Imabari City is located in the northeastern part of Ehime Prefecture and the second most populated city in the prefecture after Matsuyama City. Besides being known for its shipbuilding industry and yakitori, do you know that Imabari is also Japan’s top producer of towels and that the Imabari towels are held in high regard for its quality? Read on to find out what makes their towels so famous and sought-after!
The towel-making industry at Imabari began in 1894 when an entrepreneur named Abe Heisuke who was in the cotton flannel business, saw the future potential of making towels in the city and set out to improve the cotton flannel machinery used in the production process. Together with his younger brother Mitsunosuke, the brothers contributed to the growth and development of the Imabari towel-making industry. At present, Imabari accounts for more than 60 percent of the towels domestically produced in Japan.
However, with the influx of cheaper towels from countries such as China and South Korea, this led to a trend of Imabari towel makers relocating their factories to China and major manufacturers such as Heisei Sangyo going bankrupt. Despite such challenges, the local towel manufacturers tried to improve the quality of their products and strengthen their branding. As part of efforts to support homegrown brands, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established the Towel Meister System which recognizes experts in this trade, administers the exams for the towel sommelier accreditation, and plays an active role in promoting the brand via mass media. Although the production volume of Imabari towels suffered a dip from the late 1990s, the situation took a turn for the better from 2010.
The number 1 feature of the Imabari towels is its absorbency. Typically, most towels will have to go through a couple of washes before it can absorb water well. In the case of the Imabari towels, they are made in such a way that even without washing, the towels will sink within 5 seconds upon placing them into water. As a result, this also allows the towels to dry very quickly and is gentle on the user’s skin.
Secondly, the softness of the towels is due to the use of high-quality cotton and threads which are not hard-twisted so this enables the softness to be maintained even after repeated uses and washing. The depilation rate of the towels is also low when compared to other towels which use shorter cotton fibers. Even when using towels in various colors, it is said that the color will not fade easily, thus it is less likely that your clothes will be stained when washing them together with the towels. This feature is said to be due to the use of soft underground water from Soja River and Mount Ishizuchi which contains very few heavy metals thus enabling the color dyes to remain in the towels and not hurt the human skin. As such, Imabari towels are suitable for use from babies to adults and are highly valued as gifts or for personal use.
As towels are an essential part of our daily lives, it is important to select the type which suits our needs. However, with such a wide variety of products available in the market and made in very different ways, it may be difficult for most consumers to make an informed choice. To most of us who are not well-versed in this area, we might think that there is little difference between the types of towels available in the market. Being a pioneer and leader in this industry, Imabari aims to nurture a batch of towel sommeliers who can give recommendations to the customers based on their living environment, health conditions, needs and usage purpose, and who can share valuable information on the differences between the products and how to use the towels the best way.
The towel sommelier exam was first administered in September 2007 and is the only exam in the world which aims to assess expertise in this area. It is held twice a year in April and September and candidates can take the exam in three cities i.e. Imabari, Tokyo, and Osaka. The exam tests candidates on their knowledge of the towel production process from the selection of materials to quality checking, how to bring out the quality of the towels through the use of specific materials, how to differentiate between the different types of towels and make suitable recommendations to customers based on their requirements. To date, a total of 2,307 people attained the towel sommelier accreditation which translates to a passing rate of 58.9% and suggests that it’s not as easy as it seems to pass this exam. It is also probably not a surprise that the candidates in Imabari have a higher overall passing rate of 65.5% given the city’s longstanding history in the trade.
If you are in Imabari, there are two places where you can buy the towels:
1. Imabari Towel Main Store
The store stocks the products from more than 100 local manufacturers along with other accredited items developed by the association of towel producers. In addition, as most of the staff here are towel sommeliers, you will be able to seek advice from them to find the best products suited for your needs. This store is open every day from 9 am to 6 pm except during the year-end and New Year holidays. If you plan to visit this store, it is recommended to take a taxi from JR Imabari Station (10 minutes) or Imabari Port (5 minutes).
2. Imabari International Hotel
This store is the second outlet to distribute Imabari towels and stocks about 700 types of products. The opening days and hours are about the same as the main store except that it closes an hour later. On their website (*Japanese only), the recommended ways of going to this store are by car or y taking the JR Yosan Line to Imabari Station before walking for 10 minutes.
If you are in Matsuyama City, you can visit the store in Matsuyama Airport’s Level 1 which is open every day from 7 am to 7 pm.
The only official store selling Imabari towels outside of Ehime Prefecture is at Minami Aoyama in Tokyo which is closed on the 2nd Tuesday of each month, the 2nd Sunday of August, the 3rd Sunday of February, and the year-end holidays. Opening hours are from 11 am to 7:30 pm. In order to get to this store, just take the A5 exit from the Omotesando Station and turn right before walking for another 5 minutes.
