Hiraizumi – temples and gardens representing the Buddhist Pure Land

A dance during Chusonji matsuri in one of Hiraizumi's temples
Traditional dance at the Chusonji Matsuri

The women in the Hiraizumi tourist information are delighted to try their English on Western travellers:

“You are visiting the Golden Hall of Chusonji? The temples and gardens of Hiraizumi are part of the UNESCO World Heritage and have such a great history!”

They present me with a textile coaster printed with a local design. This is an Old Nanbu stencil dyeing, they explain. In fact, some of the patterns are traceable to the trade routes of the Silk Road. These patterns came from China to this off-the-beaten-track region in the North of Japan in the 11th or 12th century when Hiraizumi was an important cultural centre.

Main Hall of Chusonji Temple, Hiraizumi

The powerful Oshu Fujiwara Clan

At that time the local ruling clan of the Oshu Fujiwara held their own against the central government in Kyoto. But not only cloth patterns came along the Silk Road, but also new ideas and concepts. For instance, Buddhism and new concepts of garden architecture arrived in Japan that way. Hiraizumi may be in the backwaters of Japan today. But it is one of the first examples where these new ideas harmoniously mixed with the older ideas of Nature worship.

Autumn leaves in Motsuji temple garden, Hiraizumi
20131103 Hiraizumi Motsuji momiji P1040717

On this autumn day there are not many Western tourists in Hiraizumi, but Japanese travellers flock to the site to see the autumn leaves turn a spectacular red. Chusonji Tempel consists of a number of buildings in different sizes leading up to a small hill. Tour guides hold their flags and banners like Samurai generals leading their troops.

In front of the main temple hall, a dozen young men are performing a dynamic dance, accompanied by drums and pipes. They are clad in in traditional Japanese jackets and wild headdresses with a pile of feathers. Behind them an exhibition of prize-winning chrysanthemums elicits admiration by the visitors.

Shamisen players in Motsuji temple

The famous Golden Hall of Hiraizumi

Near the top of the hill, the first stop on the sightseeing route is the new museum building. Next, the path leads us to the Konjiki-do, the Golden Hall, the most impressive and well-known building in Hiraizumi. Konjiki-do, built in 1124, is dedicated to the Buddha Amida, the principal Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism. In addition, the building also houses several tombs of the Oshu Fujiwara lords, the former powerful masters of the town. And they made it a showcase of their wealth! The whole structure is covered in gold leaf, even outside. Not only that, but dozens of golden statues line the altars, too.

Accordingly it is little wonder that the local lords built a a separate, protective hall only a century later. It was big enough to house the complete original building inside. Today the Konjiki-do is on display in a modern concrete exhibition hall. Nevertheless, you can walk all around the Golden Hall and gape at it as long as you like while a tape repeats a lengthy explanation (only in Japanese). Unfortunately, taking pictures is forbidden.

Maple leaf trees in the temple garden of Motsuji in Hiraizumi
The garden of the nearby Motosuji Tempel is very famous

Reasons to visit the temples and gardens of Hiraizumi

Besides Chusonji, several other temples and gardens belong to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hiraizumi. Most of them also date from the 12th century. In comparison to Kyoto or Kamakura (where you also can see old temples), Hiraizumi is much less popular with foreign tourists. We have visited several times and found it especially in autumn very pleasant.

Mineyakushido, a wooden hall of the Chusonji Temple of Hiraizumi

And for some travellers, there is one more attraction: Minamoto no Yoshitsune committed seppuku (ritual suicide) here. That means that admirers of this great hero of Japanese history can still visit the spot.

How to get to the temples and gardens of Hiraizumi

Flowers in the Gardens of Motsuji in Hiraizumi

Hiraizumi station is only 10 minutes by train from Ichinoseki, which again is a 30-minute ride from Sendai or 40 minutes from Morioka.

The best way to visit might be on a day trip from Sendai or Morioka. Travellers stopping briefly find an inexpensive luggage storage opposite the station. There are also direct buses going from Ichinoseki to Chusonji and the Golden Hall. Hiraizumi itself is perfectly walkable. If you want to stay the night there are several smaller guesthouses.

NB: We were not sponsored for this blog post in any way. This post does not contain affiliate links.

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14 Comments

  1. This temple and garden look awesome. It’s sad that you aren’t allowed to take pctures of the Golden Hall. It would have been lovely to see this marvel. But even the green spaces around are enticing. Japan is so beautiful.

    1. Yes, sometimes you come across this sightseeing gems that you must not take pictures. It is sad, but in this cases you have to take pictures in you memory.

    2. The beautiful red autumn leaves of the Hiraizumi temple is a spectacular sight in the serene landscape of the Japanese gardens. Also it’s a privilege to visit the UNESCO world heritage sites like Hiraizumi and Chusonji.

    3. Golden Hall seems like a must-see, especially since you can’t take photos there. But you have outlined so many beautiful places to visit. I love the symmetry and beauty in the gardens and along the trails. This looks like a beautiful place to visit!

  2. The UNESCO site of Hiraizumi certainly looks like a spot worth visiting. Autumn would be a beautiful time. Good to know the area is perfectly walkable. While the temples are beautiful, I am not sure I would feel about the spots where seppuku occurred.

  3. I can see why you like to visit in the autumn, those red trees are so vibrant. It’s too bad that no photos are allowed at Golden Hall. But sometimes it’s best to just live in the moment and not always through a camera lens.

    1. Dear Rennee, autumn in general is the best season for a visit to Japan, I would say. It is still warm and the autumn colors are spectacular!

  4. Aside from food, one thing that also fascinates me about Japan is their temples and gardens. In this Hiraizumi site, I can sense how they have kept the culture and heritage intact for the younger generations to learn from and appreciate. I can imagine how it turns from one beauty to another during the changing seasons. Beautiful!

  5. Japan knows indeed how to grow and innovate but at the same time preserve their heritage through structures like this. I can understand why they don’t allow photo taking in some areas. The image of the place where Minamoto no Yoshitsune did seppuku gave me goosebumps while just looking at it. Even if one is not religious, these temples are a nice space to spend time on life reflection.

    1. Dear Maria, Hiraizumi is a great place to experience Japanese spirituality. Different to Kyoto or Nara most tourists are Japanese and while most of them are not overly religious, they visit the place for touristic as well as for religious reasons.

  6. Japan is next on my travel list. Hoping for the country to open for foreign tourists soon. Hiraizumi seems like a place I would like to explore since I am always on the lookout for hidden gems! Beautiful nature around.

    1. Der Saurabh, there are good hiking possibilities in the area too. And a wild river where boat tours are offered. Northern Japan is an underrated region by tourists, but very well worth exploring.

  7. Pity you could not take the pics of the Golden hall. I would have loved to get a glimpse through your post. The place is an interesting destination for cultural lovers too with all those traditional dresses. Loved the gardens around the temple.

    1. Hiraizumi is a very peaceful and spiritual place. Different to the big temples in Kyoto there are less tourists. The gardens surrounding the temples are beautiful all year round.

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