Photo/IllutrationA staff member representing Kato Sadayasu enters Ozu Castle in Ehime Prefecture on Nov. 8, where overnight guests will be welcome from as early as next spring. (Takumi Terui)

  • Photo/Illustraion

OZU, Ehime Prefecture--Centuries-old Ozu Castle here is opening its doors to overnight guests from spring, complete with a gun-salute welcome, traditional dance performance and gourmet meal.

The castle stay program, set to start as early as April, costs at least 1 million yen ($9,200) per night in the donjon and mainly targets wealthy visitors from overseas, allowing the VIPs to experience being a castle lord.

The Ozu city government is proceeding with a project to promote the area around the castle by renovating traditional buildings and houses into hotels and other facilities. The donjon stay package is the main attraction of the plan.

In a demonstration on Nov. 8-9, a staff member representing Kato Sadayasu (1580-1623), the lord of the Ozu domain, entered the castle grounds on a white horse with a musket troop firing a salute.

A local group performed the city’s traditional Kawabeshimekagura dance in front of the donjon, while a group including “enka” ballad singer Natsuko Godai, who promotes local tourism, dined on locally produced beef, rice and other specialties at the “koranyagura” turret designated by the central government as an important cultural property.

Under the plan, guests will be allowed to spend a night on the first floor at the donjon.

Representatives from the Cabinet Office and the Japan Tourism Agency were also in attendance at the demo, as the government is calling for municipalities across the nation to make castles available for guests to attract sightseers from abroad.

In line with the move, Hirado Castle in Nagasaki Prefecture is expected to offer overnight stays next summer.

“Castles can be appealing to visitors from abroad,” said Atsuya Kawada, head of the tourism agency’s sightseeing resource division. “I expect Ozu Castle to pave the way for castle stays, as efforts are being made to revitalize the castle town.”

HURDLES AHEAD

Another purpose of the demonstration is to examine whether it is possible to utilize the castle for business purposes without damaging the value of the structure.

Jun Tarikino, president of Value Management Co. in Osaka’s Kita Ward, which is working with Ozu city on the castle stay program, emphasizes that “the appearance of the castle will be preserved as it currently is for posterity.”

No renovation work is planned for the core part of the castle. While a dedicated "bathroom truck" will be parked beside the castle, a bath facility will be introduced at the “ninomaru” outer area.

Ozu Castle will be available for stays on up to 30 days annually in spring and autumn under the plan.

However, there are some concerns about the stay initiative.

Tsuneo Murakami, an Ozu city assemblyman, has doubts about the project, as 520 million yen of the 1.3 billion yen cost to rebuild the four-story wooden donjon in 2004 was received from donations from across the country.

“The castle is a symbol of the city that should be enjoyed by everyone,” said Murakami. “Should certain people be allowed to use it freely simply because they pay a fee?”

Murakami also argued that the municipality should “strengthen its education program to fully convey the value of the castle to future generations.”

Another challenge is fire prevention, as much of the famed Shuri-jo castle in Okinawa Prefecture was gutted by a blaze in late October. Guests at Ozu Castle will be prohibited from smoking, with permanent staff on patrol at night during such stays.

Despite these challenges, Hajime Muranaka, an official in Ozu city’s tourism and development division, stressed the significance of the project.

“The most important thing is to preserve the castle and castle town,” said Muranaka. “To raise maintenance funds even when the population is shrinking, we have to take on challenges to expand the scope of use of the cultural property.”