[From January Issue 2012]
Located in the southwestern part of Iwate Prefecture, Hiraizumi-cho thrived as the second largest city after Heian-kyou (Kyoto) in the late Heian period (12th century). A group of five historical assets located in Hiraizumi, including Chuson-ji Temple, were designated as World Heritage sites in June 2011, making Iwate the first to have such assets in the northern part of Japan (Touhoku and Hokkaido). Each of these sites represents the image of the Joudo (Pure Land) school of Buddhist thought on earth and many people visit in order to experience the splendor of Joudo and the beauty of nature in Hiraizumi-cho.
Joudo is a branch of Buddhism also known in Japan as Bukkoku-do (the land of Buddhism). Followers believe that one can reach the pure Buddhist land after death and rest in peace, and that one can attain enlightenment in this world as well.
The Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center is a facility designed to briefly explain the cultural heritage of Hiraizumi in a way that even beginners can easily understand. In addition to exhibiting numerous archaeological finds unearthed during excavations, the facility also serves as the town’s tourist information center. With audio guides available in English, Korean and Chinese, this is a good starting point for your trip around Hiraizumi.
Without further ado, let’s head right to Chuson-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site. Chuson-ji Temple retains a number of important national cultural assets, many of which are national treasures. Sankou-zou, the temple’s museum, could be described as a treasure house of art works from the Heian period. It contains many noteworthy things, including the “Santai no Jourokubutsu” – the three statues of the Buddha which the temple is dedicated to – and the Chuson-ji Sutra, which is written in gold on dark blue paper.
Konjiki-dou (the Golden Hall) stands close to Sankou-zou. Built about 900 years ago, this gorgeous hall dedicated to Amida Buddha is entirely covered with thin layers of gold both inside and out. A mother-of-pearl inlay (a pattern created by cutting gleaming shells called yakou-gai) decorates the four pillars and the altar inside the hall. Ornamental metal fretwork, and makie – a traditional Japanese technique for making a pattern by sprinkling gold or mother-of-pearl inlay on a surface using lacquer as glue – all contribute to the artistic beauty of the entire hall.
After admiring these cultural art works from the Heian period, you can drop by Motsu-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site which depicts the Pure Land in the form of a garden. It goes without saying that the highlight of a visit to this temple is its Pure Land Garden. Reflecting the changes in season and the colors of the setting sun in its mirror-like surface, Oizumi-ga Pond is incredibly beautiful. The garden has been nationally recognized as a spot of historic interest and incredible beauty.
Motsu-ji Temple also holds festivals, including the “Haru no Fujiwara Matsuri” (Spring Fujiwara Festival), where nearly 100 participants parade from Motsu-ji Temple to Chuson-ji Temple to recreate scenes from a Heian period emaki (picture scroll). There’s also the Gokusui no Utage ceremony, where poets clad in Heian period imperial costumes write waka poetry and the Ayame Matsuri (Iris Festival), a festival that allows visitors to fully enjoy the beauty of the temple, featuring 30,000 bunches of irises blooming around Oizumi-ga Pond.
If you go west from Motsu-ji Temple for about ten minutes by car, a dynamic Buddhist statue, which has been carved into a huge rock wall, comes into view. Takkoku no Iwaya is a nationally designated historic site and is the northernmost spot in Japan where you can find a Buddhist statue carved into a rock face. The statue is said to have been built by SAKANOUE no Tamuramaro, a Seii-Taishogun (a shogun responsible for conquering barbarian areas), to celebrate a military victory. Standing in front of the statue is Bishamon-do Hall, which is believed to have been built to enshrine more than 100 Bishamonten gods and to serve as a refuge in which people could pray for the end of the upheavals.
Another five minutes’ drive westward from Takkoku no Iwaya will take you to Genbikei Gorge, a nationally designated site of scenic beauty and a national monument. It is a beautiful gorge of unusual and strangely-shaped rocks, that stretches for two kilometers. Delivered as if they were flying over the gorge are “kakkou dango” (dumplings), a specialty of Genbikei Gorge. For obvious reasons, these are also known as “flying dumplings.” Available in three flavors, the dumplings are delivered on wire ropes from a dumpling shop on the opposite bank.
Crossing a bridge over Genbikei Gorge and walking for two minutes, you come to Sahara Glass Park, a glass art shop that displays and sells over 100,000 glass products from around the world. There you can buy souvenirs or take a break at the restaurant and café inside the shop. Also, at a craft workshop in the building, you can experience glass blowing or making tombo-dama (a glass ball with a hole).
A 40-minute drive to east from Genbikei Gorge is Geibikei Gorge, where is one of Japan’s 100 scenic places. A nationally designated site of scenic beauty and a national monument, the gorge comprises of two kilometers of cliffs about 100 meters high. A popular activity there is taking a boat ride down the river while listening to the boatman’s traditional songs and tales. Here, you can gaze at the abundance of nature: the greenery covering the mountains, wisteria blossoms, golden-rayed lilies, and ayu (sweetfish) that can be glimpsed from the surface of the water.
If you ride down the river through Geibikei Gorge when the snows come in winter, you’ll find kotatsu (a table with a heater underneath) aboard your yakatabune pleasure boat. Those who make a reservation can choose to enjoy a pot of kinagashi-nabe (a dish in which vegetables, chicken and pork are cooked in a miso-based soup), while keeping warm under the kotatsu. This dish has been long been popular in this region for its warming properties. The kotatsu boat operates from December 1 through to the end of February.
Road Station Genbikei is the place to enjoy the gourmet food of Hiraizumi. There is a restaurant here that specializes in rice cakes, a specialty of the southern part of Iwate Prefecture, and you can enjoy such dishes as mochi-zen, a tray of rice cakes with eight different toppings including sweet bean paste, sesame, ginger and shrimp, or zaru-soba set, a set meal of cold soba noodles and rice cakes. There is also a corner at which you’ll find an arrangement of fresh fruit and vegetables direct from farms, giving you an opportunity to enjoy the area’s food culture.
There are tour guides who speak English, Chinese, Korean and German in Hiraizumi-cho, allowing non-Japanese to freely enjoy the town’s World Heritage sites. It takes two hours and ten minutes from Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen. From there, transfer to the JR Tohoku Line; it takes another eight minutes to get to Hiraizumi Station. There is a sightseeing bus called “Lun Lun” from Hiraizumi Station; a one-day pass costs 400 yen for adults.
Text: KONNO Kazumi