For those who are unable to get to the stores personally, you can visit their online shop (*Japanese only) to buy the Imabari towels. However, note that they only ship to addresses in Japan. As such, if you are traveling to Japan on holiday, you might wish to arrange for delivery to your hotel instead. There are four methods to search the wide array of products offered here i.e. by type of product, type of gift sets, price range, and by manufacturers. One of their services is to buy towels with words or names embroidered on them. As the cost of the embroidery service is dependent on the number of characters to be written, you will have to pay more if the word or name you want to add to your towel is rather long. Note that the embroidery service is not available at the Tokyo store.
Other than buying the Imabari towels, why not head to the following places to learn more about this local specialty from the city?
1. Imabari Towel Rekishi Shiryoshitsu
Imabari Towel Rekishi Shiryoshitsu (Imabari Towel Historical Records Room) is located on the first floor of the Imabari Towel Main Store and allows visitors to know all about the history of the Imabari towel-making industry from the Heian era to the present and how the towels are locally made. In addition, the actual machines used in the past for the production of the towels are also displayed. There is no entrance fee and opening hours are the same as per the main store. If you wish to take part in the guided tour, you will need to make a reservation at least one day in advance through this online inquiry form (*Japanese only).
2. Imabari Towel Kouboukan
The Imabari Towel Kouboukan (Imabari Towel Craft Center) is located in the annex of the Texport building which houses the main store and was renewed in April 2012. You can see the knitting machines used to make the towels and observe the production process up close here. Opening hours are the same as the main store. Similarly, if you wish to ask about the guided tours, you can use the same inquiry form as mentioned above.
3. Towel Bijutsukan ICHIHIRO
As the name suggests, the Towel Bijutsukan ICHIHIRO (Towel Art Museum ICHIHIRO) features artwork made from towels and related items such as cotton. It was opened on 29 April 2000 by ICHIHIRO, a local towel maker but the original name of the museum then was Towel Bijutsukan ASAKURA since it was located at Asakura Village. With the merger of several towns and cities including Asakura Village to form Imabari City in 2005, the name of the museum was then changed to what it is today.
The museum is housed in a 5-storey building spanning 33,000 square meters. If you do not plan to visit the galleries, entry to the museum building is free of charge. However, if you wish to view the exhibitions, the entrance fee will be 800 yen for adults, 600 yen for junior and senior high students, and 400 yen for primary school students. For now, the two permanent exhibitions are Matano Atsuko’s towel art collection and World of Moomin; while the special feature exhibition running from 12 May until 6 September of 2016 is Kathy Nakashima’s Quilt no Sekai (World of Quilt). Besides the artwork made from towels, there are exhibits showing how the cotton flowers become threads to be used in the towel-making process. Do check the website of the museum before your visit to check what special feature exhibition is being held at that particular time.
Within the museum’s grounds, there is also a European-style garden which can be rented to host weddings. As you walk around in the garden, you can see a variety of flowers and plants such as narcissus, gardenia, lilac, rose, lavender, tsubaki, sakura, lemon, mimosa, plum, dahlia, and blueberry. Bronze statues of Moomin characters are also spread all over the garden. Depending on the season of your visit, you will be treated to different views of the garden.
In case you feel hungry and thirsty during your visit, there are three places for refreshments i.e. Chinese restaurant Wang Fu Jing, the museum cafe which serves light snacks and desserts, and the garden cafe where you can have flavored shaved ice as featured in the photo above, ice cream, and drinks while admiring the scenery. This season is probably the best time to enjoy these cool treats in such a beautiful setting.
Of course, this being a Towel Museum, you can buy Imabari towels along with other exhibition-related merchandise in the stores here. If you wish to add your names to the towels sold at the museum, you can head to the craft shop on the third floor for the embroidery services. In the museum, there is a store which sells signature products such as seafood and confectionery from the Shikoku region and a marche which sells French food. Alternatively, if you wish to buy the Imabari towel products from the online museum store (*Japanese only), there is an ongoing promotion that waives the delivery charge if you purchase more than 5,400 yen worth of products in one order.
To get to this museum, the recommended way is via a 25-minute taxi ride from Imabari Station or by car. The museum is open every day from 9:30 am to 6 pm except for the weekends and public holidays when the closing time is extended to 8 pm.
Having read so much about the Imabari towels, are you ready to give them a try and see if they really are as good as reputed? If you happen to be in Imabari, do check out the tourist attractions related to the towel-making trade as well!