A future created by history, topography and climate

The townscape of Uchiko-cho Town is remarkably well preserved. Lined with storehouses and white plaster walls, it centers on the residence of the Hagas, a wealthy merchant family whose prosperity during the Edo and Meiji periods (1603-1912) stemmed from the production of mokuro wax, extracted from the berries of certain sumacs and serving as the material for traditional Japanese candles. The townscape preservation movement began in 1972, said to have been instigated by the painter Keiji Imon. Imon, a distant relative of the Haga family, moved to Uchiko-cho, was deeply impressed by the houses and townscape and promoted their preservation. The movement was aided by the listing of the town as a subject of the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ First Survey of Settlements and Townscapes.

This area long flourished as a stopping point on the Ozu Highway and the Konpira and Shikoku pilgrimages, and the atmosphere of the merchant houses, built upon the prosperity of the mokuro industry, is reminiscent of a bygone era. Particular highlights of the area are the two residences known as 'Kami-Haga-ke’ and 'Hon-Haga-ke’ as they form the heart of the townscape. The town’s Namako kabe (walls featuring patterns of contoured white plaster on black slate), decorative plaster work and window lattices are carefully crafted and worth seeing. One can still find traditional folding verandas under the eaves of the common houses there, showing pedestrians a delightful thoughtful touch. New cafés and guesthouses dotted around the town add to the pleasant ambiance.

The Kami-Haga-ke now houses a mokuro production facility and a residential compound, currently maintained like a museum, where the crafting process of mokuro from the Japanese wax tree is explained in easily understandable terms. Whether the detailed and careful attention to detail in these houses, such as the design of the shoji screens and ranma (carved transoms) and the harmonious balance of the outer corridors and staircase chests, all of which exude a sense of refinement, were due to their residents' extravagance in construction or to the excellence of carpentry skills, I was impressed by the spirit of the work. The interior and exterior gardens are also meticulously designed, and give a rich sense of the luxury of Japanese residential architecture, which invites nature inside.

To try it out, I bought a single cylinder of mokuro wax, borrowed a candle holder at the Kami-Haga family home and lit it. The light of the Japanese candle reflected in an historic Japanese house, rich in nuanced shadows, causing a throbbing of the shadows’ depths, seemed to revive an aesthetic that has been lost in the era of electricity. Traditional Japanese candles are a handcrafted product created by applying the wax from the berries of certain sumacs onto the wick, turning it repeatedly to thicken the candle. The flame on the bulky wick seemed to be both wind-resistant and thoroughly stable, sometimes flickering tempestuously as it burned.

Charcoal making was practiced in the mountainous regions of the town from olden days, and recently newcomers have moved here to follow the tradition, preserving the techniques, production methods and the livelihood itself. Charcoal artisans Mr. Koji Muto and Mr. Hironori Yamada agreed to let me interview them, and on the day of my visit, dense charcoal smoke rose from Mr. Yamada’s kiln. The glistening black charcoal is beautiful. It seems that Mr. Yamada creates charcoal for the tea ceremony, known as chazumi, exclusively, and, because the sizes, shapes and functions are specifically designed for the tea ceremony, the different sizes are stored in marked boxes: dozumi, warigiccho, and so forth.

In this town, there remains a theater, known as Uchiko-za, which is still in use today. On the day I visited, some new residents of the town were rehearsing a birthday concert they were organizing. The tatami mat area, separated by wooden partitions, and the balcony seats were extremely tasteful, and I could imagine the excitement of the event that would be enjoyed not only by the audience but also by the performers. Many examples of this type of local theater are said to have existed in Japan in the past, and I empathize with the attitude of the town in keeping this one alive today.

The townscape is wonderful, but the mountainous areas are also dotted with villages, and the winding paths and sloping lots are particularly special. Mr. Takenori Hosen, who took on the role of my guide and farms in this area, sees a future for the town with the Ishidatami Tsunagu (connection) Project. Mr. Manabu Nishiyama, a so-called “U-turner”, is looking into the area’s history; Mr. Ryoichi Hatano is the enthusiastic chief of the department of local development; and once Mr. Tetsuya Yamada starts talking about a new method of chestnut cultivation, he never stops. Uchiko-cho is certainly impressive for its residents’ devotion to their hometown.



Uchiko, Kita-gun Uchiko-cho, Ehime