The flamboyance of the merchants
From the Edo Period, the parts of the Nishi-Awa region close to the navigable reaches of the Yoshino River thrived on trade. One of the main commodities was indigo-dyed products. Today, Japan’s national sports teams wear uniforms with a colour known as ‘Japan Blue’. This is basically indigo blue, which comes from a plant that thrives in Japan. The plant is fermented in vats, giving off a very interesting smell, which produces a dye of the deepest blue. It became the colour for the garments of serious people – tradesmen and samurai, and the merchants who sold the indigo products enjoyed a prodigious market.
As the wealth of the merchants grew, they expressed their fortune in the elegance of their premises. Fortunately, these beautiful buildings can still be enjoyed today, at a couple of places along the Yoshino River. At Wakimachi in Mima, there’s a long street of merchant’s houses featuring an architectural flamboyance called ‘udatsu’. These are little walls, topped with tiles, which extend vertically from the ends of the first roof of the building. Originally they were intended as firewalls to prevent fires spreading one building to the next. Gradually however, they became elaborately decorative and ultimately, they evolved into symbols of status and wealth.
“ In Sadamitsu, there’s a similar street where the udatsu became even more baroque. They took on a second level with even more elaborate tiles on each level, and a decorative panel on the front of each, featuring fine plasterwork relief.
In Sadamitsu, there’s a similar street where the udatsu became even more baroque. They took on a second level with even more elaborate tiles on each level, and a decorative panel on the front of each, featuring fine plasterwork relief. Some of the finer houses have become museums where you can see how the merchants lived. Others are now home to cafés and shops selling local produce.
In the countryside between these streets of extravagant merchant buildings, you can see countless examples of Shikoku’s traditional farm buildings. These pretty little houses have thatched roofs covered in tin painted blue and silver. They stand among patches of vegetables that change with seasons – peas and beans in spring and summer, daikon and Chinese cabbage in winter.
Learn the secrets of the indigo plant
Half way along the street of merchant houses at Wakimachi, you come to a little square of beautifully restored buildings, one of which houses an indigo dyeing studio. Two vats contain fermenting indigo. A rainbow-coloured film covers the ferment, which gives off an earthy acrid aroma when the lid is lifted for your inspection. Here, craftsmen still produce beautiful indigo-dyed clothing and accessories, as well as handmade bamboo and paper umbrellas. These exquisite umbrellas are made for practical use, as sunshades or to keep off the rain, but they also make very attractive interior decorations.
Wealth from the tobacco trade
Another product of Mima which contributed to regional wealth was the tobacco grown in Tsuji. Here you can see private homes built in the Edo and Meiji periods in various elegant styles. One of Nishi-Awa’s fours sake breweries, Yoshimizu, is found here.
A town of Buddhist temples
Some of the wealth of the merchants was diverted to spiritual pursuits. One corner of Mima is devoted to Buddhist temples which form a small ‘town’ of their own called Teramachi. Some of these temples were founded as far back as the Nara period 1,300 years ago. Here you can wander among temples with different styles of architecture and gardens. Behind Gansho-ji Temple is the rock garden called Karesansui Tei-en, one of Shikoku’s most notable temple gardens. The two-storied red gate building of Anraku-ji Temple is nothing if not eye-catching. The temple also has a Noh stage. This area also includes two ancient tombs dating back 1,400 years.
The timeless Yoshino river
As you explore these historic towns, the Yoshino River is always there beside you. The deep turquoise of its waters, its breadth and depth, and the many types of bridges that span it, provide a constant reminder of the source of this region’s wealth – the water-borne transport of goods to the world beyond Shikoku.