Yamatsumi-jinja (Yamatsumi Shrine), stands in Iitate, an area evacuated after the nuclear disaster, which former residents are able to return to from today, March 31st 2017.
Even before the reopening of the town, there were lots of people working in the village during the day, and a few ponies hanging about too, as I found during a visit last December!
Yamatsumi Shrine, said to have been built during the Heian era (794 – 1185), has had a strong association with the worship of wolves or wolf gods, as part of the Shinto faith, for over 100 years.
At the end of the Meiji era (1868-1912), the ceiling of the shrine was decorated with over 200 square panels, each 40 cm by 40 cm in length, painted with a unique design of a wolf.
After the disaster, the top priest of the shrine couldn’t bear to abandon the shrine, and returned to Iitate every day during the day time so that those who wished to could worship there.
Just over two years after 3.11, in April 2013, tragedy struck once again and the shrine was badly damaged by a fire. Prior to the accident, the top priest and his wife had likely been staying nearby the shrine to avoid having to return to their temporary housing every day.
Not only was the worship hall severely damaged, but the painted panels were burnt beyond recognition.
Although the source of the fire hasn’t been officially recognised, it is thought that the fact that no fire departments were no longer in operation anywhere near the area – due to the evacuation – meant that the response to the fire was a lot slower than it could have been.
As fate would have it, two months before the fire, photographer Simon Wearne had taken detailed photographs of every painted panel as part of research being undertaken by a professor at Wakayama University.
The main worship hall was rebuilt in June 2015, and in the months that followed, post-graduate students from Tokyo University of the Arts painstakingly recreated the 242 panels using the photographers taken by Simon Wearne as reference.
Every single panel is different, and painted with extreme care to ensure its resemblance to the original. After their completion, they were displayed at a gallery, before being placed back inside the shrine’s main hall in November 2016.
When I went to visit the shrine one month later in December, a priest at the shrine explained how many of the original residents of Iitate didn’t realise about the shrine’s beautiful ceiling. Compared to the dusty and weather-torn panels which had found their home inside the shrine for around 100 years, the new panels are bright and eye-catching.
I was certainly fascinated by the beauty and attention-to-detail which must have been necessary to recreate the ceiling so accurately. I was also very happy to meet a cat which has adopted the shrine as his new home. One other thing that surprised me about Yamatsumi Shrine was how many people were around, worshipping in the main area, chatting to the priest or taking photographs.
When I visited the shrine, the majority of Iitate was either being categorised as a “Restricted Residency” zone or an “Evacuation Order Cancellation Preparation” zone. This means that former residents were not allowed to stay the night, but could visit during the day. Even so, seeing so many people visiting the shrine as you would expect of a place of worship in any area of Japan, surprised me.
I’m not trying to imply that life in Iitate will go on just as it did pre-3.11 after today’s evacuation order dissolution. However, this shrine is a symbol of the village’s conviction to continuing their traditions and passing on their local legacies. I’m sure that it will continue to be a place of faith and community and a source of strength for many generations to come.