“夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡”(`Natsukusa ya tsuhamonodomo ga yume no ato`) – “Grasses in summer, the warriors’ dreams… all that is left”.
This poem, written by Master haikuist Matsuo Bashō after he visited the ancient temple complex of Hiraizumi, is one of the most famous in Japan. Located in Iwate on the banks of the Kitakami-gawa, these simple words summarise the rich history and stillness of this mighty temple complex. Basho enjoyed his time here – and you will to. With almost 1000 years of history and over 3,000 national treasures promoting the power of Tohoku, the strength of the Fujiwara Clan and the realisation of Pure Land Buddhism, Hiraizumi is well worth a visit.
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Accessing Hiraizumi is very simple. Most people take a 15 minute local-train from Ichinoseki, which is linked by shinkansen to Tokyo and beyond. Despite the small size of Hiraizumi, the temple complex is large and dominates the town. The series of temples which form part of Hiraizumi’s World Heritage Status can be easily accessed using a cheap, frequently scheduled tourist bus.
Hiraizumi was founded by the Oshu Fujiwara clan. Fujiwara no Kiyohira was a samurai known for his fighting skills and technical ability. He fought in several wars, losing his grandfather, uncle and others on the battle field. After several years, the experiences of war as well as the treatment of enemy and victor impacted his life and his desire for peace.
Looking to move his power hold from Ōshū City to a stronger location, Kiyohira decided on Mount Kanzan in Hiraizumi. Originally created for defence, Kiyohira later felt the location would suit the establishment of a temple complex. Funded in large part with the great mineral resources of the region, including gold, Kiyohira desired to establish a series of temples emulating a heaven on earth. Craftsmen from Japan were called in and the first temple, Chuson-ji, was established for the purpose of remembering souls lost in battle – both enemies and allies alike.
Kiyohira wrote a special Prayer for the Dedication to Chuson-ji Temple (Chuson-ji Kuyo Ganmon) in which he swore to create a peaceful country with no wars. It took Kiyohira 20 years to finish building Chuson-ji Temple.
All of Hiraizumi’s temples are founded upon Pure Land Buddhist philosophies, which believes that the rebirth of Western Paradise (Pure Land) can be obtained by those who respect the name of the Amitabha. Hence many of the Buddhas presented in Hiraizumi evoke the power of Amida Buddha imagery.
The journey to Chūson-ji starts with an uphill series of steps, leading past some lesser shrines and into the Mount Kanzan – a mountain forest, with cedar trees forming a progressions into the temple complex. The Chūson-ji lies at the end of the path, and consists of a series of halls, surrounding forest and prayer sites.
The Golden Hall is, to many, the highlight of the complex. Built in 1124, it houses a 5.5 meter square Buddhist altar made of Tohoku black lacquer and gold. It is an amazing place. There are many historical artifacts and statues, but the golden statues of the Amida Buddha, Bodhisattva and guardian kings are the primarily draw cards. Buried under the hall lies the remains of the three rulers of the Fujiwara clan – Kiyohira, Motohira and Hidehira. Each hall within the complex has significance and gives you a true sense of Pure Land philosophy. The trees and gardens incorporated within the complex adds to the serenity, as does the statue of Matsuo Bashō, reminding visitors of Bashō’s link to the temple.
The second must see site in Hiraizumi is the Motsu-ji Temple, and its garden Oizumi-ga-ike Pond. The Oizumi-ga-ike pond is based on Pure Land traditions and has been preserved for more than 800 years. The temple is the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Buddhism and the current structure was rebuilt after a fire in the 13th century.
The buildings of Motsu-ji were constructed by Motohira, of the second Fujiwara and finalised by the third Fujiwara. Motsu-ji has more than 40 buildings and several are accessible to visitors. The highlight is the pond and Bashō monument, as well as the Jogyodo Hall – which enshrines the Amida Nyorai. Visitors can also partake in meditational and sutra copying courses.
Motsu-ji and its surrounding parks makes for a pleasant stroll, and is much easier than Chūson-ji‘s mountain path. There is also a lovely café where you can enjoy a traditional meal. A must-see event at Motsu-ji is the Gokusui no En (Winding Stream) Festival. Taking place at the end of May, it makes use of the temple and gardens and is classified as one of the most beautiful events in Japan. The event involves participants dressed in Heian costume performing poetry, dance – Ennen no Mai and music.
In short, Hiraizumi is an excellent opportunity for visitors to experience a world heritage site stepped in history. Its mountain temples, shrines, garden ponds and rich Tohoku past, makes an experience visiting Hiraizumi a must – it is a classic bridge into Japan’s mystical past.