Located in the north-western tip of Shikoku in Ehime Prefecture, the city of Imabari has been manufacturing towels for over 120 years, and textiles for even longer. The city is the largest producer of towels in Japan, and today Imabari Towel is one of the world’s favourite brands, recognized by its inspired logo of the sun setting over the Inland Sea.
With a range of mountains at its back, Imabari benefits from an abundant supply of pure water. The water is soft, meaning it contains few minerals, making it ideal for bleaching and dyeing fabrics. This results in towels that are soft to the touch with clear, bright colours, and high absorbency.
Their products include bath towels and facecloths, but also extend to towel fabrics for interior goods and fashion, especially scarves in myriad colours and patterns. The towels are made by a host of manufacturers both large and small, and they use a mix of modern and traditional technologies.
The Kōbō Oriza workshop in Tamagawachō on the outskirts of Imabari uses 100-year old looms originally manufactured by the company that became Toyota. Their little factory is open to visitors. It smells pleasantly of grease and cotton and the various antique looms clack away happily as they weave scarves – the company’s speciality. A separate building houses old pedal-powered looms. Visitors are invited to use the looms to weave their own scarves. Maintaining steady leg pace is crucial, but surprisingly difficult – too fast and the shuttle loses control, too slow and it stops.
Needless to say, owning a towel scarf you wove yourself is very satisfying, but there’s also a shop where you can buy ready-made products in the attractive onsite shop.
On an entirely different scale is the Ichihiro Towel Museum in Asakura just south of the city. It’s an imposing building in a style that can best be described as “modern Japanese château”. Inside, you quickly realize that the familiar words “towel’ and “museum” have been interpreted very broadly. It’s arguably more “textiles” and “shop”.
The museum section or “gallery” fills an immensely long room. There’s an exhibit showing the towel-making process from start to finish, from raw cotton, through spinning, and weaving on an automatic loom. Doubling back, there’s another long room with a 40-meter long towel on one side, and some dioramas made of towelling on the other. Another room features a wall of 1,800 spools of thread, and various artworks made of towel.
The Scandinavian Moomin is much in evidence since the museum has a license agreement with that particular character. It’s fair to say that Moomin and towels are an agreeable and fitting combination. There are three floors of shops selling everything from towels to clothing, with a large area dedicated to other produce of Ehime.
Outlets for the Imabari Towel can be found throughout the area. Imabari towel Head Store has a wide selection of towels and clothing, with a fascinating exhibit of antique looms.
Iori, a company that produces the Imabari Towel, has beautiful shops in Dōgo Arcade and Ropeway Street in Matsuyama. The fluffy towels are arranged temptingly on wooden rails around the walls. Picking just one or two is a real challenge.
For people who have difficulty choosing exactly the right towel, Imabari has thoughtfully instituted a ‘towel sommelier’ system to make the shopping experience as comfortable as an Imabari Towel itself.
Location： Kōbō Oriza
Address： 55 Onibara-kou, Tamagawa-cho, Imabari-shi, Ehime 794-0117 Japan
Open hours：Factory Shop 9:30 – 16:00 on weekdays, 11:00 – 16:00 on weekends
Phone to book a place on the scarf making experience
Tel： +81 898 55 2564
Location： Ichihiro Towel Museum
Address： 2930 Asakura-Kamiko, Imabari, Ehime Prefecture 799-1607
Access：Taxi from JR Imabari Staton or Nyugawa Station in Saijo
Open hours：9:30 – 18:00 (open to 20:00 on most Saturdays)
Location： Imabari towel Head Store
Address： 5-14-3, Higashimon, Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, 794-0033,
Access：Taxi from JR Imabari Staton or Imabari-port
Open hours：9：00 – 18：00
Holidays：None (without the year-end and new-year holidays)
Words and Photography by Rod Walters
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