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The Sugimoto Residence: Preserving Kyoto and Its Heritage

Amid Kyoto's rich cultural heritage, the Sugimoto Residence emphasizes fire prevention after a comprehensive roof replacement, a testament to preserving history.



The Sugimoto Residence after the roof replacement work on the main building. Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto City. (©Sankei by Naoko Yamagami)

I recently visited the quaint kitchen of a centuries-old Kyoto machiya (townhouse) and was greeted by a familiar sight. There, I found the enduring presence of the ofuda, or talisman, as it has stood for generations. 

The streets of Kyoto are adorned with the ubiquitous hinoyojin talisman from the revered Atago Shrine. Meanwhile, nestled in Shimogyo Ward, the Sugimoto Residence, a designated Important Cultural Property, upholds its own unique tradition.

Here, a homemade talisman graces the walls, its image imprinted on washi paper using a woodblock from 1865.

Those familiar with the Bakumatsu era likely know its significance in the final years of the Edo period, leading to the Tokugawa shogunate's downfall. This residence, destroyed during the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion in 1864, was rebuilt in 1870. Since then, fire prevention and disaster preparedness have become guiding principles for the household.

The roof of the Sugimoto Residence. (©Sankei by Naoko Yamagami)

Fear of Fire

Hidetaro Sugimoto (1931-2015), the former owner and ninth head of the household, expressed his fears in his essay, "Hinoyojin." He revealed: "I have a particular fear of fires, earthquakes, and typhoons."

Sugimoto was also a renowned essayist. His work "Rakuchu Seisoku," which documents his daily life in Kyoto, is acclaimed as a masterpiece. This sentiment undoubtedly echoes deeply within these walls.

The Sugimoto Residence bears the weight of preserving Kyoto's architectural and living traditions. Amid the city's famous narrow facades, colloquially dubbed "eel beds," this residence stands out. Spanning approximately 30 meters (98 feet), it has earned the title of the largest machiya in Kyoto.

A recent press conference celebrated the completion of the first complete roof replacement since the Meiji era. In the kitchen's hashiriniwa aisle, an old-fashioned okudosan (stove) still stands beneath a hinoyojin talisman. As I gazed up, I pondered the rich history passed down through the Meiji, Taisho, Showa, Heisei, and Reiwa eras.


An Intriguing History

What is intriguing, however, is Sugimoto's claim that "Kyoto was a city with few major fires." While Kyoto may have differed in size and population from Edo (modern-day Tokyo), some argue it faced fewer large-scale fires.

From the An'ei Fire (1177) to the Onin War (1467), Kyoto remained free of major fires. This is despite enduring crises like the Genpei War. "Hinoyojin" underscores this:

"Emperor Go-Shirakawa harbored a profound fear of fire, taking thorough precautions to protect Kyoto from warfare. His fear of fire likely influenced the strategic expulsion of Kiso Yoshinaka and Minamoto no Yoshitsune from the city. However, this is simply my interpretation."

The emperor, wielding supreme authority, crafted strategies to avoid the horrors of war. This sentiment, resonating across eras and nations, highlights the pivotal role of political leaders in determining the extent of warfare.

Representative Director Chiyoko Sugimoto of the Naraya Memorial Sugimoto Residence Preservation Society at a press conference after the major roof construction. (©Sankei by Naoko Yamagami)

Later, significant fires ravaged the capital, including the 1708 Hoei and 1788 Tenmei fires. Both caused extensive damage to the Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle. These fires, sparked by battles during the Choshu Domain's military incursion into Kyoto, earned the monikers "Don-don Burn" or "Gunshot Burn."

Of course, the causes of fires are not limited to warfare. They may arise from accidents, arson, or disasters like earthquakes. Events like the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the recent Noto Peninsula Earthquake are stark reminders of their terrifying consequences.

The Power of the Private Sector

Furthermore, it marks a year since the relocation of the Agency for Cultural Affairs to Kyoto. Locally, there has been a notable surge in officials and staff participating in festivals and events.

At the recent Cultural Affairs Council General Meeting in Kyoto, reports highlighted extensive damage from the Noto Peninsula Earthquake. Approximately 400 cultural properties and 125 facilities, including 57 national treasures, were affected. In response, the Agency initiated emergency preservation measures and financial aid. It also launched the Cultural Heritage Supporters initiative, utilizing crowdfunding for earthquake repairs.

I also discovered that the Sugimoto Residence restoration project, costing over ¥200 million JPY (about $1.3 million USD), received 80% of its funding from the national treasury. The remainder was primarily sourced through crowdfunding efforts. This illustrates the growing importance of grassroots support in preserving cultural heritage. In a nation vulnerable to disasters, collective compassion proves a powerful cultural strength.



(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Naoko Yamagami, The Sankei Shimbun