August 18, 2018

The Tragedy of Hiraizumi

Unbeknownst to foreign tourists, the area of Hiraizumi in present day Iwate ​used to be a political center of power that rivaled that of Kyoto.

A belfry near Hiraizumi's Chuson-ji temple complex in Iwate Prefecture
“Summer grass — all that remains of warriors’ dreams.”

— Matsuo Basho

When hankering for an unique historical experience, most foreign visitors immediately default to Japan’s former capital of Kyoto. After all, Kyoto is legendary across the globe for its rich and tangible culture. This notoriety however has come at a steep cost. More and more, Kyoto has come to feel like an amusement park that has been overrun by selfie stick touting tourists. The traveling hordes overwhelm the likes of Kiyomizu-dera and other famous landmarks that simply do not have the capacity or wherewithal to manage so many visitors. Consequently, the result is something akin to a kitschy and commodified experience that erodes the very solemn tranquility that put Kyoto on the map to begin with. Yikes!

Luckily, there are many other options for those yearning for authenticity. One of these is the forgotten city of Hiraizumi up in Iwate Prefecture. Often hailed as the “Kyoto of the North,” this area was said to have rivaled the old capital in splendor at its height. During the late Heian period (794–1185), Hiraizumi grew to be the seat of power for the Fujiwara family’s northern branch. For decades, the main line of this powerful clan exercised ironclad control over the imperial throne from behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the northern branch succeeded many of the the semi-independent Emishi families that had been gradually brought down by loyalists to the throne.

With much of the region and its assets under their control, the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan was able to quickly consolidate power and achieve territorial independence from the capital. During the zenith of their power in the 12th century, the so-called Northern Fujiwaras attracted architects and artisans from Kyoto to fashion their capital city of Hiraizumi. Thanks to their rule over much of the area, the branch clan was able to capitalize on northern Japan’s wealth of gold and natural resources. Moreover, trade also played a core role in Hiraizumi’s rise to power. The city’s central location between other independent groups within Japan’s far north and continental Asia proved to be the ideal location for being a middleman to all.

Alas, as foreshadowed by the title and Matsuo Basho’s poem above, only specters of Hiraizumi’s grandeur remain today. In the late 12th century, the city was ultimately conquered and sacked by samurai clans led by Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate. While I’ll try not to confuse you with the entire historical account, the long and the short of it is that the Northern Fujiwara’s were allied with Minamoto Yoritomo’s brother, Minamoto Yoshitsune. Though the two worked closely together to overthrow their rivals, Minamoto Yoritomo eventually turned on his brother. Under threat of military pressure, the Northern Fujiwaras eventually caved and executed Minamoto Yoshitsune.

Of course, as these things go, this did nothing to appease Minamoto Yoritomo’s bloodlust in the least. Eventually, he leveled much of Hiraizumi and killed off the northern branch’s bloodline. With the city in ruins and no one to take the lead, Hiraizumi thereafter fell into disarray. Today, the city is but a shade of its former glory. All that remains of the Northern Fujiwaras’ legacy are a few temples and the magnificent gold-leafed Konjiki-do at Choson-ji.

Getting to Iwate & Hiraizumi

A northern-bound bullet train on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line

Despite the fact that Hiraizumi is located up in rural Iwate Prefecture, it’s surprisingly not all that hard to reach. To get there, you’ll first need to hop on a northern bound bullet train from Tokyo. A quick glance at the ever handy Hyperdia shows that there are direct trains every hour so be sure to do some digging first to figure out your best connections. Alternatively, if you’re already planning to visit northern Japan, you can catch a bullet train from Sendai to Ichinoseki.

Once you’re in Ichinoseki, the nearby Hiraizumi area can easily be reached in a matter of minutes via one of the local trains. Unfortunately, these run very infrequently meaning that you’ll need to carefully plan your departure as missing a train will mean losing out on up to eighty minutes of your adventure time. Furthermore, there’s little to do in and around Ichinoseki to keep you entertained should you miss a train. As such, I cannot more strongly caution you about making this scheduling mistake!

