Ozu Castle breathes new life into fading rural Japan town

A new Japanese hotel offers travelers the first kind of experience - to live like a medieval god in a real palace.

Ozu Castle breathes new life into fading rural Japan town

Ozu Fort in Ehime Prefecture The city of Ozu is the first and only fort in Japan to allow overnight travelers. With a history of 1617, it is one of the few remaining timbers in Japan.

Although the transformation of Ozu Fort into a hotel is a great achievement, in reality, it is part of a larger mission - to revive the shrinking rural town.

'Little Kyoto'

Known as the "Little Kyoto" (ancient name for the Ehime Prefecture) of Oo, Ozu is famous for its beautiful Haji River, historic architecture and elegant four-story Ozu Fort.

Once a political center in the Edo era (1603–1868), it is credited with the production and trade of wax and silk during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods.

Taisho (1912-1926) periods.

Like many other rural towns in Japan in recent decades, Ozu's fortunes have dropped significantly.

Since the 1950s, the city has seen a sharp decline in population, from 79,000 inhabitants in 1955 to 42,000 in 2020.

"With this businesses will close and homes will be vacated, which will find better opportunities for young people," the Bureau of Tourism and City Planning said.

"Younger couples crunch, fewer children are born, and the snowball is bigger."

Under these trying circumstances, many landlords decided to demolish their old houses due to a lack of financial value.

"In most cases, the former houses are vacant or used as parking lots," Fernandez told CNN Travel. "There's a feeling among the local people that this should not be a practice. Something needs to be done."

Kita becomes part of the Om solution.

An organization working to preserve old homes that are "disappearing at a terrible rate" its team constantly and respectfully reintroduces them to the community.

Ozu Castle breathes new life into fading rural Japan town

Born and raised in Spain, Fernandez studied architecture in Kyoto for a year after completing his degree in architecture in the early 2000s. He returned to Japan in 2012 to pursue a Ph.D. in Water, Architecture, and History. Then Ozu stumbled upon it.

“This field has become the backbone of my research,” Fernandez said, adding, “My local the network has expanded a little.

Ozu Castle breathes new life into fading rural Japan town

"Across Japan, rural settlements - and the Japanese government - are trying to come up with a 'magic' formula or the right approach to stop the bleeding. We are part of this trial and error plan."

Stay at Oju Fort

The current Ozu Castle has been re-grouped’ with the newly opened accommodation option - explaining why the authorities allowed it to be converted into a hotel.

Japan's laws for the protection of cultural property have strict restrictions on the conversion of clear heritage buildings, including palaces in the country.

After the demolition of the original Ozu Fortress in 1888, in the 1990s the city decided to recreate its ancient monument, using wood instead of concrete from the ruins.

“Timber construction is many times more expensive and post-war construction law does not allow timber structures to be higher than 13 meters,” Fernandez said. "Ozu Funnel 19 meters high."

After lobbying for national ministries, Ozu finally agreed in 2004 to build and rebuild the timber.

Ozu Castle opened its doors to hotel guests in July, allowing guests to enjoy the castle construction privately after the gate closed to public visitors at 5 p.m.

For the first year, only 30 migrations are allowed’ with a maximum of six guests per stay.

The rate is one million yen (or, 9,469) per night for two guests - and 100,000 yen or 46,946 for each additional guest.

 Since there are no shops in the palace, toilets or air conditioning, a luxury bath and attached lounge are built’ in the hidden corner of the complex for hotel guests.

So what does the palace-like to live in?

Upon arrival, guests - dressed in traditional kimonos and medieval warriors costumes - are greeted’ with the sound of shell trumpets, waving flying flags and ammunition squadrons.

They are treated’ to a local kagura, a traditional dance performance recorded as an important unfinished folk cultural asset of Japan.

Dinner will be served’ in one of the four towers of the palace complex, followed by a drinking scene with poems and poetry readings.

The towers are original and have survived for the last four centuries.

After spending the night at the compound, guests will have breakfast at Gary Sano, a historic reef with a teahouse with a view of the Haji River.

Castle Town Hotel
But the Castle Hotel is not the only new accommodation option in the city. The entire Nippon Hotel Ozu Castle Town project includes several locations around Ozu.

Another 11 hotel rooms are scattered in three restored homes across the city.

The houses inspired by the names of the three ancient Oju lords - known as SADA, OKI and TSUNE - each have an interesting story.

SADA was owned’ by a physician in the early 20th century and can be used as a clinic. It now serves as a desk in front of the hotel complex and the hotel has a restaurant open to guests and the public.

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

“OKI is an ornament among old houses,” Fernandez said.

"It belongs to Murakami. He was a very wealthy industrialist, earning a fortune producing Japanese wax. He made many efforts to demonstrate his status as Oki's main residence. It is one of the oldest residences still in Oju."

Overnight stay at one of the Palace Townhouses starts at 17,000 Yen ($ 160).

The first phase will focus on hotel rooms only, while the second phase will open additional stages, which will include a microbrewery.

"Our goal is to identify fragile homes, lease them out to the owner, engage them in renovation processes, find suitable use (and suitable tenants) and keep them for 15 years," Fernandez said.

After 15 years, the rebuilt house will be returned’ to their original owners, who will decide whether to continue the business.

"Finally, we aim to create a more livable city center where young couples can move to jobs, bars and cafes because they have food and sleeping nurseries for their children. Take care of attractive homes - and residents decide to stay for the same reasons," Fernandez said. .

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

"There is a palace, Zen temples, fine temples, tea houses, merchant houses, samurai residences, pottery making, silk making, Japanese washi making and festivals," he said.

"Beautiful, none of them may deserve superstardom but the ensemble is attractive and comfortable - and it's just a short distance away. It's like a small or simple encyclopedia of Japanese art and history."


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