By Makiko Tatebayashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOZU, Ehime — Walking through the cedar trees along the approach to a shrine, I turned onto a side road with the guidance of Akio Daigoshi, a member of Osukuna Shachu, a local group consisting of architects, neighbors and those who study local history.
As I walked up the gravel path, a building that looked like Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto suddenly appeared. Daigoshi, 59, said this trestle-like architecture is called kakezukuri. I was overwhelmed by the height of the pillars on which the shrine stood, some as high as 13 meters.
This was the Sanroden hall at Sukunahikona Shrine in Ozu, a city in southwestern Ehime Prefecture. I visited after hearing that the shrine had received the Award of Excellence in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in September 2016, giving recognition to the grassroots efforts of local people that had led to the restoration of this sacred place.
A local legend says the deity Sukunahikona no Mikoto is buried in Yanaseyama mountain, where the shrine is located. For that reason, for a long time it was known as a “forbidden mountain.”
It is said that Sukunahikona no Mikoto built the country of Japan together with Okuninushi no Mikoto. Because of his small size, Sukunahikona no Mikoto is also said to be the model of Issun Boshi, a Tom Thumb-like character in Japanese folklore.
The shrine was constructed across a period from the Meiji era (1868-1912) until the early Showa era (1926-1989), with facilities including a main hall, worship hall and the Sanroden hall.
However, the shrine fell into disrepair after the end of World War II as there were no parishioners maintaining it. The land surrounding Sanroden became dense with trees, and its roof and floor collapsed. As a result, demolition was even considered.
The Osukuna Shachu group became concerned about the situation and launched a committee to restore the shrine in 2012, thinking, “We’ll undertake the reconstruction if nobody else will.”
This initiative drew attention from the World Monuments Fund, a U.S.-based architects’ network, and was registered on the World Monuments Watch, the fund’s list of cultural heritage sites facing challenges or imminent threats. After that, the shrine received donations from inside Japan and abroad, and the restoration work was completed the following year.
The pillars supporting the shrine were made with hinoki cypress contributed by locals who owned mountain land. The members of Osukuna Shachu went into the mountains and selected trees that were growing straight. Children also took part in the log-peeling work.
“We were able to complete the reconstruction because we brought together whatever each person could contribute,” said Yutaka Kano, the 64-year-old representative of the group.
Climbing the hill to the Sanroden hall, I saw the shining surface of the Hijikawa river below me, running through the mountains of Shikoku.
Ozu was a castle town in the Ozu domain, which held a fief of 60,000 koku (10.8 million liters) of rice and thrived in the Hijikawa basin. An old townscape called “Iyo’s little Kyoto” remains, centered on Ozu Castle two kilometers down the Hijikawa river from the shrine. (Iyo is the old name of Ehime Prefecture.)
The tenshu castle tower of Ozu Castle was also restored in 2004 after 10 years of planning.
“About one-third of the total construction costs were covered by donations from Ozu citizens and people who grew up here,” said Toru Inoue, a 58-year-old city official responsible for the restoration of the castle.
Inoue used his day off to help me shoot some photos. As I spent half a day walking around, I noticed through the viewfinder of the camera how different the castle looked depending on the angle. The four-story tower was rebuilt with a traditional construction method in which no nails were used. It seemed like a natural fit with the townscape of the “little Kyoto.”
“I’m here to write a story,” I said to a passerby, who responded, “I appreciate you taking good care of the article on Ozu.” I could not help but think that the landscape of this town continues to be passed on because of the people’s deep affection for Ozu.
Cormorant fishing in summer
Ozu Machi no Eki Asamoya tourist complex, located in the central part of the city, has a free parking lot for tourists. Many people rent a car at Matsuyama Airport, visit the facility and stroll the streets preserved since the Edo period (1603-1867) and the Meiji era. Wherever you go, you reach places where you can see the Hijikawa river gently flowing by. Perhaps because of that, people in the city are often described as being easygoing. In the summer — from June to September — cormorant fishing is held. I heard that you can see cormorants catching ayu sweetfish up close if you take a yakatabune traditional boat.
About 1½ hours from Haneda Airport to Matsuyama Airport. Take a bus to JR Matsuyama Station, then take a 30- to 40-minute trip by express train to Iyo-Ozu Station. Sukunahikona Shrine is about 15 minutes from the station by taxi.
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