While exploring Hiraizumi can be done in just a day, I am of the belief that it is best to arrive at night on the day prior to your excursion. This will allow you to maximize the daytime and get the most out of your travels. Hiraizumi has little to offer in terms of accommodations therefore it’s better to just book a simple business hotel in Ichinoseki. As mentioned, there’s really not much to do in this area and all you really need is a roof over your head for the night. Be sure to head to bed at a reasonable hour to ensure you get an early start on the following day.

Cycling Around Hiraizumi

The former site of Hiraizumi’s Yanagi-no-Gosho in Iwate Prefecture

While Hiraizumi has a convenient loop bus that will take you around to all the sites, I highly recommend that you skip this option and instead rent a bicycle from any of the many vendors near the station (weather permitting). Doing so is an attraction unto itself and will allow you to freely explore the area at leisure. Moreover, Hiraizumi has a lot of hidden spots and those opting for the bus are bound to miss these sites. The bikes can be had for the entire day for only 1,000 yen, making it a real bargain all things considered.

I am not sure if this applies to all the vendors but the stand where I rented my bike from also provided a handy map that curated all of Hiraizumi into an easy to follow course. In addition to the major attractions, this route will take you by some amazing spots such as the former site of the Yanagi-no-Gosho that is pictured above. These added bits of authenticity really help to drive home the tragedy that befell Hiraizumi in the 12th century at the hands of Minamoto Yoritomo and the Kamakura shogunate.

Before moving on allow me to say that in addition to the Yanagi-no-Gosho, be sure to also check out the nearby Takadachi Gikei-do Hall. This fateful site commemorates the very location where Minamoto Yoshitsune committed suicide after his betrayal by the Northern Fujiwaras. The hall was erected in the 17th century and houses a wooden statue of the militarily brilliant but unfortunate younger brother.

Hiraizumi’s Solemn Chuson-ji

The main hall of Hiraizumi’s eminent Chuson-ji temple complex in Iwate Prefecture

While much of Hiraizumi fell victim to the wrath of Minamoto Yoritomo, what little remains of the Northern Fujiwara clan’s splendor can be seen at the Chuson-ji temple complex. This site is by far the most splendid of all of Hiraizumi’s attractions. Though the site was originally established around the year 850, it really grew to prominence following the arrival of the Northern Fujiwaras. Chuson-ji rests deep within a mountaintop forest and the surrounding facility is comprised of over a dozen different buildings. These attractions sit along a one kilometer long path that winds through a trail of ancient cedar trees.

Though Chuson-ji had existed for some time, large scale additions to the temple were carried out by Fujiwara Kiyohira, the progenitor of the Northern Fujiwara branch. The site was built to honor all those who died in a series of wars that Kiyohira had been bloodily forced into during his earlier years. In its heyday, Chuson-ji was said to have more than 40 halls and pagodas with over 300 monks taking up residence at the magnificent temple. Following the passing of Kiyohira, his son Motohira took up the reins and continued to expand Chuson-ji.

The gold-leafed Konjiki-do at Hiraizumi’s Chuson-ji temple complex in Iwate Prefecture

Unfortunately, with the fall of the northern branch of the Fujiwaras in the end of the 12th century, much of of Chuson-ji fell into disarray. Though it survived the sacking of Hiraizumi, Chuson-ji lost much of its financial support and eventually succumbed to a fire in 1337. Because of this, only two buildings from the Northern Fujiwara era survive today. Of these, the Konjiki-do that is pictured above is by far the most stunning. Completed in 1124, this spectacular work of art displays what Chuson-ji looked like in its prime. The entire building is coated with gold leaf and the intricate decorations make use of prohibitively expensive mother-of-pearl inlays, a true testament to the former glory of the Northern Fujiwara branch.

Along with Uji’s Byodo-in and Oita Prefecture’s Fuki-ji, Hiraizumi’s Konjiki-do is ranked as one of the top three Amida Buddha halls in Japan. It was the first structure of Chuson-ji’s wonders to be designated as a Japanese National Treasure. In addition to being an exemplary piece of art that is sure to leave you breathless, the golden hall also serves as a mausoleum for the mummified remains of all of the Northern Fujiwara clan leaders. Talk about a extravagant way to rest in peace for all of eternity!

