Ozu Castle breathes new life into a declining Japanese city

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(CNN) – A new Japanese hotel offers travelers a one-of-a-kind experience: live like a medieval lord in a real castle dungeon.

Ozu Castle, in Ozu City, Ehime Prefecture, is the first and only castle dungeon in Japan that allows travelers to stay overnight. With a history dating back to 1617, it is also one of the few remaining wooden castles in Japan.

But while turning Ozu Castle into a hotel is a remarkable achievement in itself, it’s actually part of a bigger mission: to revive a rural town in decline.

«Petit Kyoto»

Nicknamed the “Little Kyoto” of Iyo (the old name of Ehime Prefecture), Ozu is known for its scenic Hiji River, historic architecture, and the elegant four-story Ozu Castle.

Once a political center in the Edo period (1603-1868), it prospered during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods thanks to the production and trade of wax and silk.

But Ozu’s fortune, like many other rural towns in Japan, has plummeted in recent decades.

Since the 1950s, the city has experienced a significant demographic decline, dropping from 79,000 inhabitants in 1955 to around 42,000 in 2020.

“With that comes the closure of businesses and the abandonment of houses, which increases the chances of young people who leave to find better prospects,” explains Diego Cosa Fernandez, director of the research department in architecture and culture at Kita Management. , an offshoot of the city. Tourism and Town Planning Office.

“Without young couples, fewer children are born and the snowball grows. ”

Picturesque Ozu is famous for its 400 year old castle.

Gestion de Kita / Seki Co Ltd

Under these difficult circumstances, many homeowners decided to demolish their old homes due to a perceived lack of economic value.

“In most cases, the old houses have become wasteland or are used as parking lots,” Fernandez told CNN Travel. “There was a feeling among the locals that this trend should not continue. We had to do something.

Kita Management is now part of the solution.

An organization that strives to preserve old homes “which were disappearing at an alarming rate”, its team reuse them in a sustainable and respectful manner for the community.

Born and raised in Spain, Fernandez studied in Kyoto for a year after graduating with a degree in architecture in the early 2000s. He returned to Japan while working on his doctorate on “water, architecture and architecture. history ”in 2012. It was then that he came across Ozu.

“The region became the backbone of my research,” explains Fernandez, “Little by little, my local network grew.

“All over Japan, rural settlements – and the Japanese government – are trying to find the ‘magic’ formula, or the right policies, to stop the bleeding. We are part of this trial and error system. ”

Stay at Ozu Castle

The current Ozu Castle, with its recently opened accommodation option, has been reconstructed – which is why authorities allowed it to be turned into a hotel.

Japanese laws for the protection of cultural property include strict restrictions on alterations to tangible heritage buildings, including many of the country’s castles.

After the original structure of Ozu Castle was demolished in 1888, the city decided to rebuild their sorely missed symbol in the 1990s from the ruins – using wood instead of concrete.

One of the rooms in Ozu Castle.

Gestion de Kita / Seki Co Ltd

“Timber construction was several times more expensive and the post-war building law did not allow timber structures over 13 meters high,” Fernandez explains. “Ozu Keep is 19 meters high. ”

Ozu Castle opened for hotel guests in July, allowing them to enjoy the castle building in private after the door closed to public visitors at 5 p.m.

For the first year, only 30 stays will be allowed, with up to six people allowed on each stay.

The rate is one million yen (or $ 9,469) per night for two people – and 100,000 yen, or $ 946, for each additional person.

As the castle keep does not have shops, toilets or air conditioning, a luxury bathtub and adjoining living room has been built in a hidden corner of the grounds for hotel guests.

So, what is a stay at the castle like?

Upon arrival, guests – who can choose to dress in traditional kimonos and medieval warrior outfits – will be greeted by the sound of shell trumpets, waving flags, and a squadron of gunpowder.

They will then be treated to a local kagura, a traditional dance performance that is registered as an important intangible folk cultural good of Japan.

Dinner is served in one of the castle’s four turrets, followed by a moon-watching session with sake drinking and poetry recitation.

The turrets are original, having survived the last four centuries.

After spending the night in the grounds, you will have breakfast at Garyu Sanso, a historic cliff-side villa with a tea room overlooking the Hiji River.

Hôtel The Castle Town

But the Castle Hotel isn’t the only new accommodation option in town. The entire Nipponia Hotel Ozu Castle Town project includes several locations around Ozu.

Eleven other hotel rooms are located in three restored houses across town.

Inspired by the names of three ancient Ozu Lords, the houses – called SADA, OKI and TSUNE – each have an interesting history.

SADA was owned by a doctor at the start of the 20th century and could have been used as a clinic. It now serves as the reception of the resort and has a restaurant open to hotel guests and the public.

Hôtel Ozu Castle Town

The Nipponia Hotel Ozu Castle Town project also offers rooms in three beautifully restored houses.

Gestion de Kita / Seki Co Ltd

TSUNE was once occupied by a 400 year old restaurant which was left vacant in the early 1980s. It now has two rooms and a banquet and event hall.

“OKI is the gem among old homes,” adds Fernandez.

“It belonged to Murakami, a very wealthy industrialist who made his fortune producing Japanese wax. Oki was the primary residence, so they put a lot of effort into displaying their status. It is also one of the oldest residences still standing in Ozu. “

A stay in one of the castle townhouses starts at 17,000 yen ($ 160) per night.

While the first phase focuses only on hotel rooms, additional sites will open in the second phase, including a microbrewery.

“Our objective is to identify fragile houses, to convince the owner to rent them to us, to engage them in the renovation process, to find a suitable use (and a suitable tenant) and to keep them for 15 years”, specifies Fernandez.

After these 15 years, the renovated house will be returned to the original owners for them to decide whether or not to continue operating the business.

For the Spaniard, Ozu’s biggest draw is in its contrasting elements.

“There is a castle, Zen temples, beautiful shrines, teahouses, merchant houses, samurai residences, pottery, silks, Japanese washi and festivals,” he says.

“While beautiful, none of them deserve a superstar, but the set is charming and practical – and it’s packed a short distance away. It looks like a small, practical encyclopedia of Japanese art and history. “

How to get there: Ozu is located approximately 60 kilometers from Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture, and its airport.

Travelers can get to Ozu (Iyo-Ozu Station) from Matsuyama by bus (about an hour’s drive) or by multiple JR trains which take between 40 minutes (limited express train) and 2 hours (local train).

On weekends, a tourist train called Iyonada Monogatari runs between the two towns, traveling along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea.

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