Has it really been almost 5 months since I woke up in Naruko Onsen after two peaceful nights and set off on the next part of my adventure? Time flies, doesn’t it? I really must get a wriggle on and finish sharing all these stories! So, it was 29th May and, after a delicious breakfast at my ryokan in Naruko and a lot of thank yous and bows as I parted ways with the lovely owners, I returned to Naruko Onsen Station and continued my journey to Hiraizumi (平泉).
I arrived in Hiraizumi at around 10:30am and found a very different looking town to the one I had left behind.
Hiraizumi was quiet. But where Naruko had been quiet in a sleepy and tired way, Hiraizumi was quiet in an expectant way. It was like the town had tidied up and put on its Sunday best and was now sitting there patiently waiting for visitors. I’m told it’s a different story during peak season and Japanese holidays such as Golden Week, but when I arrived there at the end of May I felt like not just the only foreign tourist, but the only tourist full stop. I felt like I was the first person to visit Hiraizumi!
The Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2011, not long after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Due to the way my schedule worked out I was only going to be spending one night in Hiraizumi, but that was enough to see the main sights. Straight away I got myself a ‘Run Run’ loop line bus ticket for 400 Yen which allows you to hop on and off all day, and headed to my accommodation to drop off my things. Accommodation is limited in Hiraizumi, so I stayed at one of the most popular options – Musashibo. The Japanese style hotel was a little tired, but it was in a great location and I really couldn’t complain.
A little up the road from my hotel was the Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center. I wasn’t really in the mood for museums, but I stopped by briefly just to see what it was all about. There was a lot of information in the museum, but I felt pressed for time and wanted to get on to the main sights, so I kept my visit brief.
A short bus ride brought me to Chusonji (中尊寺), a temple which is one of the sites that makes up the ‘Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi’. I stopped for a creamy Tohoku ice cream (much to a school group’s amusement) before making my way into Chusonji’s grounds, which proved to be a good move as I had a lot of walking ahead of me and it was quite a hot day.
The paths leading through Chusonji’s grounds were lined with these towering trees…
And all along the way were small shrines, temples and statues to keep me amused.
The view as I was climbing higher up Tsukimizaka Slope (月見坂) was stunning…
Reaching Hondo (本堂), the Main Hall, I found the other tourists in Hiraizumi, who were mainly Japanese senior citizens.
Everything was very clean and tidy, and it was clear a lot of work had been done to keep the site worthy of its World Heritage status. Even the vending machines had been dressed in keeping with their surroundings…
After Hondo, the next most important building at Chusonji is Konjikido (金色堂), the Golden Hall.
Photographs were strictly forbidden inside the building pictured above, which actually acts as a shelter for Konjikido, pictured below.
(Image source: Chusonji website)
As soon as I walked in the building an English commentary started playing and a guard gave me a smile. As the only non-Japanese tourist in the room I felt special, and grateful that they had noticed me and thought I might appreciate some explanation. Konjikido was completed in 1124, and features Amida Nyorai (the Buddha of Infinite Light) with Kannon (the Boddhisatva of Compassion) and Seishi (the Boddhisatva of Wisdom). Also, there are six Jizo Boddhisatvas (Saviours from Hell) and two Guardian Kings, Jikokuten and Zochoten. Almost all of the hall is covered in gold-leaf and is said to represent the “radiant western Pure Land (gokuraku) or Land of Utmost Bliss”.
Upon leaving this elaborate structure, I ran in to Basho again.
He was stood next to a very tempting path, which is just the kind of route I imagine he would have loved to have walked.
I spent quite a while exploring the various buildings on the Chusonji complex before making my way back down and taking a bus back to the station area. I decided to explore a little on foot, so I walked from the station to Motsuji (毛越寺), another of the ‘Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi’.
I arrived at Motsuji at just after 2pm and it was really quiet.
One thing I was keeping my eye out for at Motsuji was the monument to Basho’s haiku that he wrote whilst in Hiraizumi. This haiku reflects on the impermanence of glory, which is fitting at Motsuji, where many of the main buildings are now just represented by white sticks in the ground stating that this was where the ‘former whatever’ used to be.
夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡
natsugusa ya / tsuwamono domo ga / yume no ato
The summer grass –
‘Tis all that’s left
Of ancient warriors’ dreams
Mostusji, as a temple, is nothing that spectacular, especially on a quiet day with storm clouds rolling in.
It’s got some nice Buddha statues, but that’s about all.
The main attraction at Motsuji is actually the garden; one of Japan’s few remaining ‘pure land’ gardens. Popular during the Heian Period (平安時代) (794 – 1185), ‘pure land’ gardens attempt to recreate the Buddhist concept of the pure land or ‘Buddhist paradise’, and usually centre around a large pond.
on the 4th Sunday of May, the stream pictured below is the site of Gokusui no En (曲水の宴), the Winding Stream Festival. This festival re-enacts a poetry contest from the Heian Period, and participants wear Heian-style costumes. They have to compose poetry before a floating cup of sake reaches them, after which they have to drink from the cup. Sadly my visit to Hiraizumi came just a few days after this festival, but there was no way I could change my schedule to make it fit in.
Mostuji was quiet when I arrived, and even quieter when I left as it had started raining and the few Japanese tourists I had encountered had all fled. Before I left the temple grounds I found a lovely Jizo statue which is one of my favourites from my whole trip. I just love his face.
Following my nose and trying to head back to my hotel I almost ended up in someone’s garden, but before long I found my way back. Hotel Musashibo was really just a few minutes’ walk away from Motsuji, which was very convenient. Hote Musashibo is a slightly retro Japanese style hotel, with tatami mat rooms but a Western lobby and dining area. This kind of hotel is very common around the more rural parts of Japan, and I don’t mind them at all to be honest.
The view from my window was peaceful and relaxing, and I enjoyed just sitting around for a while drinking green tea.
Dinner was a feast of tiny dishes and local beer, which came with a sweet message:
When I returned to my room, my futon had been laid out and night had come. So had the frogs. All I could hear all night was the song of what seemed like a million frogs, crickets and other nocturnal beasties playing merrily in the rice paddies outside my window. I did sleep well, but it took a bit of adjustment!
The following morning, before moving on to my next destination, I hopped on a bus and took a quick trip to one more sight of interest (although not one of the ‘Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi’): Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo (達谷窟毘沙門堂). This temple was constructed partially in the rock face of a cliff, and was built in the 9th century. I’d heard there was a big Buddha there, so naturally I had to check it out.
The temple grounds were small, but there were a few things of interest…
Here’s the temple built into the cliff…
The temple and small garden were nice, but nothing that spectacular. I was excited to see the large Buddha, but a little disappointed when I found him…
Takkoku no Iwaya wasn’t quite what I expected, but I’m glad I went along anyway. I have to take every possible opportunity to see a big Buddha! Hiraizumi as a whole wasn’t quite what I expected either, but I liked it and would love to go again to explore some of the surrounding areas such as Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓). If I’m ever lucky enough to go back in autumn that’s a place I have to visit!
And so ends another chapter in my Tohoku adventure. Later that day I headed off to my next destination, which was a real place of adventure, complete with monsters and demons… more about that coming soon!