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No.246 (10/25/13)

Medieval Japan Comes to Life in Hiraizumi

Chiho Tsukiashi
Staff Writer

You don't have to go all the way to Kyoto to experience a medieval Japanese atmosphere. Hiraizumi, located about 220km (140 miles) as the road goes south of Misawa, flourished like Kyoto at its peak during the 12th century. The three-hour drive is a time-machine ride that takes you back to the end of Heian Period, a long and peaceful epoch of aristocracy, just before the bloody era of the samurai began. The historic complex of the town has been a popular destination for school field trips and lately has been a focus of attention since being inventoried on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011.
In ancient times, Hiraizumi was the political and geographical center of northern Japan, except for Hokkaido, which was considered a foreign country. Hiraizumi's wealth was comprised of gold, imported goods from Hokkaido, and horses. Its prosperity reached its pinnacle during the reign of Fujiwara clan, who built Hiraizumi's major historic sites that have fascinated visitors for the last 800 years.
Chusonji Temple, the most famous building in Hiraizumi, has been designated as a national treasure. It was built in 850BC, and consists of the Golden Hall, the Main Hall, the Sutra Repository, the Treasure House, a Noh theater stage, and more. Covered with solid gold, it took 16 years to complete the Golden Hall, which is a home to four mummies of the Fujiwara rulers. Mummification has never been a traditional custom of Japan, but they have been worshiped just like religious statues. Unfortunately, they are not exhibited to the public. The Treasure House holds 3,000 pieces of valuable artifacts, including a sutra inscribed with gold and silver on dark blue paper.
Motsuji Temple is known for its garden that conserves the "Pure Land" style unique to the period. In Buddhism, "Pure Land" is the equivalent of paradise in Christianity, and it is well recreated in the Motsuji Temple garden with flowers, a pond, rocks in the water, and a watercourse. The temple used to be as splendid as Chusonji, with 500 priests occupying 40 halls and towers, but all the original buildings were burned down. Now, only the garden and the reconstructed Main Hall have been preserved.
Takkoku No Iwaya is another temple, although half of the building stands in a cave. According to a legend, Akuro, a leader of the northern people, used the temple as his base when he resisted against the reclamation of the region by the government at the end of the eighth century. As a matter of fact, the people who lived in northern Japan were regarded as barbarians, who hunted and robbed without wearing clothes. The building was constructed after Akuro was eliminated. 27 statues of Buddha out of the original 108 have survived fires.
The breathtaking scenic beauty of Geibikei lies 10 miles south of downtown Hiraizumi. It is worth the short trip to see the national natural monument, where emerald-green water rushes through the rocky ravine. Take a boat tour there. You can relax watching calm water and carps swimming around, listening to boatmen's traditional songs echoing through the 50-meter deep ravine. There is also Genibikei, which sounds very similar to Geibikei. It is another pretty stream, but they do not have a boat service. Instead, they sell dango, sweet rice dumplings, from across the river. Place money in a basket, strike a signal mallet, and they pull the basket across on a ropeway and the dumplings will come back to you the same way! (good video)
In order to get to Hiraizumi, get on the Michinoku Toll Road toward Hachinohe. The road that goes out the back gate (POL Gate) becomes Route 10 and it will take you directly to the Michinoku Toll Road on-ramp. Take the ramp that goes to Hachinohe. You will pay a 200 yen toll at the Shimoda Toll Gate (You can avoid the 200 yen toll by getting on at the Shimoda Mall). Stay on the Michinoku Toll Road and it will take you directly into the Hachinohe Junction of the Tohoku Expressway heading south. That will take you through Karumai, Kunohe, Ninohe, Ichinohe, Morioka, Hanamaki, Kitakami, Oshu and finally Hiraizumi. Get off at Hiraizumi-Maezawa IC and transfer onto Route 4 (ramp goes to the right about .5km and then left at Route 4), heading south to Hiraizumi. Note that Route 4 splits just about 300 meters after you get on Route 4 into the old road that goes through Hiriazumi (called Oshukaido) and the new road that bypasses Hiraizumi, (called Hiraizumi Bypass). Where Route 4 splits you will make a left turn to go into Hiraizumi, about 2.5km. Don't worry if you miss the turn and get on the bypass, as about 2km down the road will be another intersection with Route 206. Turn left at the intersection and it will take you to downtown Hiraizumi. There is also a museum and restaurant complex nearby that is visited by the bus-loads of school trips and guided tours. Lots of souvenirs too.
To make your trip even more meaningful, I recommend you research Hiraizumi and the Fujiwara Clan on the Internet, examining the history, cultural assets, guide maps of the area, and detailed descriptions of the various cultural assets. There are also useful reference materials in the library. Enjoy your drive and visit to the ancient center of Tohoku culture, Hiraizumi.

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