The town of Wakimachi is located on a calm, flat stretch of the Yoshino River which flows into the sea at Tokushima. This commercially advantageous siting contributed to the prosperity which the town enjoyed in the Edo and Meiji periods, when Wakimachi was a centre for indigo dyeing – aizome in Japanese.
In the Edo period, samurai were subject to strict sumptuary rules and the colours of their clothing was limited by statute. One of the natural colours permitted was indigo, a dye extracted from the plant called Indigofera tinctoria, called ai in Japanese. Despite their subordinate ranking in relation to the samurai, the merchants of Wakimachi grew extremely wealthy from providing the plain blue colouring used for the daily clothing of the common samurai. The merchants flaunted their wealth by building elaborate commercial premises and homes which still exist today, marked by an architectural extravagance called udatsu. Original a kind of firebreak, the udatsu became an elaborate symbol of wealth and power, decorated with fancy tiles and plasterwork.
Midway along the Udatsu Street of Wakimachi is a complex of restored buildings housing a café and a little studio where you can try your hand at indigo dyeing. As you enter the studio, you’ll notice a slightly rank, dry smell. This is the aroma of fermenting indigo dye. In the centre of the studio is a work table built around two large vats where the indigo is fermented to release the colour from the leaves of the plant. Lift the wooden lids of the vats and you can see it bubbling away.
Since this fermentation is a natural process based on microorganisms, the ferment needs constant care to maintain its health, and if it’s not well, it needs a rest. This means deep dyeing isn’t possible on that day. But never mind – the staff grow indigo in planters around the facility. The leaves can be harvested at any time to produce a lighter hued dye with a direct process where the leaves are simply kneaded with water to release the colour.
Go on and get your hands blue!
In the studio, you can have a go at tie-dyeing handkerchiefs in two sizes. The friendly staffs show you the way to produce numerous different patterns by wrapping the cloth around little stones and straws, and by knotting it in various ways. The experience takes about forty minutes and the result is very satisfying. The blue dye washes off your hands easily enough.
In addition to its elegant colour, indigo has antiseptic properties and its smell repels insects. It also softens the dyed material.
Umbrella shopping too
The studio also serves as a shop where you can buy indigo-dyed jewellery, clothing, and interior décor objets. A tatami-floored section of the studio is set aside for displaying the traditional bamboo and paper umbrellas which are also produced in Wakimachi. They’re exquisite.
Location: 45 Wakimachi Ōaza, Wakimachi, Mima, Tokushima Prefecture
Closed: The second Wednesday of the month
Admission: Free. Dyeing workshop from JPY800
Originally from England, I came to live in Ehime in 2001. I’m interested in the history of the Suigun, seagoing clans who dominated the Seto Inland Sea for two centuries. I find it very relaxing to photograph the beautiful scenery and the wildlife. I hope people will visit Setouchi and enjoy exploring this unique area. To help visitors make the most of their time here, I offer travel services at ShikokuTours.com. Be sure to try the excellent sake when you visit!
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