Hiraizumi’s Motsu-ji Complex

The ruins of Hiraizumi’s Motsu-ji temple grounds in Iwate Prefecture

In addition to Chuson-ji, Motsu-ji is the only other surviving relic from Northern Fujiwara era. The temple was allegedly founded by the monk Ennin in the year 850. At that time, Hiraizumi was the frontier between the budding Yamato empire and the Emishi tribes of the north. Motsu-ji eventually grew to flourish under the reign of the second Northern Fujiwara lord, Fujiwara Motohira (though back then it bore the name Enryu-ji). According to historical evidence, the original temple was lavish beyond belief. The main hall is reported to have housed a statue of the Medicine Buddha that was sculpted with eyes of crystal. Meanwhile, the building itself was brightly decorated with gold, silver, and precious jewels.

At its zenith, Motsu-ji is said to have housed as many as 40 buildings and up to 500 subsidiary chapels designated for meditation. Unfortunately, after the Northern Fujiwara line came to an end at the hands of Minamoto Yoritomo, the original Motsu-ji was eventually destroyed by fire. Whether or not these were accidental or not is heavily debated but suffice to say that the temple was in total ruin by the year 1226. Motsu-ji would eventually be rebuilt during the Edo period (1603–1868) but the current structures are entirely new and do not follow the previous designs that Fujiwara Motohira commissioned.

Though the present incarnation of Motsu-ji is not faithful to the original layout, the entirety of the temple complex continues to be nestled around the Oizumi-ga-Ike pond and the surrounding gardens. Both the pond and garden features were core tenants of the current facility’s precursor from over 800 years ago. The Oizumi-ga-Ike pond is quite large and features two islands, a beach area, and a number of peninsulas which are said to represent the seacoast. To the north of the pond, visitors will also encounter the remains of the original main hall. Like with many other spots in Hiraizumi, these ruins are a solemn reminder of the Northern Fujiwaras’ sad fate

Hiraizumi’s Takkoku-no-Iwaya

Hiraizumi’s Takkoku-no-Iwaya, a temple built into a cave, in Iwate Prefecture

Next up is a unique location that goes by the name Takkoku-no-Iwaya. Before delving into the details though, allow me to first say that this spot sits a bit further from the other attractions in Hiraizumi. To reach the temple you will need to bike approximately 6 kilometers from the station. Those who don’t feel up to the challenge are therefore encouraged to either figure out the bus route or pass on exploring Takkoku-no-Iwaya. That said, the ride itself is quite pleasant and will take you through some stunning fields and bucolic scenery.

OK, so what’s so special about Takkoku-no-Iwaya that it warrants a twenty minute bike ride? Well, as can be see above, the main building on site is built directly into the cliff. Known as Bishamondo, the structure was built to honor the vanquishing of the barbaric warlord Akuro by Sakanoue Tamuramaro, the so-called “hero of the north,” over 1,200 years ago. As implied by the name, Bishamondo honors the ferocious god of war in the Buddhist pantheon, the deity Bishamon. Though the current structures are not the originals, a monument of some sort has existed here for over a millennium.

Takkoku-no-Iwaya also has a number of other minor attractions on site. For example, right next to the Bishamondo you’ll find a 16.5 meter-tall gigantic carving in the image of the Buddha. Supposedly, this likeness was created when a warrior from the Minamoto clan fired countless arrows at the sandstone cliff. Originally, the stone relief comprised a full seated image of the Buddha; today, only the facial features remain intact due to the impact of several earthquakes over the years.

Attractions Near Hiraizumi

Boats travel down Iwate Prefecture’s Geibikei Gorge

Hey, nature lovers! Are you hankering for a bit more action? Well, I’ve got just the adventure for you! Known as the Geibikei Gorge, this spectacular crevasse is located just outside of Hiraizumi. It’s best enjoyed by taking a leisurely 90-minute boat ride through the gorge. The flat-bottomed boats depart hourly and are navigated by a traditionally attired boatman equipped with a long pole. As you cruise through the chasm, you’ll be greeted by tall cliffs and myriad marvels of nature. Especially after biking around Hiraizumi all day, this can be a great way to kick back and relax.

To get to the gorge, you’ll need to take the JR Ofunato Line from Ichinoseki Station to Geibikei Station. From there, the gorge is just a short walk away. The entire trip will cost you 580 yen and will take no more than 40 minutes from Ichinoseki, walking included.

Until next time travelers…