Japan may be notorious for the commercialization of history, legend and even tragedy, but with the exception of a few trinket stalls and one or two Photo-Me panels, the co-opting of the past for gain is kept at a safe distance from Hiraizumi’s main sights, many of which have a sacred character.

This includes the Heian Period (794-1185) garden of Motsu-ji, the first stop on my cultural itinerary of this otherwise modest township in Iwate Prefecture. The garden is just five minute’s walk from the little station that serves a town that has worked hard to secure the listing of its major historical assets as World Heritage sites. Despite its UNESCO designation, the town never seems to attract the throngs of visitors that other heritage sites draw. Perhaps the slow approach to the town on a local branch line, and its lack of hotel-style accommodation filter off the crowds. Whatever the reason, it’s a blessing.

Stepping into the grounds of Motsu-ji, the first impression is less of a Japanese garden than of open parkland. Closer examination reveals details that were incorporated into the garden with the express purpose of delighting a privileged class of nobles and court attendants. The only intact Heian Period landscape remaining in Japan, this jōdo, or paradise garden, commissioned by a clan leader of the powerful Fujiwara family, occupies the same grounds as Motsu-ji temple. The pond, known as Oizumigaike, is said to represent the Buddhist “pure land.” Guests would float on the surface of the pond in wooden barges, admiring differing perspectives on the garden, including two islands, one of which is shaped in the form of a magatama, a precious, comma-shaped stone found in ancient Japanese tombs.

Snap happy: A Photo-Me panel in the sacred wood close to Chuson-ji near Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture.
Snap happy: A Photo-Me panel in the sacred wood close to Chuson-ji near Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

I notice a number of rental bicycles parked outside the garden, a good way to get around the town and its environs. I decide on the first day, at least, to walk the roughly 3 kilometers to the great temple and treasure house of Chuson-ji, matching pace to the slow passage of time that seems to hang over a region steeped in history and religious devotion.

This area of Tohoku was once known as michi no oku no kuni, or the “land beyond roads.” If there was any doubt, the name implied the primitive, the reference to its inhabitants as shrimp or toad barbarians, further endorsed the idea of a land yet to enjoy the benefits of civilization. If the region was subjected to discrimination, it was also torn apart by brutal wars. These vicious internecine imbroglios spared the first in a line of Fujiwara lords, one Kiyohira, but at the cost of losing his wife, father and one child. The slaughter and inhumanity he witnessed drove him to try and create a domain resembling the pure land, a world driven by the higher principals of Buddhism.

Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, is strongly associated with gold.
Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, is strongly associated with gold. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

In Kiyohira’s attempt to recreate the Western paradise, gold, a material in plentiful supply in the region, was sourced. Lavishly deployed, its existence, though largely confined to Hiraizumi, led to some interesting misconceptions about Japan, most famously Venetian traveler and merchant Marco Polo’s pronouncement that the archipelago enjoyed “gold in the greatest of abundance.”

The jewel in Kiyohira’s ambitious project was the temple of Chuson-ji, a concentration of pagodas, halls, priest’s residencies and sub-temples representing a massing of religious structures reached by passing along a road lined with golden umbrellas. The jury is still out on whether this was a humble commemoration of Buddhism or an act of hubris.

The walk up to Chuson-ji is a chance to decant, to breath in the air streaming from the cedar trees that flank each side of this quiet road. Follow a sign to the left and you emerge from a forest canopy into a meadow planted with the pink Chuson-ji Lotus, a varietal whose seeds were dug up in an excavation, and then brought back to life.

When the poet Matsuo Basho passed through Hiraizumi with his traveling companion Sora, he found the site in a sorry state of decay. Stricken with this vision of the temporal, the poet, noting that three generations of the once-powerful Fujiwara clan were now little more than faintly recorded dreams, wrote in his diary, “We sat down upon our straw hats and wept, oblivious of the passing time.” The gloom was considerably alleviated when the poet entered the Konjiki-do, or Golden Hall, where there were some encouraging signs of renovation underway.

