Travel through the more rural areas of the Kanto plain and you’ll see building after building made from light grey, pitted, stonework bricks hewn from the Oya quarry. Farm walls, store houses, torii (shrine gates),
Beginning in the eighth century, miners realised that the stone found in Oya Town was light, easy to work, and retained heat well yet was fireproof. Thus, they began mining in earnest, giving the area around the town a distinctive look to its architecture.
The two biggest (literally) and most impressive tourist attractions are the statue of Kannon and the Oya History Museum. The two features are located very close to each other and are both worth an afternoon of your time.
The Oya Stone Mine and Oya History Museum
Photo: elminium on FlickrThe Oya Stone Mine is an impressive site. The man-made cavern is 60 meters deep in some parts and maintains a cool 8 degrees during most of the summer months. This makes it an ideal storage place for beer and sake and, in fact, parts of the mine are still used for just this purpose. During the war years, the wide, open spaces of the mine were used as a hidden aircraft manufacturing plant, and, much more recently, the mine has been used as a concert hall for Irish singer Enya.
There is a small historical museum above the mine that provides interesting notes about Oya and its stone – several tools and bits of kit are displayed as well as a model of the mine and an exhibition of how architect Frank Lloyd Wright used the material in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. But it is the descent into the mine that will most occupy your time and thoughts.
The mine is impressive in its size, scale, and darkness. Although bright lanterns are placed every few meters, the gloom is immersive. Both the ceiling and the lower depths are lost in darkness even after your eyes have adjusted to the conditions. The curators of the museum have made good use of both the space and the gloom to install small exhibitions of both historical artifacts and modern artworks. Lit by blue and red lights, each piece is left to its own in the corners and nooks made by decades of stone removal. Context is provided by discreet placards in Japanese.
Entrance to the museum and mine is 800 yen for adults, 400 yen for school children, and 700 yen per adult/350 yen per child in groups of 20 or more. (But see note about discounts below.) Also a brief English language pamphlet is provided.
One caution – the mine is, literally, cavernous and this means there are lots of steps up and down. In addition, because of the temperature differences between the inside and outside of the mine, it can be quite slick with condensation, so good walking shoes should be worn.
The Oya-ji Temple and Heiwa Kannon
Photo: SunToad on FlickrJust around the corner from the museum sits the ninth century Oya-ji Temple. Carved directly into the base of a cliff, the temple has several carved figures inside and a lovely garden nearby. The garden features a white snake (made of stone, of course) that is meant to bring prosperity to all who touch it.
Photo: Lacrymosa on FlickrAnd, of course, there is the 27 meter tall statue of Buddhist deity Kannon. Walk back from the temple, past the two souvenir shops (lots of Oya stone frogs, tanuki, and garden lanterns) and through the cliffs onto a broad plaza and you’ll see the statue just to your right. A broad stairway will take you to a small viewing platform just behind the head of the statue which has a nice view of the temple grounds.
The plaza in front of in the statue is a broad, beautifully sculpted park and rest area. It is an idea place for a picnic, or just to stop for a few minutes to rest. A long, stone causeway leads back to a spacious, free public parking area and there are clean, free public toilets as well.
Getting to Oya from Utsunomiya is as simple as taking the number 45 bus to the Oyakannonmae stop. Alternately, it is an easy drive down Oya-kaido in Utsunomiya.
Save Money with the Discount All-in-one Pass
If you are taking the bus from Utsunomiya to Oya and plan to visit both the Kannon statue and the Oya History Museum, you can save at least 420 yen by purchasing the Oya Tourist Day Pass. This pass includes entrance to both your destinations, unlimited bus travel for the day between Utsunomiya Station and the Oya History Museum, plus discounts at a variety of restaurants and shops. The pass can be purchased for 1680 yen from the ticket center a minute's walk from the west exit of Utsunomiya Station. The ticket center is open from 7:30 on weekdays, and from 8:00 on weekends. Call 82-634-4182 for more information.