In centuries past, wax was big business. Think candles. Think lubricants. Wax was so important, world fairs held in Chicago in 1894 and in Paris in 1900 awarded prizes for the best quality wax. Believe it or not, Uchiko, a small village in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku island, walked away with the honors both times.

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Crafts and produce for sell on the honor system; coins are dropped into the bamboo pole on the right

Uchiko’s love affair with wax began in 1738, when three experts were ferried from Hiroshima to teach what they knew about the production of wax from haze berries, a kind of sumac. In no time, Uchiko townspeople were cultivating haze, plucking the berries, drying them for about a year, and then crushing, boiling, and pressing them to obtain a greenish wax. But it wasn’t until a local man named Haga discovered a technique for producing pure, white wax that Uchiko was catapulted into fame. From then on, Uchiko served as a center for candlemaking and wax production, turning out 30% of the country’s wax. Edo-era beauties depended on Uchiko wax for their elaborate hairdos. When it rained, they shielded themselves with waxed umbrellas. After the dawn of Japan’s modern age, Uchiko wax became an ingredient in shoe polish, lipstick, crayons, and medical ointments.

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Merchant homes in Uchiko

But then came paraffin to replace wax’s many uses, and the introduction of electricity made candles virtually obsolete. Uchiko drifted into obscurity, but in the 1970s and 80′s grass-root preservationists sought protection for the village’s historic district, filled with old buildings and mansions that once belonged to wax merchants. My first trip to Uchiko was in the 1980s, when it was very much off the beaten path. Although I found the historic district indeed remarkable for its old-fashioned atmosphere, it seemed largely neglected and there wasn’t much to see or do.

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The Yokaichi historic district

Last summer I had the chance to visit Uchiko again for the first time in about six years, and I was astounded by the change. The mellow historic district, called Yokaichi (a five-minute walk from the station; there are even signs in English pointing the way) has been lovingly restored. Handsome, cream-colored traditional merchant houses stretch for more than a half mile, accented by well-kept gardens. Rather than the crass souvenir shops that plague other tourist spots, here you’ll find only an occasional gallery with local handicrafts (I bought a miniature bamboo house, crafted, I was told, by an 80-year-old retiree), as well as outdoor shelves laden with persimmons, mandarin oranges, peaches and other local produce purchased-I love this-on the honor system by depositing coins into bamboo containers. For travelers drawn to Shikoku for its rural, backwater charms, Uchiko is the quintessential destination.

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Uchiko street scene

For me, the most interesting destination in Yokaichi is the Kami-Haga Residence, built without nails in 1894 by a merchant who made his fortune exporting wax around the globe (it was his relative who won the awards at the world fairs). An elegant house with an entryway large enough to accommodate customers, deliveries and even horses, it shows how Uchiko’s upper crust lived. But what I find most fascinating are the traditional, Japanese-style toilets; there are four of them, one reserved for guests, two for family members, and one just for children. In the ultimate luxury, there’s even a room designated only for childbirth. A Meiji-era addition houses a pleasant coffee shop, while out back, past the garden, is a museum with displays relating to the time-consuming production of wax.

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Uchikoza Kabuki theater

Another must-see is Uchikoza Kabuki theater, built in 1916 and providing insight into rural entertainment. Spectators sat on cushions on the floor, a revolving stage was powered by men sweating it out below, and the many windows along the wall could be opened and closed to control the amount of light reaching the stage. Open to the public and still used for Kabuki plays, it’s an interesting attraction for those who have never seen the inner workings of a Kabuki stage.

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Uchiko Fresh Foods Market

I also recommend a 10-minute stroll over the Oda River to Uchiko Fresh Foods Market, a famous produce market in Japan. Whereas most produce in Japan is sold through middlemen, this co-op allows farmers to sell directly to consumers. Scanners give information on all fruits and vegetables, including bios on each farmer and whether chemicals were used in the growing process. A corner vendor sells homemade ice cream utilizing local fruits like strawberries, while an adjacent restaurant serves dishes made with local ingredients.

Otherwise, in all of Uchiko, only one candle shop remains. Opened almost 200 years ago by his ancestors, sixth-generation Taro Omori follows the same techniques developed so many years ago, collecting his own haze berries to produce wax for his candles. Buy a candle, and you literally hold a piece of Uchiko’s history in your hand.

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