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).

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