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.

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