This sleepy town in western Okayama Prefecture, a 45-minute drive northwest of the famous Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, is a must-visit for those who would like to wander around a carefully preserved traditional Japanese townscape without the throngs of tourists usually drawn to these locations. At its peak, the township of Fukiya was the largest copper mining town in western Japan, producing so much copper that the residents would sing “Fukiya is a good place to dig for gold. The more you dig, the more gold you get.” In the latter half of the Edo period, the production of bengara (red pigment) from iron sulfide also flourished, and the area became known as a producer of bengara.
Fukiya Furusato Village is the birthplace of ‘Japan Red’
The muted red iron oxide pigment was called ‘bengara’ in Japan during the Edo Period, as it was originally imported from the Bengal region of India, and the township of Fukiya grew to become one of its largest domestic producers. A local anecdote says that in the early days of the mining of iron sulfide, it was thrown away and seen as useless until one day it was accidentally discovered it could be converted into iron oxide and used to make bengara red pigment.
‘Japan Red’ – from iron oxide to bengara pigment
For those in European countries, the color produced by this red pigment came to be known colloquially as ‘Japan Red,’ due to its widespread use in Kutani and Imari porcelain, which were imported in huge quantities around the turn of the 18th century. Fukiya township has been designated as the home of Japan Red, and a walk up its main street will instantly reveal why.
The instantly recognizable main street of Fukiya Furusato Village
As you make your way through Fukiya Street, the first thing you will notice is that the buildings, with their bengara facades and auburn Iwami-style tiles, were built in a similar style with a uniform look. The merchants who lived here were so successful due to the bengara trade and the town being so awash in cash, that they decided to enhance the town’s planned and unified aesthetics to construct their businesses and residences. This was a radical idea at the time, and craftspeople and tilers, many of whom were usually working on shrines and temples, were brought in to construct these luxury buildings. Bengara red was, of course, used to stain the building facades for uniformity as well as to protect the wood from the weather and insects. With a keen eye, you will notice a lot of other labor-intensive architectural flourishes.
The iconic and still-active post office with its bengara red facade
Unlike historical areas in larger, more built-up cities, before its designation as an Important Preservation District in 1977, the residents of Fukiya had resisted the temptation to modernize any of the buildings on the main street. This, combined with the lack of power lines, means you can easily imagine what it was like in centuries past, walking around with the merchants and mine workers as they went about their day. Some of the residences are now open to the public, and one of the most iconic buildings, the local post office, is still in use.
What To See at Fukiya Furusato Village
Former Katayama Residence
The Katayama family residence with their imposing kura storehouse to the right
The former Katayama Residence was built in the late 18th century and, as one of the landmarks of the town, has been turned into a museum. This extensive combination of the main building (母家), treasure house (宝蔵), rice storehouse (米蔵), bengara storehouse (弁柄蔵) was home to the Katayama family, Fukiya’s once leading bengara pigment producer, and closely tied to its production for over 200 years. The first floor of the main building was the original shopfront and now houses cases of antiques and artifacts related to their trade. In particular, I enjoyed looking at all of the label designs and old posters used to package and promote the products and town.
The second floor of the main building was the family residence and contains large tatami rooms with artwork and intricately carved patterns adorning the ranma, or transom, above the shoji sliding doors. There are plenty of explanations but only in Japanese, so if you can use a real-time translation app, you can take your time exploring the many buildings and rooms that make up the residence and finding out their purpose.
Bengara Factory Museum
Iron sulfide is cooked, purified, and dried on its way to becoming bengara red pigment
Fukiya had five or six bengara factories spread across the town in its peak production years. However, as farming processes modernized, bengara started to be created through chemical processing. Red iron oxide was regularly made as a byproduct from the fertilizer industry, so the last factory — run by the Tamura family — finally closed its doors in 1974. A five-minute drive from the entrance to the Fukiya Furusato Village is the Bengara Factory Museum, and here, across a series of buildings, you can see a faithfully recreated small-scale version of the production process using the equipment from the time before it closed.
