Ohara ¥3 million shrine renovation — completed!

My trip has this time been planned to coincide with the biggest event of the year for Oharahama, the village where I stay. On the weekend of 16th July they will be holding their summer festival. And this year the festival also marks the completion of the renovation of their shrine, a project that the head of the village and I first discussed in early 2015.

This village used to be the summer home of Date Masamune, the founder of Sendai, and the shrine is more than 400 years old. Some of the residents here descend from samurai who were defeated by Date, but were permitted to live in this village and watch over his land. High on a hill, the shrine survived the tsunami, and provided a sanctuary for those able to climb the steep steps to safety. But the structures that form the shrine were very badly damaged during the earthquake. The steps leading up to the shrine were repaired in the weeks immediately following the earthquake — so important was it to the people here to be able to reach the spiritual heart of their community. The kanetsukido (bell tower) lay in pieces on the ground at the top of the steps when I first walked up them in May 2011, but thanks to the kindness of a New Zealander (William Hill) and his friends and family living in Tokyo, a brand new kanetsukido was built in summer 2014. It is, quite simply, a work of art.

But the main part of the shrine, and especially the back part of the shrine (shinden) that houses the place where you pray, has been slowly deteriorating. The shinden had to be covered in tarpaulin in an attempt to stop the rain pouring in and damaging the 400-year-old relics and pieces of art. It was becoming dangerous to cross the little “bridge” linking the front and the back of the shrine, and the people of Oharahama were very worried about losing this important part of their history, location of key rituals, and centre of their community because of the expense that repairing it would incur. During one of my usual “What does your community need?” conversations with Kucho-san on my last visit, he told me about the rapidly deteriorating shrine, which he estimated would cost about ¥3 million to repair. This was a lot of money and while I’ve managed to raise almost ¥4 million for the school uniforms, this was over a four-year period and contributions came from a number of sources. I wasn’t too confident about finding ¥3 million for a shrine but shared it with my Tohoku supporters network, nonetheless.

To my surprise, in stepped Robin Maynard. Robin is a British man I have known for many years, from the days when I was active in the British business community in Tokyo. We didn’t know each other very well until recently, but had mutual friends, and he had sponsored outfits for the Pink Ladies and maintained a keen interest in my Tohoku activities. He decided that he wanted to provide the entire \3 million to preserve the shrine. I was completely overwhelmed and thrilled to be able to share this news with Kucho-san. I don’t think he could believe it either.

I am always intrigued about what motivates people to commit to charitable projects, especially in respect of Oshika, and so when Robin visited me in Cirencester last summer to discuss the shrine refurbishment I grabbed the opportunity to find out more. With Robin’s permission, I want to share his fascinating story and attitude toward philanthropy with you. Robin has a history of being a quiet contributor to a variety of charitable endeavours, and those that embrace history, religion, and the spiritual are close to his heart.

Robin worked in Tokyo from the seventies until retirement just before the 2011 tsunami, and was an active member of the British business community. For 25 years he attended the annual Christmas Cracker fundraiser held at the British Embassy. He became a key sponsor during the last few years of the event, and this gave him a taste of the personal satisfaction that can come from supporting charitable endeavours. Upon retirement, he found himself with spare time, and two adult children in the UK who were financially independent. The savings he had put aside for them during all those years of hard work in Tokyo were not needed. And with a reluctance to allow his earnings to later “disappear into some government black hole” in the form of inheritance tax, he decided to seek out projects in his family members’ names; projects that were appealing to him personally and could be completed during his lifetime. He devised a long-term plan — a plan that would also allow him to give back to a country that had treated him well and provided 32 years of rewarding employment. Each project he would ultimately support had to include historical, religious, and spiritual elements.

The first project was in honour of his parents. Inside St. Mary’s Church in Fryerning village in the Essex countryside there is a plaque in memory of Robin’s parents. This church has a very special meaning to Robin — the cemetery is packed with his ancestors, including his parents who were married at the church. Robin was baptized there, and he sponsored the restoration of the base of the church tower and the war memorial.

In honour of his immediate and extended family members, Robin provided funds for the refurbishment of and improvements to Kids Earth Home Tohoku, Watari-gun, Miyagi-ken. This area was seriously affected by the 2011 disaster.

In honour of Robin’s son and immediate family, he became involved with “Japan400” — the 400th anniversary of Japan-UK official relationships. In 1613 King James I gifted a unique telescope to the very first shogun. Over time this telescope was lost and, as part of the Japan400 celebrations, Robin sponsored a large replacement telescope made out of brass by a Welsh craftsman. It was presented to Shizuoka City in the presence of a direct descendant of the shogun, and is now on permanent display at Sunpu Castle Museum.

One other project is on going, and is being dedicated to Robin’s daughter and immediate family. William Adams was the first English person to arrive in Japan, more than 400 years ago. In preparation for the 400th anniversary of Adams’ death, Robin is sponsoring the complete refurbishment of the William Adams memorial at Hirado, Nakasaki, and this project is due for completion in 2020.

When Robin came to hear of the Ohara shrine that was badly in need of repair, he felt that this was the perfect project to support, in honour of his Japanese wife and stepson.

The money was sent directly to the Oharahama shrine “council” early this year so the town could start planning the restoration, and three local carpenters began work last month. All materials have been sourced locally; so all money has stayed within the local economy. This week I visited the shrine with Kucho-san, to see what progress has been made. I was amazed to see that an entirely new shinden and “bridge” from the main room of the shrine to the shinden has been built, incorporating elements of the original shrine where possible. The 400-year-old relics are now protected in a brand new building, strong enough to withstand the harsh weather conditions, and to allow people to now safely enter the shinden in order to pray. The outside is modern but the inside is traditional, and the timing of the construction was carefully planned so that it would be completed in time for the matsuri on the weekend of 16th July. They finished yesterday, one week early.

I love Robin’s story. I love how he has combined his love for his family, a strong sense of community, a respect for spiritual beliefs, the importance of history, and a responsibility to “do good” when you find yourself in a position of being able to. I love how he has made philanthropy part of the larger canvas of his life.

And I love that next weekend, I will have the honour of escorting Robin and his wife around Oshika, as they join me in the village of Oharahama to celebrate the annual summer festival, and to celebrate the new shrine.

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