Kotohira-gu, Kagawa Prefecture

Shikoku, 1880s
Kotohira-gu Shrine

Artist Unknown
Publisher Unknown
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Shikoku
Image No. 90415-0015
Purchase Digital File
Author

A very rare photo of Kotohira-gu, a Shinto shrine popularly known as Konpira-san, in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. It is popularly known as Konpira-san.

Few foreign visitors made it to Shikoku and Kagawa Prefecture during the late 19th century. As tinted photographs were usually produced for and purchased by foreign visitors, it is quite special that such an image exists of 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.

Kotohira-gu, Kagawa Prefecture
Kotohira-gu, popularly known as Konpira-san, as it looks today. Credit: 663highland.

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-gu1. 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 situation2, 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 steps3, 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 therefore.

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.

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!

see current map

Notes

1 Terry, T Philip, F.R.G.S. (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire. Houghton Mifflin Company, 635.

2 ibid, 636.

3 ibid.

Published
Updated

Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Shikoku, 1880s: Kotohira-gu Shrine, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on January 29, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/831/kotohira-gu-shrine

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Add Comment

Konpira-gu is the second shrine I have seen in Japan. Since, I have seen dozens, but it is still one of my favorite if not my favorite. Thanks for this great article.

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(Author)

Thanks, David. I guess I should have asked you about the location. ^_-

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We visited this Shrine earlier this year. It is located on the northern part of Shikoku Island. It is a walk to remember. When you get to the top, you know it. This region is also famous for their Udon. We attended an Udon making class at the bottom of the hill, before the climb. It is fun and you get to eat the Udon you make, Japanese style. I will be posting pictures of this climb on my blog. Although the shrine is on top of a hill, it is dedicated to mariner’s who have lost their lives to the sea. It is touching. It is also famous for the many Samurai who have visited there and left their weapons in tribute to those who have lost their lives. The Shrine also looks exactly like it does today as in these pictures from the 1880’s.

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(Author)

@Tony: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It was actually because the shrine still looks exactly the same today that we were able to place this photo. There were no captions or explanations when I bought it. Wonderful to know that a few things in Japan have not changed. ^_-

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My wife is from Shikoku and it is off the beaten path. Her hometown of Matsuyama boasts the oldest Onsen in Japan and Dogo Onsen has a seperate private chamber for the Imperial family. Although it has not been visited since Emperor Hirohito. The Onsen proudly has tours of the interior where the Emperor would enjoy the especially hot waters of Dogo Onsen.

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I forgot to mention, that the Kotohira is home to Japan’s oldest Kabuki theater, still in use. After the climb to the Konpira Shrine, it seems like a walk to find it but it is worth the visit and tour. The tour takes you behind the scenes in a Japanese Kabuki theater. You see how the actors descend upon the stage from above and ascend on the stage from below. Underneath the stage you see the revolving floor and how it works. Definately worth the visit of you seeing the Shrine.

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(Author)

@Tony: Thank you for sharing, Tony. I was not aware that Matsuyama boasts the oldest Onsen in Japan, that Dogo Onsen has a seperate private chamber for the Imperial family and that Kotohira is home to Japan’s oldest Kabuki theater. Glad to discover that I’m not too old to learn new things. ^_- I would love to visit the Kabuki theater!

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Dear friends,

for those of you who followed Farsari’s story, or who are interested in early modern japanese photography, or who simply are bound to be in Tokyo in February/March, here’s the link of an exhibition soon to be opened at the Italian Cultural Institute:
http://www.iictokyo.esteri.it/IIC_Tokyo/webform/SchedaEvento.aspx?id=504

Best,

Elena Dal Pra

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The shrine pictures are gorgeous!

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you cant simply just make this a single page?

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