Uchiko is small town that lies to the southwest of Matsuyama. It stands at the bottom of a river valley with rice fields spread out around it. Looking at this quiet, bucolic scene today, it’s hard to imagine that the place was once an economic powerhouse with a flourishing culture producing sophisticated architecture and arts. Fortunately, much of this cultural heritage has been preserved intact, and visitors can stroll down streets of wonderfully elegant houses and commercial buildings in an unspoiled rural setting.
Uchiko developed and thrived as a manufacturing center for paper and wax from the end of the Edo period (1867) to the end of the Meiji period (1912). The Yokaichi and Gokoku districts were the main centres of commerce and industry, and their main streets are lined with the extravagant premises that business families had built as a mark of prestige. These feature white or yellow coloured plaster walls, wooden or metal lattices, and decorative tiling and plasterwork.
One of the biggest and finest buildings is the Kamihaga Residence and Wax Museum, the former home and workshop of the Kamihaga family. This family grew phenomenally rich in the Meiji period from the production of wax, and they flaunted their wealth conspicuously. You can learn all about wax and its manufacture in the museum here, but briefly, wax used to be made from the berry of a tree that grows in these parts. Local farmers would be paid a pittance to collect these berries, while a few families made fortunes processing and selling the wax. After developing a unique white wax and exhibiting it at the 1900 Paris Expo, the Kamihagas exported it to Europe and America.
The Kamihaga Residence is located on one of the famed machinami—the historical old streets of Uchiko. There are many things to see along these fascinating streets including the Ōmori candle shop, one of very few candle makers still dedicated to the original materials and methods, and the Museum of Commercial & Domestic Life which gives an interesting glimpse into the lives of wealthy merchants.
For their entertainment and recreation, the townspeople of Uchiko built themselves a splendid little theatre, the Uchiko-za which is still used for kabuki and bunraku puppet performances.
The streets of Uchiko are lined with interesting shops selling souvenirs and seasonal local produce including the huge sweet chestnuts that grow profusely here. You can eat in style in the many cafés and restaurants, including the historic Shimohaga-Tei Restaurant.
Uchiko is easily accessible from Matsuyama by train or car. If you’re in Ehime in the summer, you could time your visit to coincide with the Sasa Matsuri.