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Legendary temple in Kusatsu seeks funds for restoration through crowdfunding

Ashiura Kannon Temple in the city of Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, was full of visitors on Nov. 23, when it opened to the public for the first time this year.

Inside, a sign was displayed soliciting donations for repairs to the roof, which has deteriorated from years of exposure to the weather.

The centuries-old temple, designated nationally as an Important Cultural Property, is in need of restoration — the roofs of Amidado Hall and the Shoin Building in particular — prompting local volunteers to launch a crowdfunding campaign.

But the move also highlights a wider discussion of how to preserve local historical assets, which can be costly.

According to the municipal government, it will cost ¥150 million or more to restore the building, given that restoration work would require special materials and techniques that are expensive. The number of craftsmen with the skills to do such work is decreasing in Japan and labor costs are rising.

Even if the temple owner received subsidies from the national, prefectural and municipal governments, it would still have to pay ¥10 million or more from its own pocket.

About 40 years ago, the temple paid about ¥5 million to replace the roof.

“We can’t afford to spend money every time,” said Yoshihiro Kitagawa, 71, chairman of the association for preservation of the temple. “Nevertheless, we want to maintain the temple so that people can be proud to have Ashiura Kannon Temple in their hometown.”

The history of the temple dates back to the Asuka Period (592-710). The temple is said to have been founded by Shotoku Taishi, the imperial prince credited with establishing Japan’s first central government in 603, and built by Hata no Kawakatsu, said to be the brains behind the prince.

The current temple was rebuilt in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) by Kanga, a monk from Fukanji Temple in Kyoto, as a Tendai sect temple. Under the rule of feudal lords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the temple served as a “boat magistrate,” a local authority that managed traffic on Lake Biwa.

The surrounding moat and stone walls give the temple a castle-like appearance. The Amida Hall is said to have been moved from Fukanji, and the Shoin Building is thought to have been transferred from Nagahara Goten in Yasu, Shiga Prefecture, which was used as an accommodation when past shoguns visited Kyoto during the Edo Period (1603-1868).

In order to protect this precious piece of historical heritage, the priest and a group of volunteer citizens launched a restoration group in August, promoting the temple nationwide to raise funds.

In late October, they launched a campaign on a website called Campfire. On the day the campaign was launched, members of Kusatsu’s tourist volunteer guide association showed participants around the temple and city officials handed out flyers and other materials calling for donations. One of the citizens voiced support to help pass on Kusatsu’s history.

As of Nov. 25, the group had collected about ¥1.5 million. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2023 at the earliest, but the funds raised are still far short of the group’s first-year target, set at ¥3 million. The group is planning to continue soliciting donations until Jan. 11.

People who have donated will be able to receive special tickets to visit the Amida Hall, which is undergoing reconstruction works, and postcards of the temple.

“I feel that it has become difficult to pass on local history, as we hadn’t been able to open the temple to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Mamoru Takeuchi, 72, one of the temple’s parishioners and a key member of the restoration group.

“I want as many people as possible to learn about the temple and support it,” added Takeuchi.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Nov. 28.

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