In the town of Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, in the Tohoku region, one can still visit the remains of a brief blossoming of culture and architecture that is said to have rivaled the capital of Kyoto in its time.

The historic monuments and sites of Hiraizumi, comprising five sites associated with Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, were granted UNESCO World Heritage site status in June of 2011. Their history begins with a man named Fujiwara no Kiyohira, who founded a unique dynasty that would last a century.

The rise and fall of the Fujiwara

Kiyohira lived in the late Heian Period, a time long before the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 that began the Edo Period. The Heian is known as a high point in art, poetry and literature, but its end was marked by political intrigue and struggles for power.

Kiyohira’s father descended from a branch of the influential Fujiwara clan that was the seat of de facto power for much of the Heian Period, while his mother was an Emishi, a group of people in northern Honshu who had a unique culture, but were gradually conquered by the Japanese. Kiyohira emerged the victor of a bloody power struggle between his step and half brothers in the Later Three Years’ War and established a new home in Hiraizumi between 1089 and 1100.

Although he survived, Kiyohira lost his immediate family to the violence. Based on his belief in Pure Land Buddhism, he commissioned Chusonji Temple, the cornerstone of the five UNESCO-designated sites, to memorialize all living things, including birds and insects that died in Tohoku during the preceding tumult.

Kiyohira’s son, Fujiwara no Motohira, commissioned Motsuji Temple at Hiraizumi’s southern entrance, and oversaw the laying of the city’s groundwork. Kiyohira’s grandson, Fujiwara no Hidehira, oversaw the final stages of construction on Motsuji Temple and had another temple, Muryokoin, built. Under his stewardship Hiraizumi reached its zenith as an economic and cultural hub.

Fujiwara no Yasuhira, the fourth and last hereditary leader of Hiraizumi, became embroiled in a power struggle that ended his dynasty. Compelled by his father’s dying wish to shelter the legendary Gen. Minamoto no Yoshitsune (who appears in Murasaki Shikubu’s “The Tale of Genji,” a proto-novel that ranks among Japan’s most famous literary achievements), Yasuhira at first obliged.

Yoshitsune had a feud with his brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who repeatedly demanded his release from Hiraizumi. Under pressure of war, Yasuhira disobeyed his father, turning on Yoshitsune in an attempt to appease Yoritomo’s wrath. The move was too little too late; Yoritomo successfully led an army from the Kanto region against Yasuhira, who set fire to Hiraizumi and was later killed by one of his own men. Yoritomo went on to found the Kamakura Shogunate, and the curtain fell on the Heian period, the Northern Fujiwara and Hiraizumi’s golden age.

Many of the town’s famous sites fell into disrepair and succumbed to fire over the centuries. Its state was captured in a haiku when the poet Matsuo Basho visited exactly 500 years after Yasuhira’s defeat:

Summer grass

All that remains

Of warriors’ dreams

Fans of Basho will find no shortage of statues and monuments to the lonely traveler throughout modern-day Hiraizumi.

Hiraizumi today

The monuments and sites that form the UNESCO-recognized area have undergone massive restoration and rebuilding in the post-war period, and Hiraizumi is now a fantastic destination for history buffs and appreciators of beautiful architecture and landscape.

Hondo main structure of Chusonji Temple

Chusonji Temple

Chusonji Temple sits atop Mount Kanzan and is the oldest of the Hiraizumi sites. Its Konjikido or “Golden Hall” is a mausoleum that contains the remains of all four leaders of the Northern Fujiwara. It escaped a fire in 1337, and was painstakingly restored by an expert team from 1962 to 1968. The Golden Hall is encased in a protective glass enclosure, but its ornate structure, decorated with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl, is not to be missed.

The Motsuji Temple garden

Motsuji Temple

Built by Motohira, the second lord of Hiraizumi, Motsuji Temple had 40 halls and 500 monk residences by the end of the 12th century. Enryuji Temple, which was lost to fire in 1226, was considered “peerless” in beauty and contained a statue of Yakushi, the “healing Buddha,” made by a sculptor from Kyoto.

Today, Buddhist Pure Land ceremonies from the 12th century are still conducted in the site’s Jogyodo building, which was built in 1732. In front of the place where Enryuji Temple once stood is a pond preserved much as it was when it was made. The scene contains elements in miniature such as a river, peninsula, shoreline, and island that make it a microcosm of the natural world. The adjacent garden, which has been maintained according to a landscaping textbook from the 11th century, is truly something to behold.

Kanjizaio-in Ato

Kanjizaio-in Ato

Originally built by the wife of Motohira, the temple complex that stood here has been long since lost to fire. What remains is the garden and pond, preserved much as it was. The peaceful scenery is meant to represent the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, and is connected by a stream to nearby Motsuji Temple. The Kanjizaio-in Ato grounds are open to the public.

Muryoko-in Ato

Now a site of ongoing archaeological research, this Pure Land garden and pond was once the home of Muryokoin, a temple built by Hidehira that was based on the Phoenix Hall of Kyoto’s Byodoin. Although the original temple buildings were burned and never rebuilt, the remains indicate that their placement took into account the peak of nearby Mount Kinkeisan and the path of the sun, so that twice a year, if facing the western hall from the east, the sun would set behind both the hall and the mountain in a sublime homage to the Buddhist paradise of Pure Land believers.

Mt. Kinkei

Mt. Kinkei

This modest mountain was highly significant to the original builders of Hiraizumi’s Pure Land sites, many of which were built in relation to its peak. The mountaintop is also the site of multiple sutra mounds, where important religious texts were buried in special containers to protect them during times of crisis.

Tranquil sites

When Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, presented the Certificate of World Heritage at the Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Centre in 2012, she said, “The serenity of the temples and gardens of Hiraizumi stands in poignant contrast with the deep wounds of a region hit hard by the earthquake of March 11, 2011.” That the sites have maintained their tranquility through the disaster in 2011, as well as through more than 900 years of history, makes Hiraizumi a destination well worth the time.

Download the PDF of this UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

Hiraizumi is accessible from Sendai and Tokyo on the Tohoku Shinkansen by stopping at Ichinoseki, which is only 10 minutes away from Hiraizumi Station on the Tohoku Line.

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