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 ai in Japanese. In addition to its elegant colour, indigo has antiseptic properties and its smell allegedly repels insects. It also softens the dyed material.
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.
In the studio, you can have a go at tie-dyeing handkerchiefs in two sizes. The friendly staff 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.
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.
Across the Otani River from the Udatsu Street is the Odeon-Za Theatre, built in 1934. Originally a playhouse for kabuki and other traditional entertainment, it became a cinema after WWII. It was restored in 1999. From its neon signs above the entrance, to its underground kabuki stage machinery and pre-war film posters, it’s a fascinating mix of periods and theatrical themes.
Another attraction of Wakimachi is the De Reike Park, a Dutch-themed area with a windmill and tulips on a dammed section of the Otani River, which resembles a canal. In season, the tulips present a pretty sight.
Name in Japanese: 脇町
Address: 735-1 Wakimachi Oaza Wakimachi, Mima-shi, Tokushima 779-3610