The cultural and political center of the Tohoku area in the 11th and 12th centuries; most of the buildings that once formed the powerful town were destroyed, still leaving some attractive things for the visitors...
Hiraizumi was once, and for a brief time, the political and cultural center of the Tohoku area, rivaling even Kyoto with its wealth of ornate Buddhist monasteries. It was also the stronghold of the Fujiwara clan, whose power once threatened the central government of western Japan in the 11th and 12th centuries. The power struggles of the Fujiwaras are celebrated in many well-known legends, dramas, and poems, and Hiraizumi remains an interesting reminder of the history of that era.
Once a large and thriving cultural center, Hiraizumi today is just a small rural town in a pleasantly wooded setting, and most of the thousands of temples and noble houses once surrounding it were destroyed or abandoned after the Fujiwaras were defeated. But a few splendid temples, monasteries, and gardens remain or have been restored, and there are many historical sites and monuments to be seen, as well as nice countryside and some large old farmhouses.
I chose Hiraizumi as my one stopover en route to Hokkaido, after reading Exploring Tohoku; I stayed three days and I was not disappointed. Still, while the area is relaxingly rural and the scenery is nice, it is largely of historical and cultural interest, and the main temples see plenty of tourists in season. Hira-izumi means 'flat springs'.
In 789 the Imperial Government constructed a small fort in this area, on the Koromo-gawa river where it enters the Kitakami River, as a base for the conquest of the Ezo tribes in Tohoku. By this time the original Fujiwara clan had already risen to positions of great power in the ancient imperial courts of Nara and later, Kyoto. They married their daughters into the imperial line and became regents and advisors with as much power as the Emperors, and often more.
By the mid-11th century (hmmm, a mere three hundred years later) the power of the Fujiwaras was diminished by the rise of more militaristic clans who forced the emperors and their gentrified regents into the roles of powerless figureheads at a mainly ceremonial court in Kyoto. The most powerful of these clans were the Minamoto and the Taira -- also known by their "nicknames" the Genji and the Heike. (The Taira were themselves an early offshoot of the original Fujiwara clan.) The rivalry of these two warring clans provides material for many of the historical dramas of this era.
As much as a snub as a reward, the Fujiwaras were granted official dominion over most of Tohoku, where they already held some local power. With their decline in the capital, and the corruption of the Buddhist sects in Kyoto by military powers, the Fujiwaras turned their energies to building up an alternate cultural center around their isolated country home near Hiraizumi, in what was then called Mutsu Province. With the great wealth they had accumulated over the centuries, they founded and enlarged magnificent temples and monasteries, beginning in 1105. Their culture was to be one of peace and piety.
Within three generations, the wealthy Fujiwaras had created a magnificent cultural center to rival Kyoto. Built on Chinese designs, it was filled with glorious temples, dripping in gold and filled with master works of art. It attracted and patronized many of the finest artists and people of religion and learning.
In 1185, the Minamoto clan finally defeated the Taira at Dan-no-ura, and Yoritomo Minamoto set up the first Shogunate in Kamakura, southwest of present-day Tokyo. This was a militaristic government that held power above the titular emperors in Kyoto, who they themselves installed. But Yoritomo feared his powerful brother, the warrior Yoshitsune Minamoto, and endeavored to have him killed. Yoshitsune fled to Hiraizumi to take asylum with his old friends the Fujiwaras. The diminutive Yoshitsune and his equally famous side-kick Benkei are the heroes of numerous legends and Kabuki dramas.
In 1189, after the death of the third great Fujiwara lord of this period, his son Yasuhira was persuaded to betray Yoshitsune, and led Minamoto forces to attack his stronghold at nearby Takadachi Castle. The first great battle ended with Yoshitsune killing his family before taking his own life. Benkei fought valiantly to the very end, dying in a hail of arrows, or by his own hand, depending on the legend.
[Picture (clickable): 'Benkei at the Bridge', paper-cut art by Shoto Kimura.]
In the unexpected battles that followed, Yasuhira Fujiwara was rewarded for his treachery by having Yoritomo's armies turn against him, resulting in the Minomoto's long-anticipated annihilation of the ancient Fujiwara clan. Yasuhira, the last of the powerful Fujiwaras, was beheaded. What was not destroyed of the great cultural center at Hiraizumi fell into disuse and was abandoned by all but the most pious Buddhists clerics.
