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"Holy water" becomes life line after pair of Japan quakes

ASO, Japan - A 1,700-year-old Shinto shrine in southern Japan remains a place of moral support after two deadly earthquakes struck the region, despite being heavily damaged itself.

Aso Shrine's iconic wooden gate lies mangled on the ground. The main prayer hall is tilted, and other buildings with sweeping tiled roofs have pancaked to the earth.

"I was so shocked," the shrine's senior priest, Hiroaki Uchimura, said Sunday.

Uchimura had rushed from his house behind the shrine to check on the damage after a magnitude-7.3 earthquake early Saturday morning.

"I still don't know what to do," he said.

Since the quake, which followed another strong one on Thursday night, people who live nearby have come to pray, make donations and, perhaps most important, collect the spring water that pours out from bamboo pipes on the shrine compound. Many households in the area have lost running water and electricity.

Daiji Matsunaga, an 80-year-old rice farmer, came with a pair of large plastic containers to fill with water he considers sacred.

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"This is holy water," he said. "So I will only use this to cook rice and make green tea. To wash my face or wipe my body, I can use river water."

Aso Shrine, designated by the government as one of Japan's important cultural assets, is a popular tourist spot near Mount Aso, an active volcano.

Uchimura didn't hear the giant gate collapse after the quake struck, because furniture was rattling and dishes were smashing on the floor of his home.

As he approached the shrine, he saw that it wasn't the familiar shape that he knew.

"It's so unfortunate that this shrine ended up this way when the people need it the most," he said.

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