Hiraizumi (7 February 2016)
After my rather successful tour of the snowy mountain villages of Toyama and Gifu, I made my way to busy, bustling Tokyo where I based myself for almost a week and explored some places reachable by the super useful shinkansen. The Japanese train network is absolutely awesome, especially if one is using one of the train passes.
I decided to try out Hiraizumi which is a little town in the Tohoku region in the northern part of Honshu. To reach there from Tokyo I had to travel about 2.5 hours by train with a change at Ichinoseki to the JR Tohoku Main Line.
Today’s Hiraizumi is but a little town of less than 8,000 people according to Wikipedia. During its golden age in the 1100s, Hiraizumi purportedly rivalled Kyoto in size and splendour. Its population at the time reached perhaps more than 100,000.
Hiraizumi’s importance at the time can be attributed to its being the base of the northern branch of the mighty Fujiwara clan. The town’s significance however collapsed along with the clan when the latter was brought down by the army of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the man who became the first Shogun of Japan. The local Fujiwara leader at the time had apparently committed the fatal mistake of giving refuge to Yorimoto’s brother and rival. Yorimoto came and razed the splendid city to the ground thus ending its golden age which had lasted almost 100 years.
A number of temples, or their remains, associated with Pure Land Buddhism still remain in the town and these are what make Hiraizumi somewhat significant again these days for tourists.
The most important historical temple in Hiraizumi must be Chusonji. The temple is said to have been founded in 850 AD but came to prominence and was rebuilt when the northern Fujiwara family moved to Hiraizumi. Only two structures of this temple from the Fujiwara period still remain today.
Chusonji is located on a forest-covered hill which is a 20-minute walk from the train station along the main street of town. On most days I would have welcomed the shade and thick greenery. But on this wintry day I would rather be baking under the sun. Hiraizumi was surprisingly colder than in the mountains of Toyama and Gifu. It was either the latitude or the day I had chosen to come here.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the historical structures remaining in Hiraizumi is the Konjikido located within Chusonji. This little gem of a hall is completely covered with gold leaf and decorated with gorgeous mother-of-pearl inlays, woodwork, metalwork, lacquerwork and paintings. The hall is only 8 metres tall and 5.5 metres wide and serves as a mausoleum for the first three local Fujiwara lords. Each tomb is marked by an altar with beautiful statues of Amida Buddha and bodhisattvas.
The Konjikido is today protected behind thick acrylic glass within a drab 20th century concrete building. Very unfortunately, photography of the Konjikido is not allowed.
The other only existing building of Chusonji that dates from the Fujiwara period is the Kyozo Hall which served as a sutra repository. This is however not as spectacular as the Konkijido although it predates the latter by 16 years.
Notwithstanding the cold, the hill was actually a lovely place for a light stroll. Besides the two Fujiwara period halls, the Chusonji complex also comprises a number of other quaint shrines and buildings all scattered around the hill and nestled between the trees.
It is not right to talk about the temples of Hiraizumi without mentioning Kinkeisan. This is a sacred mountain, although really a small hill about 100 metres in height, within the town and was used a reference point when deciding on the positioning and layout of the various Buddhist temples being built. The hill’s name refers to the golden cockerel believed to have been buried on its summit.
There had been illegal excavations decades ago to try to find the remains of the cockerel. No such remains were found. However, the excavation serendipitously uncovered various artefacts including some sutra containers. This implies that the hill was used as a sutra mound where sutras were buried. In Japanese Buddhism, burying sutras is carried out as a type of good deed. Such burials are usually carried out in sacred places such as on the top of a sacred mountain.
I tried to climb to the top of the hill to see if I could find anything. However, the snow and especially the ice on the paths made me abort my expedition before I could reach the top. I did not find the idea of slipping down the hill on the ice a pleasant one at all.
Walking back towards the train station from Kinkeisan brought me to two Pure Land gardens. These were in fact the reconstructed gardens of two former temples, the Kanjizaioin and Motsuji.
Pure Land gardens were popular in Japan during the Heian Period (794 to 1185). Building such a garden is an attempt to recreate the Buddhist concept of a pure land or in other words a Buddhist paradise. All pure land gardens contain a large pond as a centrepiece.
The Kanjizaioin is probably the lesser known of the two. In fact the valuable online resource “japan-guide.com” does not even make mention of this former temple. The remains of this temple, including the garden, are next to Motsuji.
Motsuji was supposedly more opulent than its neighbour. The grounds actually used to contain two separate temples, Enryuji and Kashoji. During its most glorious period, Motsuji apparently had forty buildings and enough quarters for five hundred monks.
Although there are some buildings in the garden, including a temple, all of them are not original and neither are they reconstructions of what had once stood there. Like the structures in Kanjizaioin, everything was burnt down either by man or nature and by the 13th century nothing was left.
There is actually a third ruined temple although this does not seem popular with tourists at all. Since I had plenty of time to burn, having finished all that I had wanted to see in Hiraizumi by about 2 pm, I decided to look for it.
Upon reaching the site that once stood Muryokoin, I understood why it was not promoted to tourists. There was really nothing to see except for a large pond that was not frozen solid in the frigid weather. Perhaps some remains of the old temple might still have been visible but the whole site other than the pond was covered by snow when I got there. Some works seem to be going on there as well.
Based on records, Muryokoin was apparently an imitation of Byodoin in Kyoto but on a larger scale.
I think that Hiraizumi is a place that one might visit if touring the Tohoku region. I am not sure that many people would do it as a day trip from Tokyo like I did. It is also a very small town and I would say half a day should be sufficient for most people to see it. But although little Hiraizumi is nowhere as showy as say Kyoto or even Nara, it is still a place I will say was worth my time and effort to get there, especially for the Konjikido. Despite all the attractions in Hiraizumi being gardens or in garden-like places, the snow actually gave them a special atmosphere.