When the poet Basho visited Hiraizumi on his personal pilgrimage five centuries later, there was little left to be seen of the power and the glory of the great Fujiwara clan. This -- and not the great 1600 battlefield of Seki-ga-hara, as is sometimes reported -- was the inspiration for his most famous haiku poem "Natsu Kusa" (Summer Grasses). My translation:
Oh, the summer grasses --
Are all that remain
Of all the young warriors' dreams.
natsu kusa ya!
yume no ato
There are two main temple complexes and numerous lesser historical sites within bicycling distance of Hiraizumi station and the small town around it. If you don't mind walking a few miles, you can see them all just as pleasantly on foot with a little extra time. You could run through the highlights in one full day, but since it's a pleasant area with several other natural sights, it's worth relaxing for a couple of nights here -- or I wouldn't have recommended it. Bicycles can be rented in front of the station.
Opening hours : 8:30-17:00 daily (from 5 Nov. to 4 April: 8:30-16:30)
Entry fee : 500 yen (garden and museum)
Address : Osawa, Hiraizumi, Iwate 029-4102
Link : www.motsuji.or.jp/english
Motsu-ji temple is a large and rambling monastery complex just a kilometer (8 to 10 minutes walk) from town, straight ahead from the station. Founded as a small temple in 850, it reached its glory in 1105 when the Fujiwaras turned it into a vast monastery complex of the newly popular Pure Land Buddhist sect. It had over 500 buildings and 40 pagodas, but what little is left today was all reconstructed around 1909. It continues to operate as a fair-sized monastery.
An exception is the large and more-or-less original Heian Period Jodo (Pure Land, 浄土園) landscape garden, built around the large Oizumi Pond and several forested hills. The grounds are quite pleasant and shelter a few little shrines and temples as well. Near the present main temple is a stone monument to the poet Basho, with his famous poem (above) inscribed in flowing script. Another monument not far away claims to be the grave of Benkei, Yoshitsune's loyal priest-warrior who is remembered in legend as something of a Falstaff--Friar Tuck character.
Opening hours : 8:00-17:00 daily (from 11 Nov. to 31 March: 8:30-16:30)
Entry fee : 800 yen
Link : www.chusonji.or.jp
(in Japanese only)
About two or three kilometers north down the tree-lined road is the gateway to the much-revered Chuson-ji
Temple complex, which is built atop a high hill. Frequent buses also stop at the foot of the hill. From there it is a fifteen minute walk up through the ancient forest to the temple grounds. Along the way are various curio shops, but also some nice tea houses, shrines, and lovely views over the surrounding countryside.
Chuson-ji holds a number of national treasures that are well worth seeing. Of the forty buildings in the original complex, founded in 1105, two rare originals still remain. The Golden Hall (Konjiki-do
, 金色堂) was Japan's first designated National Treasure. It is a small square building whose exterior is completely covered in beautiful black lacquer, with inlays of mother-of-pearl (from Okinawa) and panels of pure gold leaf. It is sometimes called the Hall of Light (Hikari-do).
In 1288, Japan's rulers had the foresight to construct a sheltering wooden building around it, with a tile roof. This original shelter is also now preserved as a revered relic, enclosing only the original foundation stones of the Golden Hall. Basho wrote:
All June's rainy days
Have left untouched the Hall of Light
In beauty still ablaze.
Or something like that. In 1962 the Golden Hall was moved a few yards, inside of its new concrete shelter, built to look somewhat traditional. This gives the visitor room to view the outside as well as the inside of the Golden Hall.
If you thought the outside was beautiful, the inside of the Golden Hall dazzles the eyes with ornate gold, lacquer, bronze, and mother-of-pearl panels, pillars, beams, and ornaments. The ceiling seems to be of pure gold, and there are three blazing gold altars with many Buddhist statues. The Golden Hall took 15 years of labor before completion in 1124. It has been restored a couple of times, but most of what you see is original or repaired with authentic materials. You can only look inside the small hall from the outside, and if you are not lucky, there could be a few hundred other people in the line with you.
The remains of the three great Fujiwara lords of this period used to rest beneath the altars, but their coffins have been removed to the Sanko-zo
(Treasury of the Three Lords). This museum contains a number of other beautiful Heian Period ornaments, many from the Golden Hall. These include intricate lacquered bronze hanging decorations, jewelry, swords, statues, scrolls, and sutras, some of them written in gold and silver. The head of Yasuhira, the forth and last, but less-than-great Fujiwara lord is also said to have been kept under the altar, after it was sent for display to Yoritomo. An admission is charged for the Golden Hall, which includes entry to the Sanko-zo museum.
Even older than the Golden Hall is the Sutra Hall (Kyozo
) which once housed 5,000 Buddhist sutra scrolls. Built in 1108 or 1109, its upper floor was destroyed in a fire in 1337. The original ornate octagonal altar and several of the remaining sutras and sutra boxes are on display in the Sanko-zo.
