Wakimachi, the Center of Aizome in South Japan
Wakimachi City is located in the Tokushima Prefecture in the eastern part of the Shikoku Island. Shikoku is the smallest of the four Japanese main islands and it is connected to the largest, Honshu, by the Onaruto and Akashi-Kaikyo bridges. During the Edo and Meiji eras, Wakimachi was a very prosperous city of merchants, mainly thanks to its central position in the distribution of indigo (Aizome, 藍染 め) via the Yoshino River. Practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts are familiar with Aizome since it is the dye that is used for making items like hakama and some dogi. For non-martial art practitioners, one of the great attractions of the city is its Mainakashima neighborhood that has maintained the former residences of the Aizome merchants in their original form, in particular their udatsu that consist of two columns built on each side of the facades first floor.
The Daimyo Hachisuka began promoting indigo after his arrival in Ai’wa (Tokushima Prefecture), and this prompted many wealthy Wakimachi merchants to focus on this activity. The result was that the area quickly became the largest center of exchange of indigo in the north of Aiwa.
Bridge leading to the old Wakimachi
Wakimachi has always had to fight against floods coming from the River Yoshino and still today, the Tsubutegun dykes that served to limit the floods remain visible. On the North shore of the river, an entire street has been preserved and the houses that line it can be visited, each of them containing a secret from the time of Aizome. On the other hand, the Waki-jo Castle that once dominated the city has unfortunately completely disappeared.
Old houses in Wakimachi
Minamimachi, the street of old udatsu houses has been classified as an important cultural heritage site for its traditional structures. In fact, Minamimachi is officially amongst of the 100 most beautiful streets of Japan. It covers approximately 430 meters and it is surrounded by about fifty houses featuring the famous udatsu. Many houses have been preserved as they were 100 years ago and in summer, many can actually be visited for an entrance fee of a few hundred yen. Others are shops whose owners will be delighted to let in the curious at any time of the year.
Inside of a merchant house in Minamimachi
The udatsu have emerged in the late Middle Ages on the wooden roofs of merchant houses in Kyoto and Nara. They lined both sides of the first floor roofs and they served to protect the edges. Given the difficulty in producing large pieces of wood, the craftsmen soon started using mud instead, which also permitted udatsu to help prevent the spread of fires from one house to the other.
Roofs mounted with udatsu
Udatsu subsequently became works of art in themselves and they were appreciated as much for their aesthetic value as they were for their functional advantages, particularly thanks to their beautifully decorated tiles. The presence of udatsu even became a sign of wealth and these tended to be built larger and larger. A famous phrase in Japanese says “udatsu do not rise,” which means that a person does not go very far in life; in this case, he or she does not have the financial means to build a luxurious house with udatsu. Outside the city of Wakimachi the udatsu have become quite rare in the rest Japan. Above the udatsu, bird stands are set up in order to prevent birds from nesting or dropping on the gorgeous gargoyles that often decorate the roofs. Some of these altars, including the one on the photo above, are decorated with symbols related to water in order to prevent possible fires.
Gargoyle on top of an udatsu
The indigo used in Japan is extracted from a plant, Indigofera tinctoria (dyers’ indigo) and its use has been widespread, especially for dyeing cotton garments. The antiseptic properties of the dye, its insect-repellent smell, and its softening action helped to anchor its use deep in the Japanese culture, in spite of the fact that it is much more expensive than other synthetic dyes.
Dying pools for aizome