The district of Fukiya is located in the Kibi Highlands in the midwestern part of Okayama Prefecture. To reach it requires a journey over a steep road in a mountainous area. At the end of this road lies Fukiya, whose houses have roofs covered with reddish-brown tile and even latticework and outer walls painted a brilliant red. Together they form an expansive red townscape.
Fukiya flourished as a mining town that produced bengara (colcothar, a red iron-oxide pigment) and copper ore. It was also a point of transit on the old Fukiya Road through which goods were transported into and out of the area. The town therefore also thrived as a hub of physical distribution related to the transport of people and things. The prosperous families used their financial power to hire artisans to construct magnificent houses with red exteriors for them. These activities by local residents produced the red townscape, which is a rare sight even in the nationwide context.
In the minds of many people from other countries, red is a color that stands for Japan. From ancient times, red has been associated with life and sacred things. This is why it has been used on Kutani and Imari pottery, Wajima and Yamanaka lacquerware, and various other traditional crafts. The artisans behind these crafts utilized bengara, a red pigment produced in Bitchu Fukiya, for this red coloring. The products of traditional Japanese crafts colored with this pigment were highly esteemed in other countries. In time, bengara red came to be perceived as a hue of red unique to Japan, i.e., Japan Red.
Bengara is made with ore extracted from copper mines. Bengara in the form of a red powder was produced through a series of processes including heating and pulverizing. At Fukiya, this production began in the middle of the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Besides coloring for pottery and lacquerware, bengara was also used as a coating to prevent corrosion on structures and ships. For this reason, bengara from Fukiya was in widespread distribution nationwide.
The prosperity Fukiya enjoyed due to its past production of copper in large quantities is also mentioned in folk songs passed down in this area. According to oral tradition, the Yoshioka Copper Mine in Fukiya was opened in 807, and the leading lords in the Warring States period (1467 - 1568) fought with each other to gain control over it. In the middle of the Edo period (1603 - 1868), an Osaka merchant by the name of Izumiya Kichizaemon managed it. Izumiya’s operation was one of the predecessors of the Sumitomo family enterprise, which became famous as one of Japan’s most prominent zaibatsu (financial conglomerates). The output of copper from the Yoshioka mine in this period was among the highest in Japan. With the start of the Meiji era (1868 - 1912), the mine was purchased by Mitsubishi Shokai, which ranked alongside the Sumitomo enterprise as a noted zaibatsu. Investing heavily in the mine, Mitsubishi Shokai also introduced advanced technology from other countries and modernized the mine’s management. Its management style provided a model for subsequent mining businesses.
The Yoshioka Copper Mine closed in 1972, but vestigial structures still remain on the site. These include mine shafts, tunnels for tramcars, and other features reminding the viewer that the site was once a copper mine. In short, the Yoshioka Copper Mine is a precious industrial heritage that was formerly run by one of Japan’s leading zaibatsu.
In the Fukiya district of Takahashi, a zone extending for about 1.5 kilometers, from the Shimodani neighborhood to the Shimomachi, Nakamachi, and Senmai neighborhoods, was designated by the Japanese government as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings. In this zone, streets are lined with houses that are roofed with reddish-brown tiles and have latticework painted red with bengara. By strolling around it, visitors can experience firsthand its unique space decorated with vivid red hues. Among the sightseeing spots are the former residence of the Katayama family, who were engaged in the manufacture of bengara, and the Bengara Museum, where visitors can learn about the flow of bengara production. Fukiya also contains palatial mansions that were built by people who amassed considerable wealth through their involvement with the bengara industry. These include the former residence of the Hirokane family, and the main building of the Nishie family residence. In Fukiya, visitors can additionally tour facilities and buildings that attest to the vigorous development of the bengara industry and the copper mining. They will also find a building that was used from the Meiji era to the Showa era, specifically, the old Fukiya Elementary School Building, which was constructed in the Meiji era. The visit will make them feel as if they have suddenly slipped back in time to the days when Fukiya’s copper mine industry was at the height.
In recent years, Fukiya has been the scene of various events making use of its red townscape, which is an unusual sight even in the nationwide context, and has been attracting many visitors. These events may be exemplified by the Fukiya Bengara Lantern Festival, in which lanterns strung along the streets transform the district into a magical land at night; the Fukiya Bengara Art Exhibition, which expresses the charms of Fukiya through the medium of art; and the Hill Climb Challenge, a bicycle race. Fukiya is striving to tell the world about its appeals while drawing on its rich natural setting and its distinctive history and culture as a town born of bengara and copper mining.