Wakimachi: A Dyeing Heritageby 228
Deep in the heart of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth island, there is a little town called Wakimachi. Few have heard of it, and even fewer have ever bothered to visit. This is a shame, as Wakimachi and the surrounding area of Tokushima are home to a rich heritage of textiles and craftsmanship. The region sits alongside the Yoshino River, which helped establish Wakimachi as an important local trading town back in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). It was at this time that the area’s indigo, or aizome, industry was at its height, with many wealthy dye merchants settling in Wakimachi and building lavish townhouses called udatsu. Over fifty of these traditional udatsu have been preserved along one of the streets of Wakimachi, and many are free to enter. Some have been converted into shops selling regional specialities, such as these traditional paper umbrellas, known as wagasa. There used to be around 200 shops in the area dedicated to selling wagasa – now there are just two. They are essential cultural accessories, used for tea ceremonies and kabuki performances, and are handmade by expert craftsmen. Some of the indigo traders’ townhouses are kept as museums, allowing visitors to Wakimachi to gain some idea of what life was like in this once-bustling merchant town. The Yoshida Family residence, once home to one of the wealthiest of Wakimachi’s merchants, is particularly lavish with its graceful sloping roof and manicured garden. It is now a ‘Municipally Designated Cultural Property’ and open to the public. Wakimachi is no longer the centre of the region’s aizome trade, but clothing and homewares dyed with natural indigo can be found in several shops around town, including the old indigo warehouse of the Yoshida family. The town’s connection to this heritage craft and its traditional architecture bring Wakimachi fewer visitors than it deserves, but nevertheless it is a friendly place with many hidden charms.
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