The shrine of Bishamondo has been cleverly built into a cliff.
The shrine of Bishamondo has been cleverly built into a cliff. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

If I could show you a picture of the interior of the hall — photography is strictly prohibited — you would be impressed by the rich encrustrations of gold saturating religious figures congregating behind a glass screen. You might wonder also how so much concentrated wealth could have been stored in these forest temples and wooden repositories at a time of grinding poverty, the region periodically suffering from famine. Perhaps the Buddhist clergy were not so different from the early clerics of the Catholic Church, who were able, through collections from rich and poor benefactors, to spend vast amounts of money on decorating cathedrals and basilicas, and making sure cardinals maintained high sartorial standards, their fingers and costumes freighted with rings and precious stones.

The Golden Hall is quite dazzling. A Buddha of Infinite Light, in the form of Amida Nyorai, presides over the altar, a deity tasked with driving away evil and illness. The hall, completed in 1124, is supported by tie beams and sturdy pillars protecting a dais inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Engravings sprinkled with gold and silver dust and lacy, filigree-like metalwork blend with golden statues, jizo figures, and a platform upon which the bodhisattva Kannon-sama, sits guarded by the celestial kings Jikokuten and Zochoten. A legacy of refinement has descended on this moderately sized town, where tradition has yet to shrivel up under the force of prosperity.

All this walking, scrutinizing of national treasures and picking at lightweight snacks along the way can make one hungry. It’s Monday and almost all of the restaurants are closed. Minka, a family-run eatery beside a level crossing, is one of the few places open, its shambolic interior a welcome contrast to the orderly discipline of the town’s fussily looked after sites. Here I sample Hatto Soup, a house concoction, a vegetable broth with mochi rice balls and flecks of edible gold leaf sparkling on the surface.

A Buddha statue of great repose in the grounds of Motsu-ji.
A Buddha statue of great repose in the grounds of Motsu-ji. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The bicycle rental store near the station opens at an obligingly early hour the next morning. The road to Takkoku-no-Iwaya is practically empty. When a vehicle appears, it feels like an intrusion. It’s good to be out in the countryside, among orderly farms, belts of forest, cooling streams. Takkoku-no-Iwaya is where wood meets stone in a standoff, in which the angularity of the bright orange Bishamondo Temple buildings and the curvaceous cliff it abuts, are somehow resolved. There is supposed to be an ancient carving, a stone Buddha, on the cliff, but after scouring the rock I can’t see anything, until its form composed itself, like a face emerging from the crowd.

A slightly longer, but equally rewarding side trip from Hiraizumi, is to the gorge of Geibikei. Someone has carved the word “Satan” in English onto the wooden bench on the platform at Geibikei Station. The shadowy forests of the region might lend themselves to dark thoughts, but you couldn’t imagine a less satanic place than the gorge, where wooden punts float above the calm surface of a river, a slow 40-minute cruise along a water course full of sweet fish and gray carp. The young woman at the helm works hard, multi-tasking at steering the vessel, telling rousing local stories and singing heartrending Iwate folk songs in a voice like the proverbial morning lark.

Guides at Geibikei Gorge double as pilots, raconteurs and singers.
Guides at Geibikei Gorge double as pilots, raconteurs and singers. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

It’s a moment of unalloyed magic, the notes soaring to the upper reaches of the cliff walls. Curious to know what lay beyond the summit of the gorge, I wait until she has finished her last paean to the beauty of the region, then ask. The answer: a public housing estate and cement factory. Life, it seems, is not always greener on the other side of the hill.

Getting there: Its eight minutes to Hiraizumi on the Tohoku main line from the Tohoku Shinkansen station of Ichinoseki, which is also the terminal for trains to Geibikei. Frequent buses run from the station to Hiraizumi. There is a tourist information office just outside Hiraizumi Station. Shirayama Ryokan (0191-46-2883) is located near Motsu-ji.

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