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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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