Marco Polo, the famous 13th-century Venetian explorer, wrote in his book “Il Milione (The Million)” that Japan was rich in gold, even though his travels only took him as far as China. It was the first time Japan was introduced to the Western world.
Despite Polo’s inaccurate reporting, I could easily believe what he wrote when I saw the Konjikido (Golden Hall) of the Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi, a town in Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan.
The hall is 8 meters high and 5.4 meters wide and is covered almost entirely with gold, apart from the roof.
In the hall, 32 Buddha statues glitter with gold. The pillars and the altar are decorated with gold-lacquer works and mother-of-pearl.
The Golden Hall, a crown jewel of Buddhist art, was built in 1124 by Fujiwara no Kiyohira (1056-1128), the first lord of the Oshu Fujiwara family. The warriors’ clan made Hiraizumi their base, and it became a cultural center of northern Japan during the 11th and 12th centuries.
Shinji Hamada, a staffer at Chusonji Temple, explained the background to the construction of the Golden Hall, saying Kiyohira was involved in two struggles against other clans.
“Many people died in the fighting. Kiyohira’s father, wife and children were killed by his enemies,” Hamada said. “Experiencing such agony, Kiyohira had a strong wish for peace in his later years and built Chusonji Temple.”
In a document that Kiyohira read at the celebration of the completion of the temple complex, including the Golden Hall, Kiyohira wrote that he wished all those killed in the battles, including friends or foes alike, would be led to the Pure Land that is based on Buddhism.
In Hiraizumi, I met some foreign visitors, including Bonny Cassidy, an Australian who was there to write about historical buildings.
“It was amazing. What can I say? Incredibly luxurious,” Cassidy said of the Golden Hall. “It was quite a shock.”
I’m surprised that the building and other historical sites in Hiraizumi have not been fully acknowledged by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. In July, the committee decided against the registration of the cultural assets of Hiraizumi, citing a lack of credentials for attaining World Heritage status, according to media reports.
However, the hall is truly a pinnacle of Buddhist art and architecture, and of a type unique to Hiraizumi.
Hamada, of Chusonji Temple, said the temple complex has universal value.
“We will keep on promoting the temple’s idea of peace based on Buddhism to the world,” he said.
Hiraizumi, beside the Kitakami River, had been an important military stronghold, and around the year 1100, Kiyohira settled there with his followers. The area of northeastern Japan was rich in gold, and with this wealth Kiyohira built Chusonji Temple and established Hiraizumi as a semi-independent provincial metropolis.
The second lord, Fujiwara no Motohira (?-1157), began construction of another temple complex, Motsuji, around 1150; the third lord, Hidehira (?-1187), completed the buildings.
At its peak, Motsuji was a complex of 40 halls and towers, and accommodated 500 monks. All Motsuji’s buildings were destroyed by fires in 1226, 1573 and 1597, but the main hall was rebuilt in 1989, and the gardens and their ponds are still original, said temple guide Mitsuko Suzuki.
While the garden was beautiful, the remains of the buildings amid swathes of green grass made me feel sad; the Oshu Fujiwara family enjoyed prosperity and peace in their semi-independent province, but ultimately suffered tragedy.
In 1180, in the later years of Hidehira’s life, the Minamoto family, led by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99), waged war against their old rivals, the Taira clan, over a wide area through Kanto and Kansai.
While Hidehira took a neutral position between the families, in 1185 Minamoto forces led by Yoshitsune, Yoritomo’s brother, defeated the Taira clan.
Then Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333) in Kamakura, (present-day Kanagawa Prefecture). But Yoritomo became estranged from his brother Yoshitsune. Eventually he came to Hiraizumi to ask for support from Hidehira in 1187, as Yoshitsune spent his young years in the town. Hidehira offered refuge to Yoshitsune.
But Hidehira died that year. Yoritomo contacted Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, to arrest Yoshitsune. Facing pressure from Yoritomo, the most powerful politician in Japan at the time, Yasuhira sent soldiers to the residence of Yoshitsune and forced him to commit suicide in 1189.
Learning of Yoshitsune’s death, Yoritomo led troops from Kamakura to Hiraizumi and defeated the troops of Yasuhira. It is said Yasuhira was killed by one of his own soldiers on the way. This was the end of the Oshu Fujiwara family. The history of the family and Yoshitsune can be learned at a museum called Yumeyakata (Dream Residence), where 107 wax figures of lifesize warriors are exhibited.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94), the renowned haiku poet, visited Hiraizumi in 1689 and wrote a verse lamenting the fate of Yoshitsune.
The summer grass
‘Tis all that’s left
Of ancient warrior’s dream
I climbed up a hill named Takadachi, where it is said Yoshitsune killed himself. There’s a small hall, and inside is a wooden statue of the warrior.
From the top of the hill, there is a great view of the Kitakami River. Did Yoshitsune see this view? And what was his last thought?
Yoshitsune is a tragic hero in Japanese history and has been the subject of numerous literary works, including noh and kabuki plays.
There are also legends concerning his life and death. Even after he was believed to be dead, stories that he was alive and had wandered to Hokkaido or Mongolia circulated, and some legends claim that Genghis Khan and Yoshitsune are the same person.
Shoichi Takahashi, a Hiraizumi local and a great fan of Yoshitsune, owns a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant called Izumiya in the town.
“It is interesting to imagine that Yoshitsune fled to Hokkaido, but I want to think he died in Hiraizumi, because I live here,” Takahashi said.
In the restaurant, I enjoyed a tasty Izumi soba set, which includes soba noodles, soba cakes and soba tea. Whenever customers order an Izumi soba set, Takahashi explains what dishes are to be served, and also regales them with stories about Yoshitsune.
As Basho observed, Hiraizumi is the place where you can trace and feel the dreams of samurai who fought in battles yet wished for peace in ancient Japan.
From Tokyo to Hiraizumi Station is about 2 hours, 40 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Shinkansen Hayate train north to Sendai Station, transfer to the Shinkansen Yamabiko train to Ichinoseki Station, and then transfer to the local JR Tohoku Honsen Line; from there it’s 7 minutes to Hiraizumi.