of the year and the jade-green hillsides of those valleys are studded with the bright mandarin oranges of which Ehime Prefecture has long been Japan’s prime producer.

It was, however, a very different fruit that brought real prosperity to Uchiko. On publicity materials, Uchiko likes to call itself the Town of Japanese Wax and White-Walled Streets. And while it requires a very willful set of eyes to see most of those white walls as being anything other than tan or cream in color, the wax part of the sobriquet certainly applies. When wax came to Uchiko in the late 19th century, the gravy train also rolled into town. The Japanese Wax Museum and Kami-Haga Residence in Uchiko’s historical district of Yokaichi does a good job of charting the process by which berries of the wax tree (haze), a kind of sumac, are crushed and transformed into blocks of viscous wax.

“The wax was mainly used for making candles, and in its heyday Uchiko was producing about 30 percent of Japan’s wax,” explains a museum guide, a man who really knows his wax. As proof of the quality of the local product, he proudly points to the grand diplomas on display garnered by Uchiko wax a century ago — a time when people were so fascinated by wax that world expositions handed out medals for the stuff.

As the 20th century progressed, though, electricity and paraffin gradually reduced the need for vegetable-wax candles. Uchiko’s halcyon days came to an end: The wax money petered out along with the influx of fancy diplomas. Today, only a small amount of wax is still made in town, being produced by the Omori family, which has been in the wax trade for six generations.

Wax here is manufactured using essentially the same techniques as those adopted by the family forebears 200 years ago. Visitors who wish to witness at first hand the squelching, slithery business of the chandler’s art can observe candles being made on the old premises of Omori Rosoku (Omori Candle Shop) at the bottom end of Yokaichi.

The architectural fruits of Uchiko’s good old days are clearly evident in Yokaichi today in the form of its many machiya (traditional town houses) dating back to the late Edo (1603-1867) and early Meiji (1868-1912) periods. Strung out along a kilometer-stretch of road, Yokaichi is a pleasant district of genteel dwellings and scrupulously ornate gardens that wears the atmosphere of faded wealth. It is a place of narrow streets and low buildings, where the aromatic tang of roasting tea always seems to hang in the air. And its residents are rather proud of the place. “Please step inside and take a look at my garden,” one elderly gentleman announces on the street to no one in particular. “It’s free.”

While visitors to Uchiko generally head to Yokaichi as well, the single most impressive structure in town is found some distance from the old wax merchants’ area in the shape of Uchiko-za. With its ornate tiled roof and white plaster and timber walls, this grand little theater was built in 1916 to celebrate the accession of Emperor Taisho. Though originally used for performances of kabuki and bunraku, by the 1960s Uchiko-za had fallen into neglect. Despite having tried to move with the times and reinvent itself as a movie theater, it still lost out to competition from television and found itself facing closure. But a preservation movement began and succeeded where the silver screen failed. The 650-seat Uchiko-za has been wonderfully restored as a working theater. It reopened in 1985 and now stages performances 80 days a year, and for such a small community as Uchiko, with a population of just 13,000, to run its own kabuki theater is no mean achievement in modern Japan. Visitors to the theater can explore the interior, step in and among the box seats that make up the main auditorium, walk along the creaking wooden boards onto center stage and have their photo taken in the limelight before going downstairs to inspect the workings of the revolving stage and suppon (trapdoor).

Around the old theater and elsewhere, it is hard not to be impressed by the open, friendly character of the town — a quality encountered not just in Uchiko, but elsewhere in Ehime Prefecture. Along backstreets, ripe persimmons are left out on walls by the roadside, apparently for people simply to take as they please. In Uchiko’s tourist district, the fruit is on sale, and the visitor is expected to leave the indicated amount among the other coins on the open dish. A mother struggling up a steep slope on her bike, with a sizable infant riding pinion, pants a breathless “Konnichiwa” and beams a smile to the foreigner she sees skulking around with a notebook in his hand. And all in all, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing that those tourist hordes keep to their own side of the grandiose bridges.