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BY ASAKO MIYASAKA THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

2010/06/18

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photoThe Oya Stone Museum is located in the remains of an underground mine where fighter planes were once built. (SHINOBU IKAZAKI)

The old Imperial Hotel was designed by the great American 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Located in Tokyo's Hibiya district, it was completed in 1923. For building material, Wright chose Oya stone from Tochigi Prefecture.

It is said that Wright wanted to bring out light and shade by crafting a complex uneven surface and that he chose Oya stone because of its softness and many colors. Oya stone became famous overnight as the beautiful stone in the Imperial Hotel and for its fireproof qualities. The Great Kanto Earthquake struck on the day of the celebrations for the completion of the Imperial Hotel, but the building survived.

The central entrance of Wright's Imperial Hotel has been moved to the Museum Meiji-mura in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture. Small and large stones in the pillars and walls are arranged in geometric patterns. The carved stone catches the light, creating artistic expressions.

I turned my footsteps toward the home of these stones, the town of Oya in Utsunomiya.

Here and there along the road from JR Utsunomiya Station can be seen beautifully formed buildings made of Oya stone, such as the Romanesque Matsugamine Catholic Church and St. John's Church, Utsunomiya, which also has a kindergarten. The walls and storehouses of private homes are also wonderful works of stone.

"In the old days, night and day without ceasing, trucks went by loaded with Oya stone," said Kazusuke Tomuro, 68, director of a local stone industry association, speaking wistfully of the past.

Oya stone was formed 20 million years ago, when ash from the eruption of a seabed volcano solidified in the seawater.

It is only found in an area 4 kilometers east-west by 6 kilometers north-south around Oya, but there are reserves of some 600 million tons.

In the reconstruction period after World War II, it was used to build stone walls and housing complexes throughout Japan. In the 1970s, about 120 companies mined nearly 900,000 tons a year. But demand plummeted when concrete became popular. Now 12 companies mine only about 24,000 tons a year. Cave-ins as a result of underground mining accelerated the decline.

Recently, however, people have started to take another look at the qualities of Oya stone. The Oya Stone Museum, which offers public tours of the remains of an underground mine, is one example. The museum is located in a huge cavern. During the war, this cavern was used as a military storehouse. It was also used as a secret underground factory for Nakajima Aircraft Co. Zero fighters were built there. The average temperature is 8 degrees. In the silent darkness, light reflects mysteriously from the scars left from digging by hand and machine.

Museum director, Yasuo Tateno, 56, says, "Here, time has stopped since the workers left. It seems to fascinate modern people, who are afraid that if they stand still, they will fall behind the times. We have many repeat visitors."

The cavern has good acoustics, so it is used for concerts and for making films and for DVDs for singers. It is also a popular place for storing fruit and ham and for aging sake and wine. Oya stone is also reputed to contain minerals that emit negative ions, which are said to be good for health. There are an increasing number of orders for interior finishing materials for nursing care facilities.

As my journey ended, I enjoyed some fancy food made from local produce in the Ishi-no-kura restaurant. As its name suggests, the restaurant is in a former Oya stone storehouse.

An industrial legacy is being transformed into something new. The attraction of Oya stone is expanding in new directions.

* * *

JR Utsunomiya Station is about 50 minutes from Tokyo Station by Tohoku Shinkansen. It takes around 85 minutes from Ueno Station by JR Utsunomiya Line rapid train and about 100 minutes from Asakusa Station by Tobu Railway.

Oya can be reached in 30 minutes by bus from JR Utsunomiya Station. (www.city.utsunomiya.tochigi.jp)

Oya Stone Museum is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; closed Thursdays (except when Thursday falls on a holiday, and during August); 600 yen ($6.50) for adults; (www.oya909.co.jp)

Japanese restaurant Ishi-no-kura is open 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; near Utsunomiya Station; (www.ishi-no-kura.jp)

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