Nestled into the mountains south of Matsuyama, the historic town of Uchiko thrived during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) and the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) producing high-quality washi paper and Japanese candle wax.
Today, the Youkaichi-Gokoku district of Uchiko is a designated preservation area and much of the town has been returned to its original state. Many of the impressive white and yellow plaster buildings constructed during the boom years are open to visitors.
Uchiko’s old quarter hugs two main streets, making it perfect for sightseeing. We started our excursion at the famous ‘Uchiko-za’ theater. This traditional kabuki theater built in 1916 is still in use today, with regular performances held throughout the year. It’s famous throughout Japan and some of the finest actors and rakugo comedy performers still make a point of playing at this beautiful venue.
Once we bought our ticket, a volunteer guide explained the history of the theater and showed us the wooden stage. There were also two trapdoors, where actors would be propelled up and brought down from the stage. He also explained how a sophisticated pulley system moved a huge revolving circular section of the stage. According to our guide, the revolving stage developed during the Edo period facilitated quick scene changes. This innovation was later adopted by theaters in the west.
Our guide left us to discover the rest of the theater at our own pace. There was access under the stage. We weaved our way through the underground passageways that looked like catacombs. It was impressive to think the actors and stagehands worked the wooden contraptions in these cramped conditions.
Back on ground level, we made our way through the town, taking in the atmosphere and browsing the shops. Although Uchiko is known for its historical buildings, the town is still very much alive with a collection of retro shops lining the main streets.
As you look around the shops, you might be in for a surprise when you reach the Museum of Commercial and Domestic Life and see the life-size waxworks. This merchant house and pharmacy has been turned into a exhibit, showcasing everyday life for a merchant family in Uchiko in the early 20th century. When we approached the waxworks dressed in period clothes at the shop window, the audio kicked into life. The waxwork merchants beckoned you to come closer to see the latest products they brought from early 20th century Osaka – including a wonderful new condiment called “ketchup”.
A short distance from the museum is the Youkaichi-Gokoku district, the main sightseeing street in Uchiko. This is a 600-meter-long thoroughfare winding up a gentle slope is the heart of the historical preservation area. Uchiko’s wealthy merchants and business families constructed these impressive buildings during an age of prosperity when quality Japanese candle wax and washi paper was in high demand. The old white and yellow plaster walls and gabled roofs are in wonderful condition.
As we walked up the town, we came across the Omori Warosoku candle shop. This establishment – with over 200 years of history – is Uchiko’s last traditional candlemaker. Today, the 6th and 7th generation Omori candlemakers are keeping the flame alive. When we entered the shop floor, the mother explained the benefits of traditional Japanese candles compared to the modern petroleum-based candles. There was no competition. Both aesthetically and functionally, the Japanese traditional candles were a thing of beauty. I was impressed by the brightness of the candles. The mother demonstrated how by pinching the wick, you could control the intensity and brightness of the flame.
Inside a glass-partitioned room behind the counter, the candlemakers were busy at work, creating these elegant candles in quiet concentration.
For food, there are plenty of good restaurants in and around the old quarter to choose from offering a wide range of cuisines. We opted for something a little different. Inside one of the traditional Japanese buildings lining the Youkaichi-Gokoku district is the authentic German restaurant ‘Zum schwarzen Keiler’. Run by a German and Japanese husband and wife team, they served delicious German meat dishes and genuine beer. Superb.
When you visit Uchiko, don’t stop when you get to the end of the old quarter. The fun of visiting Uchiko is exploring the small side streets that branch out from the main historical district and see where they take you. We wandered through some alleyways and came across a curious old movie theater. Yet another in a host of memorable new experiences we had in this remarkable town.
Photographs & Text by Tom Miyagawa Coulton