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Uchiko

If you have time for a side trip around Ehime Prefecture, I strongly recommend an excursion to the village of Uchiko, which has some fine old homes and buildings dating back to the Edo Period and the turn of the 20th century. Whereas about 70% of Matsuyama was destroyed during World War II, Uchiko was left intact, and a tiny part of the old historic district is a living memorial to the days of yore, when it prospered as a production center for wax. Even the 25-minute express train ride from JR Matsuyama Station (departing every hour or so; fare: ¥1,250) is enjoyable as you weave through valleys of wooded hills past grape, mikan orange, persimmon, rice, and tobacco farms. At Uchiko Station, ask for the "Visitors' Guide" at the train station ticket window; it contains a map showing the 5-minute walk to Yokaichi, the historic part of town. There are also signs in English pointing the way. Because addresses in this village of 11,600 souls are only for postmen, I've omitted them. All sights listed below are open daily 9am to 4:30pm.

Your first stop from the station is Uchiko-za (tel. 0893/44-2840), a kabuki theater built in 1916 (look for the signpost on the left after you pass the creek). Though not as grand as the one near Takamatsu, it's a good example of how townspeople used to enjoy themselves years ago. It features a revolving stage, windows that can be opened and closed to control the amount of light reaching the stage, and a small display of memorabilia (note the ultimate platform shoes, geta, used by bunraku puppeteers). Admission is ¥300 for adults, half-price for children. You're better off, however, with a combination ticket for ¥390 and ¥200 respectively that allows admission to the theater, Museum of Commercial and Domestic Life, and the wax museum of the Kami-Haga Residence listed below. Cheaper admission is also offered through the Shikoku Passport at each attraction.

A 5-minute walk farther along the main street, on the right, is the Museum of Commercial and Domestic Life (Akinai to Kurashi Hakubutsukan; tel. 0893/44-5220). This museum -- once housing a pharmacy and built in typical Uchiko style -- uses life-size figures, recordings (alas, in Japanese only), and authentic artifacts in its dioramas depicting the daily lives of a merchant and a druggist's family. One of the dioramas, for example, is of a Taisho-Era pharmacy, with two figures kneeling on a tatami floor as they discuss the business at hand, while another shows a family eating, the servant seated on a step below to show a lower status. But my favorite is of the woman in the kitchen, complaining about all the work she has to do. Admission here is ¥200 for adults, half-price for children.

As you continue your walk along Yokaichi's quaint main street, you'll pass galleries and shops, some offering bambooware, peaches, and other products from shelves on the sidewalk (payment is on the honor system; deposit your money in the proffered bamboo shaft). You might want to stop by the Machi-ya Shiryokan (tel. 0893/44-5212), a restored home open free to the public (as an empty house, it wouldn't be of much interest if it weren't free), but don't miss the Kami-Haga Residence (tel. 0893/44-2771), which I consider the highlight of a trip to Uchiko. Unfortunately, the residence is closed for renovation until April 2011, though you can still visit its museum. In any case, Kami-Haga Residence, built in 1894 without the use of nails, is especially grand, containing four toilets (two for the family, one for children, and one for guests) and even a room used only for giving birth. It belonged to a merchant who made his fortune exporting wax. During the Edo and Meiji periods, Uchiko gained fame as a center of candle-making and wax production, producing about 30% of the country's wax, used for lighting, umbrellas, and for the styling of elaborate Feudal-Era hairdos. You can see the traditional methods for wax production in the "wax museum" out back for ¥100.

Today, only one person carries on the wax-making tradition -- a man named Omori, who represents the sixth generation of candle-makers. Following the same techniques as those developed by his ancestors 200 years ago, he collects his own haze berries (a kind of sumac) and makes his candles by hand. You can observe him at his workshop, located on the right as you head back to the train station (tel. 0893/43-0385; Tues-Thurs and Sat-Sun 9am-5pm).

Where to Dine -- A 10-minute walk east of Yokaichi (or a 15-min. walk from the train station), across the Oda River, is the Uchiko Fresh Foods Market, famous in Japan as one of the few co-ops where farmers can sell produce directly to consumers. Here, too, is Karari (tel. 0893/43-1122), a restaurant offering both Western and Japanese dishes featuring local ingredients. Nestled among trees beside the river and with large windows that almost make you feel like you're dining in a treehouse, it offers a weekend buffet for ¥1,575 with 50 choices of dishes, while weekdays set meals go for ¥1,200 to ¥2,000. It's open daily 11am to 8pm (last order). No credit cards are accepted.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.