Explore Northern Honshu
For a brief period in the eleventh century the temples of HIRAIZUMI (平泉), around 120km north of Sendai and now a quiet backwater, rivalled even Kyoto in their magnificence. Though the majority of monasteries and palaces have since been lost, the gloriously extravagant Konjiki-dō and the other treasures of Chūson-ji temple bear witness to the area’s former wealth and level of artistic accomplishment. Hiraizumi also boasts one of Japan’s best-preserved Heian-period gardens at Mōtsū-ji, while a boat ride along the nearby Satetsu-gawa, between the towering cliffs of Geibikei gorge, provides a scenic contrast.
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine Hiraizumi as the resplendent capital of the Fujiwara clan, who chose this spot on the banks of the Kitakami-gawa for their “paradise on earth”. At first sight it’s a rather dozy little town on a busy main road, but the low western hills conceal one of the most important sights in northern Honshū, the gilded Konjiki-dō, which has somehow survived war, fire and natural decay for nearly nine hundred years. You can easily cover this and the nearby gardens of Mōtsū-ji in a day, staying either in Hiraizumi or Ichinoseki, or even as a half-day stopover while travelling between Sendai and Morioka.
In the early twelfth century, Fujiwara Kiyohira, the clan’s first lord, began building a vast complex of Buddhist temples and palaces, lavishly decorated with gold from the local mines, in what is now Hiraizumi. Eventually, the Fujiwara’s wealth and military might started to worry the southern warlord Minamoto Yoritomo, who was in the throes of establishing the Kamakura shogunate. Yoritomo’s valiant brother, Yoshitsune, had previously trained with the warrior monks of Hiraizumi, so when Yoritomo turned against him, Yoshitsune fled north. Though at first he was protected by the Fujiwara, they soon betrayed him on the promise of a sizeable reward, and in 1189 Yoshitsune committed suicide (although according to one legend he escaped to Mongolia, where he resurfaced as Genghis Khan). Meanwhile, Yoritomo attacked the Fujiwara, destroying their temples and leaving the town to crumble into ruin. Bashō, passing through Hiraizumi five hundred years after Yoshitsune’s death, caught the mood in one of his famous haiku: “The summer grass, ’tis all that’s left of ancient warriors’ dreams.”
The flight of Yoshitsune to Hiraizumi is commemorated with a costume parade during the town’s main spring festival (May 1–5), which also features open-air nō performances at Chūson-ji. Other important events include an ancient sacred dance, Ennen-no-Mai, held by torchlight at Mōtsū-ji on January 20, May 5 and during the autumn festival (Nov 1–3).Read More
The Fujiwara’s first building projects concentrated on Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which had been founded by a Tendai priest from Kyoto in the mid-ninth century. Of the temple’s forty original buildings, only two remain: Konjiki-dō (the Golden Hall) and the nearby sutra repository, Kyōzō. They sit on a forested hilltop, alongside a number of more recent structures, on the main bus route north from Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi stations (20min and 5min respectively).
From the main road, a broad avenue leads uphill past minor temples sheltering under towering cryptomeria trees, until you reach the first building of any size, the Hon-dō, at the top on the right-hand side. A few minutes further on, set back on the left, a concrete hall shelters Chūson-ji’s greatest treasure. The Konjiki-dō (金色堂) is tiny – only 5.5 square metres – and protected behind plate glass, but it’s still an extraordinary sight. The whole structure, bar the roof tiles, gleams with thick gold leaf, while the altar inside is smothered in mother-of-pearl inlay and delicate, gilded copper friezes set against dark, burnished lacquer. The altar’s central image is of Amida Nyorai, flanked by a host of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and guardian kings, all swathed in gold. This extravagant gesture of faith and power took fifteen years to complete and was unveiled in 1124; later, the mummified bodies of the four Fujiwara lords were buried under its altar.
Behind the Konjiki-dō, the second of Chūson-ji’s original buildings, the Kyōzō, is not nearly so dramatic. This small, plain hall, erected in 1108, used to house more than five thousand Buddhist sutras written in gold or silver characters on rich, indigo paper. The hall next door to the Kyōzō was built in 1288 to shelter the Konjiki-dō – and now houses an eclectic collection of oil paintings – while, across the way, there’s a much more recent nō stage where outdoor performances are held in summer by firelight (Aug 14), and during Hiraizumi’s two major festivals in spring and autumn. Finally, the road beside the entrance to the Konjiki-dō leads to the modern Sankōzō (讃衡蔵), a museum containing what remains of Chūson-ji’s treasures. The most valuable items are a statue of the Senju Kannon (Thousand-Armed Goddess of Mercy), a number of sutra scrolls and a unique collection of lacy metalwork decorations (kalavinkas), which originally hung in the Konjiki-dō.
Hiraizumi’s other main sight, the Heian-period gardens of Mōtsū-ji (毛越寺), lies eight minutes’ walk west from Hiraizumi Station. In the twelfth century the Fujiwara added to this temple, originally founded in 850, until it was the largest in northern Honshū. Nothing remains now save a few foundation stones and Japan’s best-preserved Heian garden, the Jōdo-teien. The garden’s main feature is a large lake, speckled with symbolic “islands”, in the midst of velvet lawns. There are a few simple buildings among the trees and ancient foundation stones, but otherwise the garden is simply a pleasant place to stroll. You’ll find flowers in bloom in almost every season, including cherry blossom, lotus, bush clover and azaleas, but the most spectacular display is in late June, when thirty thousand irises burst into colour. As you leave the temple gate, pop into the small museum on the left, which is most of interest for its photos of Mōtsū-ji’s colourful festivals, including the sacred Ennen-no-Mai dance, and a poetry-writing contest in Heian-period dress, which takes place on the last Sunday in May.