Kotohira-gū (琴平宮), Kotohira’s star attraction, is usually known as Kompira-san. It’s a venerable shrine, dating back to at least the tenth century, but award-winning contemporary steel and glass buildings designed by Suzuki Ryoji lend a modern edge to the mainly wooden hillside complex, reached via 785 steps. You’ll see many people huffing and puffing on the lower slopes beside the tourist shops, but the climb is not so strenuous and shouldn’t take you more than thirty minutes.
The shrine grounds begin at the Ō-mon, a stone gateway just beyond which you’ll pass the Gonin Byakushō – five red-painted stalls shaded by large white umbrellas. The souvenir sellers here stand in for the five farmers who were once allowed to hawk their wares in the shrine precincts. Further along to the right of the main walkway, lined with stone lanterns, are three small museums housing different collections of the shrine’s artistic treasures: the Hōmotsu-kan (宝物館), the Gakugei Sankō-kan (学芸参考館) and the Takahashi Yuichi-kan (高橋由一館). Only the latter, displaying the striking paintings of the nineteenth-century artist Takahashi Yuichi, is really worth the entrance fee.
Before climbing to the shrine’s next stage, look left of the steps to see a giant gold ship’s propeller, a gift from a local shipbuilder. To the right is the entrance to the serene reception hall Omote Shoin (表書院), built in 1659. Delicate screen paintings and decorated door panels by the celebrated artist Okyo Maruyama (1733–95) are classified as Important Cultural Assets; they’re so precious you have to peer through glass into the dim interiors to see them. At the rear of the complex is a series of wall-panel paintings of crimson camellias by local artist Takubo Kyoji.
Returning to the main ascent, the next major building reached is the grand Asahi-no-Yashiro (Sunshine Shrine) dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, decorated with intricate woodcarvings of flora and fauna and topped with a green copper roof. Two flights of steep steps lead from here to the thatched-roof Hon-gū, the main shrine, built in 1879 and the centre of Kompira-san’s daily activities. Priests and their acolytes in traditional robes rustle by along a raised wooden corridor linking the shrine buildings. Many visitors stop here, but the hardy, and truly faithful, trudge on up a further 583 steps to the Oku-sha following a path to the left of the main shrine. When you reach this inner shrine, located almost at the top of Zozu-san, look up at the rocks on the left to see two rather cartoonish stone carvings of the demon Tengu.
From the main shrine area, head to the wooden platforms for magnificent views of the surrounding countryside – on a clear day you can see as far as the Inland Sea. To the left of the main shrine is the open-air Ema-dō gallery, which displays votive plaques, paintings and models of ships. These are from sailors who hope to be granted good favour on the seas. The commendations extend to one from Japan’s first cosmonaut, a TV journalist who was a paying passenger on a Russian Soyuz launch in 1990.
Kompira-san is one of only two places in Japan (the other is Kyoto) where you can see the ancient sport of kemari performed. Deemed an Intangible Cultural Property, this ninth-century forerunner of soccer is played by the shrine’s monks on May 5, July 7 and in late December.