Kotohira-gu Shrine

this location. Amazingly, the main shrine building seen on this image—built in 1877 (Meiji 10)—looks virtually exactly the same today. This is one of those relatively few places left in Japan where you can truly jump back into time.

Shikoku saw so few foreign visitors during the 19th century that Keeling’s Guide to Japan, published in 1890 (Meiji 23), didn’t even bother to mention the island. And even the much later published Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire (1920), virtually dismisses Shikoku, an area of almost 19,000 square kilometers (7,260 sq mi)! Actually the guide only mentions the island for the sake of Kotohira-gu. And even then as a quick day trip:

Okayama is one of the best points from which to visit the near-by Island of Shikoku, with Kotohira and its much venerated Kompira Shrine. The island as a whole is off the beaten track of travel, and it differs so little from more other and more accessible places that foreigners seldom feel repaid for a trip through it. Hurried travelers concerned with the Kompira Shrine can leave luggage in the inn at Okayama, board an early morning train, and be back in the evening.

Japanese thought quite differently about Shikoku. The island was well-known for the Shikoku Junrei (四国巡礼), a pilgrimage along 88 temples that winds all over the island. It was believed that these temples were visited by the Buddhist monk, and founder of Shingon Buddhism Kukai (空海, 774–835). Pilgrims basically followed his footsteps. Preferably in the opposite direction, so that during their pilgrimage they may run into the saint. The best English language book ever written about this pilgrimage is Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler(1985).

Although Kotohira-gu was not part of this pilgrimage, it managed to attract a huge number of pilgrims for its own sake. They were attracted by the shrine’s power to protect travelers, especially seafarers. So many pilgrims actually came here, that the nearby town of Kotohiro existed only to cater to these visitors. Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire delightfully describes this situation, bringing some of the atmosphere of a century ago back to life:

A number of inns cluster about the station and cater to the hordes of native visitors to the town and its sacred fanes. To reach the latter one turns up at the right and proceeds (5 min.) along the picturesque and cheerful main st. to a converging st. which ascends (right) between lines of balconied inns (Tora-ya, Bizen-ya, etc.) and beneath (in the summer) awnings which impart an Oriental aspect to it.
Here cluster scores of tiny shops with raucous barkers who essay to sell one all manner of gewgaws relating to the temples and their cult. Among the rubbishy souvenirs foreigners are pleadingly requested to take home with them are trumpet-shells and other symbols of Triton, chop-sticks made of the quasi-sacred Cleyera japonica, pilgrims’ staffs, gourds, rosaries, lacquered trays adorned with the temple crests, and potent charms (O-fuda) consisting of certain mt. herbs gathered and blessed by the priests.

Kotohira-gu is especially famous for its long climb up the mountain, 785 steps to the main and 1,368 to the inner shrine. Terry’s Guide doesn’t forget to mention the effect these steep steps, and the required rites performed here, have on the Japanese pilgrims:

The last 44 steps leading to the upper terrace are steepest of all. Here one may often see poor deluded old men and women, half naked and gasping for breath, running up and down the flight and performing (for the alleged merit secured) the rite called Hyaku-do. The wooden tickets, strung on the wires attached to the stone monument (with a turtle base) at the left of one of the landings, are used as markers in this laborious exercise. Formerly when hot rice-dumplings were offered as food to the bizarre bronze horse near the Ex-voto Hall, devotees were wont to scramble for the grains scattered about and gulp them down in the belief that O-Shaka-sama noted it and praised them therefor.

There is a nice background story to this image. Having never visited Kotohira-gu Shrine I was unable to recognize it. Unfortunately, the photo came without any identification. Additionally, it was difficult to determine if this was a shinto shrine or a buddhist temple as the buildings have aspects of both.

But when we carefully studied the enlarged scan, my assistant and I were able to make out a Japanese character on one of the buckets parked below the gallery. It was either 金 (kin; money, metal, gold) or 全 (zen; all, whole, complete).

So we did an elaborate search for all shrines and temples in Japan featuring either of these characters in their name. When we eventually checked the photographs of Kotohira-gu Shrine in Kagawa Prefecture, we discovered to our immense surprise and pleasure that it looks pretty much the same today as it did back in the 1880s. We were thereby able to positively identify the location of the image, and even the exact location where the photographer stood (see Google map below).

My assistant was so excited, she has now also fallen in love with this quest to discover the what, where and who of these amazing photographs. I hope that you will do so, too!

Authors: Kjeld Duits

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