A Step Back in Time: Through the Streets of Uchiko Town

Since its emergence from almost complete isolation from the outside world, Japan has taken many strides to modernize and catch up with the rest of the world. Currently, Japan stands as one of the largest economies in the world, with top notch technology that rivals our own. In the process of its rapid modernization however, places such as Tokyo has transformed into a thick jungle of hotels, train stations and countless large buildings. Although there is a lot to do in Tokyo, catering to both residence and tourists alike, those visiting Japan for the first time might wonder what has become of the old Japan. For places like Tokyo, the big city makes it difficult to find traces of Japan’s traditional. However, Japan is a country that keeps the traditional relevant and you may find some ink lets here and there. But for those who seek the full experience of the traditional Japan, you would have to look elsewhere.

Uchiko is a prime example of all things traditional. It is a small town about an hour drive from Matsuyama in the Ehime prefecture. The town was well known for its wax and paper production and through its wax trade, Uchiko was once wealthy. The unique wax made via special method of wax bleaching was very versatile and became popular throughout Japan and abroad. The Uchiko wax was used in a wide range of products. From the wax bowls used to transport and export vegetable wax to turn into candles, to later polishes and cosmetics (examples: hair wax and lipstick) as westernization developed in Japan. However despite its wealth at the time, despite perhaps having the option of going big like Tokyo, Uchiko Town decided to preserve its streets as it was and continues to do so today.

The preserved houses of Uchiko from above

The preserved houses of Uchiko from above

A small gift shop along the streets of Uchiko Town

A small gift shop along the streets of Uchiko Town

Harvest of wax trees

Harvest of wax trees

wax bowls displayed in Uchiko's wax museum

wax bowls displayed in Uchiko’s wax museum

It is very evident that Uchiko takes pride in its traditions, for among the streets lies its history and folklore museum. This museum features the history of Uchiko as well as the traditional lifestyle of an olden day Japan. From its traditional pharmacy, to life at home, to traditional customs, the museum utilizes its visual exhibition to help set its audience back in time in conjunction with the rest of the town as well as help its audience understand and experience to some extent what it was like to live in Uchiko. Some of the exhibits include a traditionally modeled kitchen, living room, and founder’s room.

Display of a traditional Japanese pharmacy

Display of a traditional Japanese pharmacy

Besides the preserved streets and houses themselves, one of Uchiko’s big attractions is the Uchiko-za theater located in the center of town. A beautiful traditional style wooden theater, it was built in 1916 in celebration of the accession of Emperor Taishō and occasionally hosts various performances such as kabuki and bunraku. Some of the interesting mechanics in this unique theater include various trap doors and hidden passageways around the stage. The theater was once at risk of being demolished some years ago as a result of its dilapidated state from aging. But with the help and support of the community, the theater was repaired to its original appearance. In 1985, it started the new chapter for upcoming events and performances. 

Taiko drum practice at the Uchiko-za

Taiko drum practice at the Uchiko-za

The whole experience exploring Uchiko Town for us was very refreshing step back from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s busy city. As we walked through Uchiko town, it was very peaceful and the local people were very welcoming. From experiencing Uchiko’s natural beauty and learning about its unique history, it is clear just how significant these aspects are to the people of Uchiko Town. Once a wealthy town, we have learned that the wax it made has many important uses that still applies in today’s culture. But despite its wealth, despite having to adapt to the forces of westernization in one way or another (e.g. the use of modern vehicles), and despite the Japanese now being beyond advanced in technology compared to other cultures, Uchiko Town still remains as a traditional town. For the people of Uchiko, in a world where change occurs faster than ever, they feel that it is important to remember and keep the traditions that have made its town so valued and unique. The town also serves as a reminder to the people of Japan as a whole to keep the Japanese tradition alive and relevant to their own lives.

In terms of preserving culture, Hawaiians and Japanese have commonalities within the traditional and modern world. In both cultures, they still live in traditional houses and continue traditional practices. For example In the Hawaiian culture, plants are used for many purposes such as food, medicine, clothes, and other products. Ti for instance, is a plant that was introduced to Hawai’i which has a variety of uses ranging from wrappings for food, medical purposes, plates, and clothing. Plants also connect to the gods. Ti is sacred to Lono, who is the god of agriculture and Laka, who is the goddess of hula.  Similarly, just as the people of Uchiko have preserved the traditional Japanese culture in their town, the Hawaiians have also managed to preserve their culture throughout Hawaii. For some time since the arrival of Captain Cook and other foreigners, the Hawaiians were being forced to convert to Christianity, causing the Hawaiian culture to be nearly wiped out and forgotten. However it was later realized many years later that the lifestyle of the Ancient Hawaiians, culture and all, was actually very sophisticated. Their unique way of living, to respect and take care of their gods and ancestors living on in the land and sea proved better for the environment than that of the west. Today, we have been making great strides to acknowledge and bring the Hawaiian culture back. Some examples include the teaching of hula, language, and maintenance of the remaining Hawaiian traditional sites (e.g. Hawaiian fish ponds). Where we come from and the culture we grew up with is very important. It is a part of who we are and it is a guide that helps us to remember our values. That is why the traditional will always be relevant. To both the people of Hawaii and the people of Japan alike. 

-Victoria Jose and Nalisha Arakaki

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