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Safeguarding Japan's Ryokan Tradition

In July 2020, torrential rains on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan caused major flooding and landslides resulting in more than 8o casualties and destroying approximately 6,000 buildings. Another 12,000 buildings were partially damaged by the floods. In Hitoyoshi, a city in the Kumamoto Prefecture, the damage was particularly severe. Among the most seriously impacted buildings was the Hitoyoshi Ryokan. 

Built in 1934, the Hitoyoshi Ryokan is a historic Japanese hot spring inn where people go to unwind while enjoying elaborate traditional dinners and spa amenities. Ryokans are a place that locals treasure both as an escape and as a reminder of past traditions. 

Hitoyoshi City flooded by the Kuma river, July 2020.
Hitoyoshi City flooded by the Kuma river, July 2020.

During the Kuma River flood, the Hitoyoshi Ryokan was submerged, with water levels reaching the ground floor ceilings and mud overtaking much of the building. The building was in imminent danger of total collapse. 

Local students from the Kuma Technical High School in Hitoyoshi, unique for its architecture course in which students learn traditional Japanese carpentry techniques, rushed to save the site. Soon a total of 20 architecture majors were volunteering to remove mud, lifting entire buckets by hand and taking them away with wheelbarrows. 

Among those working hard to save the site was Ms. Isoda, a local architect and member of the Kumamoto Machinami Trust (KMT). Ms. Isoda had recently completed an architectural survey of the Hitoyoshi Ryokan as a model example of the traditional Japanese inn. There was no question in her mind that the inn must be saved. 

Students manually clearing mud in the Hitoyoshi Ryokan, Sept. 2020.
Students manually clearing mud in the Hitoyoshi Ryokan, Sept. 2020.

Ms. Isoda alerted KMT to the tragic story of Hitoyoshi Ryokan and convinced KMT President, Mr. Ito, to get involved. “Ms. Isoda is a long-time member of KMT, and we decided to help her rescue efforts in Hitoyoshi,” Mr. Ito told WMF, “There was no local group powerful enough to ensure the preservation of Hitoyoshi.”

But the deeper reason for KMT’s involvement in the project is much simpler. “It is this emotion, or love, for the place that pushes us to help Hitoyoshi recover from the damage of the flood - for me, and for other people too,” explained Mr. Ito. 

Mr. Ito nominated the Hitoyoshi Ryokan for support from World Monuments Fund’s Crisis Response Program, created to provide resources for early recovery actions at sites damaged by crises. The $10,000 CRF grant, announced on September 2 by WMF, is currently supporting the implementation of emergency works at the Inn, including mud removal and disinfection, which are significantly costly despite all the volunteer work. 

What is it about Hitoyoshi which inspires this kind of action, we asked Mr. Ito. “Hitoyoshi Ryokan evokes a nostalgic feeling in Japanese people for the good old days,” he answered. “It doesn’t only keep the traditional Japanese building style alive, with its skillful carpentry and its beauty as an old Japanese wooden building, it also keeps the old Japanese lifestyle alive, if only for a few days’ sojourn.”

 

Photos of current work at the site courtesy of KMT and Ms. Satomi Horio, owner of the Hitoyoshi Ryokan.