Also on the grounds of Chuson-ji is a nicely restored outdoor Noh stage with beautifully painted wooden panels as a backdrop. Traditional plays are staged here several times a year. Other buildings include the Main Temple Hall, the archive hall, and various smaller temples and shrines, including a small temple to Benkei on the path up.
I've spent a lot of ink on these temples and treasures, so a small disclaimer. I know that you would enjoy them if you got there, but I'm not sure every tourist would find them worthy of a special trip to Tohoku, given the number of other beautiful temples and shrines in Japan. However, this is an interesting historical area to visit, and the temples are a special bonus.
The remains of Yoshitsune's Takadachi Castle are on a hill across the road just before you get to the Chuson-ji gate. Now there is a small Buddhist hall there, called the Gikei-do. Along the road, and all around the general area are the marked sites of ruined temples, halls, residences and another castle or two. Most of them have been claimed by the summer grasses and the winter snows.
In the nearby area are two river gorges which I did not visit, but which can be reached by bus or car. Gembikei Gorge (猊鼻渓)
is west of Ichinoseki and is filled with numerous waterfalls; you can walk through it. There is also a hot-springs here, and several inns. The Geibikei Gorge
is east of Ichinoseki and is much larger. In fact, you can take a float trip through the gorge in small boats, which my Lonely Planet book speaks of glowingly. Sorry I missed it.
There are a couple of other hot-springs in the area, including Shinyu
, both of which have lodgings. I haven't seen them.
Well, it is a long way from down-town Japan, but nowadays Hiraizumi can be reached in three hours or so by bullet train from Tokyo. From either Tokyo or Ueno stations in Tokyo take the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) a little over two and a half hours (at near-light speeds) to Ichi-no-seki (一の関) station, just 9 kilometers south of Hiraizumi. Note that some of the trains do not stop at Ichi-no-seki, and you will have to change at Sendai to one that does, or turn around and come back from Morioka! Buying a reserved seat on a specific train would solve this problem if you're in doubt.
From there you can continue by local train or regular bus to Hiraizumi. The train is easiest since you can buy just one ticket all the way through from Tokyo; it's the second stop north and takes eight minutes. But you can also get sight-seeing buses at Ichinoseki that stop off at Geibikei and Gembikei Gorges on the way to Hiraizumi. By car, take the Tohoku Expressway to the Hiraizumi - Maezawa interchange, just on the north side of town.
The next main stop on the bullet train north is Morioka city (盛岡). But I decided to get there on the little local train out of Hiraizumi, and enjoyed the slower ride through interesting countryside, with quite different fellow travelers. I spent a night in Morioka and found it a pleasant and informal city. The only special place I visited was the Ho-on-ji Zen temple which was quite interesting, but there are dozens of temples around town. (I also visited a traditional drinking house, and sampled the local wanko-soba noodles).
Staying in Hiraizumi:
There is a simple and reasonably priced inn, the Tabeshine-so
, just behind the Chuson-ji temple at the top of the hill (tel 0191-46-2326). It's a long way to haul all your gear up -- remember that it's 3 kilometers from Hiraizumi town to the foot of this hill -- but it will be very quiet to walk around the temples and forest in the mornings and evenings. There is a standard Youth Hostel inside the Motsu-ji temple complex (about a kilometer from town), and also a campground near the road between the two temples. There is also a Kokumin Shukusha
with 27 rooms near the Koromogawa battleground, several miles north of town (tel 0191-46-2131).
Just out of the little Hiraizumi railway station, there are several inns in the small town itself. I stayed at the Shirayama Ryokan
, which was very pleasant and with an atmosphere and price more like a minshuku (nine rooms; tel 0191-46-2883). They had good local food, which also seemed to draw some local residents for dinner. Local dishes you might expect to get at any good inn are mountain vegetables (zansai), hand-made wanko soba (noodles), mochi (rice cakes), tororo soba (mountain potato noodles), and natto (fermented soy beans), in various combinations.
Wikitravel also gives a YH address : Motsuji YH (tel 0191-46-2331, link
). Definitely the most interesting place to stay in Hiraizumi, this youth hostel is located on the grounds of Motsuji and run by the temple itself. From July to September, you can even sample zen meditation in the mornings — if you're willing to wake up at 6 AM! Dorm bed ¥2940/3540 for HI member/non-member, private Japanese-style room ¥4410/person, optional breakfast ¥630. Entry to the temple grounds and the museum is free for guests.
Like many other sites in Japan, this area would like to be registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They have a web site
JNTO has also a pdf guide
on the area (including Sendai)
This text was published on Randy Johnson's Favorite Getaways In Rural Japan, which is probably the most comprehensive guide for serious travelers in Japan. Reproduced with the permission of the author.