Oya: The town that turned to stone

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

It’s always good to know something about the ground under your feet when you visit a new destination.

Geology, in a very real sense, is the foundation of the former renown and wealth of Oya-machi, a town with the dimensions of a village in Tochigi Prefecture. Built on a plateau of Oya-ishi, or Oya stone, the village sees few commercial visitors these days, but for those with an interest in architecture and rock formations, the site has much to offer. A porous, easily cut stone created from lava and ash deposited over the area from a submarine volcanic eruption some 20 million years ago (give or take a few millennia).

Deposits of sand, pebbles and ash compacted into this volcanic rock that has become the leitmotif of Oya-machi. It may have seen better days, but the town has benefited to some extent from the absence of the kind of subterranean industrialization that would have left a film of dust over the area. Today, the town manages rather well on a mixture of agriculture and light, sustainable tourism. There are no business hotels in the area, few restaurants and cafes, but the town is gently animated by the activities of stone artisans and the gentle trickle of visitors.

Unlike the ruins of Petra or Leptis Magna, which represent the physical end of a civilization, Oya-machi represents the commercial and economic ruins of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

What is so startling about Oya-machi, from an architectural perspective, is that stone is the main material used in commercial buildings, storehouses, Buddhist statuary and even private residencies. These stone houses are more associated with the Mediterranean than Japan, and they reminded me a little of the 200-year-old home I once owned in the tiny French hamlet of Orival. A monument of a house, it was even resistant to the wicked winds of southern France.

On the bus to Oya-machi from Utsunomiya, I had seen several old storehouses, garden retaining walls and the facing of house foundations rendered in Oya stone. In Japan, there has always been some use of stone, most notably in the foundations and pillar supports of temples and ancient palaces, but also in its stone gardens and in the use of granite for early Meiji Era bridge construction. But to come across homes made of the stone is surprisingly rare.

Aesthetically speaking, there is a lot to be said for Oya stone. The rock can be cut into blocks and shaved, to create a smooth, flat surface that is highly finished, or it can be left in its natural state, which brings out its innate textural qualities. From the perspective of wabi-sabi — a Japanese aesthetic that values aging and erosion; the patina of imperfect, weathered surfaces — the stone acquires pleasing hues of blue, powdered green tea, or even mustard when it’s exposed to the elements. Zeolites (rust-colored minerals) within the stone, leach out of the rock, leaving interesting pockmarks and cavities.

I had already come across countless examples of Oya-ishi even before setting foot in the village, in the form of stone lanterns and water basins in countless Japanese gardens and paperweights in private home. Also, the walls of older homes in the Tokyo area and surrounds were often made from the stone. After noticing it just once, you’ll start to see it everywhere.

The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) took an immediate liking to the stone, famously electing — against the advice of Japanese architects — to incorporate it into his design for the main building of the Imperial Hotel in the Hibiya district of Tokyo. Wright planned to use it extensively for the lobby and facing of the hotel and the architect sent his assistant to Oya-machi to arrange for the terms of purchase and how to transport the rock. He was told that, given the large quantity of material required, it would be better for the American to buy the entire “mountain.” Wright visited the village and the arrangements were made.

The completed hotel, which survived the great 1923 earthquake — a vindication for Wright that the use of the stone was appropriate — was a huge success, but it was not without its detractors. In his 1932 travelogue “A Superficial Journey Through Tokyo and Peking,” English writer Peter Quennell, mocked the design, comparing it to a “modernist chest-of-drawers in stone and brick, the stone used being of a repellent porous type, pocked with large holes like a Gruyere cheese.”

Regretfully, the hotel did not survive Tokyo’s postwar development, falling victim, like so much else in the capital, to the vulgar, money-driven pragmatism of city planners. Wright must have liked the stone though, he went on to use it very effectively for the outside base facing of the Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan, a private girl’s school that has been sensitively preserved in its original location in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ikebukuro district.

Entering the town of Oya-machi itself, one of the most startling sights is the 27-meter-high Heiwa Kannon-zo (Kannon Peace Statue), a monumental figure cast in Oya stone, which looks antique but was actually cast in 1956. The deity’s androgynous nature is visible in the faintly swelling section of the upper torso, a detail, along with the head of the figure, that is best appreciated after climbing the steps to a viewing platform that provides a fine view of the area.

A rock defile (a narrow pass or gorge) to the right of the statue leads to Oya-ji Temple, a place of worship since the ninth century, when the priest Kobo Daishi founded it. Buddhist rock carvings and stone figures standing in alcoves add to the air of antiquity, but the most striking thing about the temple is its placement directly beneath a sheer rock face. Cleverly molded into the stone, the temple evokes images of ancient mountain temples in China.

It is a short walk from here to the Oya Shiryokan, a museum tracing the long history of the Oya stone, and how it was mined, often in appalling conditions, by the workers. Visitors can follow a shallow river as it carves a sinuous course beneath a Oya-ishi shelf on the way to the museum.

Sixty meters below the museum there is a hand-quarried subterranean cavern, covering a mind-scrambling 20,000 sq. meters, making it larger in volume than Tokyo Dome.

In a country where space is at a premium, this basement has served various functions over the years: a rice storage dump, exhibition hall, a place to cultivate mushrooms and during the war it was used to store ammunition. Concerts occasionally take place in the basement, but because of seismic activity and rock shifts following the earthquake on March 11, 2011, the museum is subject to periodic closures.

Oya-ishi has been quarried in the area for centuries, but because it is extracted underground, there are few traces of the type of landscape scarring associated with other forms of quarrying.

The village’s value as a travel destination rests on the isolated rock clusters and escarpments that seem to erupt from the earth, its sacred sites, and enduring architectural structures perfectly coordinated and stylistically consonant with the area. The village’s catchment area makes for a pleasant stroll among fields, kitchen gardens and old storehouses; a reminder that Oya-machi — once an industrial quarry — has, to some extent, reverted to its original rural character. Ultimately though, any trip to the region will be founded on its extraordinary bedrock.

Around 1,500 years ago, the rock was used to line the walls of burial chambers. Today, it is carved into ornamental garden frogs. Such are the imponderables of history.

Getting there: Travel from Ueno Station in Tokyo to Utsunomiya Station via Shinkansen or the local Utsunomiya Line. Buses run from outside the station to Oya-machi, a journey of about 20 minutes.