The process is relatively straightforward — the mined iron sulfide material is fired, placed in a water tank to remove impurities, dried in the sun, and then turned into the powdered red bengara pigment. This process is now antiquated and has been replaced with a specialized chemical processing-based method. Even today, the quality of the modern-day bengara pigment doesn’t match the original Fukiya Bengara pigment from the past.
Fukiya Information Center Shimomachi Furatto
Create your own bengara piece at the Fukiya Information Center Shimomachi Furatto
As you approach Fukiya Street, on the right, you will see the Fukiya Information Center Shimomachi Furatto, and it is here where you can try your hand at bengara dyeing. Textile artist, Kuniko Ogura (IG: kunikoogura), moved to this area a few years ago and was fascinated by the beauty of bengara dyeing. She has been creating original tote bags and would love to help you create your personalized bengara tote bag, tenugui towel, or t-shirt.
A tie-dyed piece on its way to becoming a bengara red tenugui towel
You can choose to use stencils to paint your piece (and even bring your own) or try a more traditional dyeing method (marbling or tie-dyeing) with slightly more random results. There is a gamut of other natural colors that can be extracted from the bengara base, including green, orange, pink, purple, grey, and yellow, that you can use during the workshop.
Ogura-san will help you create your own individual bengara red piece
As we were dyeing our pieces, we mentioned how helpful the people in the town we have met are, and Ogura-san said, “It’s true, the people in Fukiya are like the people in Ethiopia. They will do anything to help you out.” …Ethiopia? It turns out Ogura-san has been to Ethiopia six times and is in love with the way of life there. “How people live there really resonated with me. I really felt it in my soul.” You can sense Ogura-san’s outlook on life in the large pieces she creates and hangs out to dry in front of the Information Center — a calming mixture of muted hues in circular, symmetrical patterns — which take hours to make.
The Best Bengara Souvenirs
If you don’t feel like getting your hands dirty, pick up a bengara original at one of the shops in town
If you are looking to take home a souvenir, dyeing a piece under the guiding hand of Ogura-san is what we would recommend, but there are also shops in town that sell all sorts of items that those at home will love. Asada Hyakkaten in the village sells everything bengara you could wish for, from clothes and bags, to accessories, bookmarks, and Japanese washi paper.
Where to Stay at Fukiya Furusato Village
Guesthouse Eleven Village in the heart of Fukiya
The vast majority of Japanese travelers will come to Fukiya as a day trip due to time constraints and a busy work schedule, but if you get the chance to stay, we highly recommend it. It’s a relaxing quiet base, and the lack of light pollution allows for stargazing while you unwind from your travels at night.
Guesthouse Eleven Village Fukiya, just off the main road in the center of the village, is a large and comfortable place to stay, with the Japanese-style interior and warm lighting in tune with the town’s ambiance. The lower floor features a large communal space centered around a blazing log fire in winter, encouraging guests to socialize with each other and make the most of their stay in Fukiya. In addition, the owners have done what they can to reduce their carbon footprint, making use of renewable energy, reusing water wherever possible, and using bedding and towels made with natural fibers.
The Japanese-style tatami room is a favorite with international visitors
If you would like to stay for a few days and get a bit of work done while you are here, there is also a co-working space and a private library in the adjacent building. The rooms are spacious, each with an individual theme. We were told that the Japanese-style room with futons is by far the most popular with those visiting from overseas. Since food and drink are no longer provided, you can try making traditional Japanese food like rice balls and miso soup in a shared kitchen equipped with organic Japanese seasonings (such as sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, miso) and pots and dishes. The homemade Japanese food will be a great memory! (Please contact the facility directly regarding future food and beverage offerings.)
This tranquil village surrounded by mountains in western Okayama, although small, has a lot to offer the traveler who has already experienced the more tourism-driven post-industrial towns. Wandering around the town, I had the distinct feeling that the locals are quite happy to keep it a bit of a secret, even if they are very proud of their ‘Japan Red’ heritage. But if you get a chance to make it to Fukiya, you’ll experience a laid-back town that has retained a pristine main street with its identity intact, and it may just end up being your favorite place to visit yet.
Photographs and text by Don Kennedy