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.
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:
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:
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:
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!
1 Terry, T Philip, F.R.G.S. (1920). Terry’s Guide to the Japanese Empire. Houghton Mifflin Company, 635.
2 ibid, 636.
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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