When I awoke one balmy July morning last year to find Tōkyō in the midst of a heavy shower, I settled upon a simple solution to salvage the day: flee hundreds of miles north to the sunnier, drier environs of Iwate Prefecture. There, I would soak up not summer rain but the glorious memories of a city that, in its heyday, might have rivalled even Imperial Kyōto in its wealth and its pursuit of cultural refinement.
A quiet tourist town in our own day and age, Hiraizumi rose to prominence in the early 12th century AD when the Ōshū Fujiwara clan administered this region of northern Japan as if it were a virtually independent state. Flush with wealth from trade and gold mining, the Fujiwara transformed their base into a capital approaching even faraway Kyōto itself in size and grandeur, with vast temple complexes and a population running into the tens of thousands. After the defeat and execution of Hiraizumi’s last ruler in 1189 at the hands of the nascent Kamakura government – led by the warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo – the city lapsed into obscurity, with many of its grand buildings succumbing to fire and decay over the centuries that followed.
Of course, the full account of Hiraizumi’s brief but fascinating time in the national spotlight will require far more than a brief paragraph to set out properly. Click here to read more on the website of the town’s tourism association.
Now then, back to my visit.
I’d missed the closest loop bus service by mere minutes when I arrived at Hiraizumi Station. Since the next one wasn’t due to depart for another half hour (note: they run more frequently on weekends/holidays, but this was a regular weekday), I decided to hoof it on a quite doable 800-metre route to my first stop of the day…
There’s still a functioning temple on the grounds, but what matters most to many visitors is the expanse of carefully tended parkland right next to the present compound, where the Fujiwara lords built a large and lavishly endowed temple complex in the mid-1100s. Like the rest of the city, Mōtsū-ji fell into neglect when the Fujiwara clan was wiped out, and very little now remains apart from its splendid traditional garden.
The stark contrast between Hiraizumi’s former glory and the emptiness that followed became a source of inspiration for Matsuo Bashō, who wrote a brief but well-known poem after seeing the sad ruins in the late 17th century:
夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡
Natsu kusa ya / tsuwamono-domo ga / yume no ato
A stone monument erected in Mōtsū-ji bears an English translation of the poem, as rendered by the early 20th-century writer Nitobe Inazō:
Indeed, whilst a few lovely wooden structures still stand here and there on the temple grounds…
…virtually all of its former structures are long gone, reduced to earth and stone foundations that now serve as ghostly reminders of the glory that once took root here.
Mōtsū-ji’s biggest draw, however, is its sprawling temple garden, centred on the Ōizumi-ga-ike: a large pond that was built in the 12th century and (minus the double bridge that once spanned its width) remains essentially unaltered since the days when the Ōshū Fujiwara ordered its construction. A host of varied and finely balanced features – such as carefully composed rock formations, symbolic beaches with pebbles for “sand”, and miniature peninsulas jutting out into the water – work in concert with the surrounding natural landscape to create vistas that continuously evolve with almost every step one takes along the roughly half-kilometre path laid around the pond.
Another special feature of the garden is the yarimizu, a feeder stream that flows into the central pond. Excavated as part of archaeological work carried out on the temple grounds in the 1950s, this stream is said to be the only one of its kind to have survived from the Heian Era (AD 794-1185).
From here, I walked over to the nearest bus stop and travelled to my next destination: Chūson-ji (中尊寺).
Said to have been founded in AD 850, this hillside temple benefited from extensive rebuilding and expansion work carried out in the 12th century by the Ōshū Fujiwara lords. Like Mōtsū-ji, Chūson-ji slid into a long decline after the fall of Hiraizumi, and only two structures now survive from its heyday.
The uphill walking route offered some great natural scenery…
…and the temple compound was not short on interesting halls and outbuildings (most of which were built long after the glory days of the Fujiwara clan)…
…but my primary target was one particular point of interest at the end of the long tree-lined path.
Yeah, it’s not much to look at – but this plain-looking building isn’t what I’ve come to see. I’m here to visit another structure inside that one, though with the very strict ban on photography imposed within those walls, I can offer nothing more than this link to another site that offers a glimpse at the spectacular vision of beauty I beheld that day.
Have a look over there, then come straight back here. Impressive, isn’t it?
The magnificent treasure in those pictures is Konjiki-dō (金色堂), the “Golden Hall”. Save for its roof, the entire building is leafed in fine gold, and the interior is lavishly decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay and gilded metalwork. Statues rest upon three raised platforms, sealed within which are coffins containing the mummified remains of the four Ōshū Fujiwara lords who ruled Hiraizumi during the late Heian era. (The last of them, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, was decapitated on the orders of Minamoto no Yoritomo when the latter conquered Hiraizumi in 1189, and this was borne out by the fact that only his preserved head was found when the coffins were opened in 1950.)
After admiring this rare survivor from the heyday of Fujiwara rule, I made my way back down the tree-lined path…
…and rode the next loop bus service to my third attraction of the day.
En route to that point from the nearest bus stop, I spied some lovely bunches of ajisai growing by the roadside…
…which offered a colourful splash of light encouragement for the long stair climb that lay ahead. At the top of those steps was a great viewpoint…
…but I pressed on and went even higher. After mounting yet another flight of steps…
…I emerged onto a small clearing with a tiny shrine flanked by stone lanterns. This is the Takadachi Gikeidō (高館義経堂), a monument raised in 1683 to the memory of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who is said to have died on or near this spot. Yoshitsune’s tragic rivalry with his older brother Yoritomo – a story that’s best told elsewhere, including here and here – is closely related to the fall of Hiraizumi, so this seemed like the perfect place to cap off my visit.
There was a lot left to see in Hiraizumi – the local tourism association’s website has further details – but with time running short and my comfortable hotel bed located hundreds of miles south in faraway Tōkyō, I had little choice but to say my farewells. As always, I’m grateful to have several reasons for a future return visit.
Along the way, I managed to spare a little time for a brief stopover at Ichinoseki – not much to say about that except to observe that I’d like to go back there in a future trip.
The next day, I set out to visit a very special museum … though that’s something we’ll talk about in a future post.
Now for a brief postscript.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed something that appears more than once (four times in fact) across the images posted above. It’s related to an interesting, one might even say surreal, experience that took place on that day … although when (or indeed if) and how I tell that tale is something for the future.