Hiraizumi temples offer portal to the Pure Land

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Visitors walk around the garden of Motsuji temple, which was built in what is now Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, by the Oshu Fujiwara clan.

By Ryo Imaizumi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNatsukusa ya / Tsuwamono domo ga / Yume no ato (Grasses in summer / The warriors dreams / All that left).

Matsuo Basho (1644-94) wrote this famous haiku poem when he visited Hiraizumi in present-day Iwate Prefecture in 1689, the 500th anniversary of the downfall of the Oshu Fujiwara clan that had prospered in the Tohoku region. The renowned poet penned his masterpiece haiku collection “Oku no Hosomichi” (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) as he traced the path taken by Saigyo (1118-1190), a poet who lived around the same time as the Oshu Fujiwara clan.

As the late Heian period (late eighth century to late 12th century) was a tumultuous period marked by strife and famine, the clan built temples with the aim of ascending to the Buddhist Pure Land after death. I traveled to Chusonji temple built by Fujiwara no Kiyohira, the founder of the Oshu Fujiwara clan, in Hiraizumi. The temple is one of a number of locations that comprise a World Heritage site titled “Hiraizumi — Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Chochin paper lanterns painted with Chinese characters and an image of a bush warbler are displayed at Hiraizumiya, a paper lantern shop near Chusonji temple.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

After walking up the Tsukimizaka slope approach, I encountered the Konjikido golden hall whose floor, walls, Buddhist statues and other features are covered with gold leaf. Many of Chusonji’s structures were destroyed by fire, and Konjikido is the only property that has survived in its original form. In 1951, the hall was the first building to be designated a national treasure building under the Law on Protection of Cultural Properties.

“Worn out from fighting and having lost his wife and child, Kiyohira desired peace more than anything else. He might have wanted to build a space where he could feel calm,” said Shoko Miura, 48, an official at the temple, describing Kiyohara’s motivation for building the structure.

I then visited Motsuji temple, construction of which was launched by Motohira, the second-generation head of Oshu Fujiwara family, and completed during the reign of his successor Hidehira. It is regrettable that the temple’s main hall — described as magnificent beyond comparison in the “Azuma Kagami” (The Mirror of the East), a history book from the Kamakura period (late 12th century to early 14th century) — burned down.

I participated in a Zen meditation session (fee and reservation required) in the hall, which helped me adjust my posture and control my breathing, before strolling through Motsuji’s Pure Land Garden on the temple grounds. Amid the silence, droplets of rain created small ripples on the surface of Oizumigaike, a large pond. The leaves of trees and moss-covered stones arranged in the pond had been dampened by the rain, helping me more deeply appreciate the beauty of the garden, whose cultural value is recognized both as a special historical site and a special scenic spot.

“Motsuji is the gate to Hiraizumi,” said Kojun Shirayama, 58, head of the temple’s general affairs department. “The landscape around the temple probably looked like a Pure Land and paradise for people who managed to get here after trekking through rugged mountain paths.”

After winning a series of battles with the Taira clan — also known as the Heike clan — Minamoto no Yoshitsune was pursued by his elder half-brother Yoritomo, head of the Minamoto family, and fled to Tohoku where he was sheltered by Hidehira. I walked up the Takadachi hill, which is said to be where Yoshitsune died. Gazing down, I saw a wide expanse of green-covered land over the Kitakamigawa river.

Kuni yaburete sanga ari / Shiro haru ni shite kusa aomitari to / Kasa uchishiki te / Tokino utsuru made / Namida wo otoshi haberinu (Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain / Grass grows thickly when spring comes at the site of a castle / Sitting on a sedge hat / I shed tears as long as I like).

Basho wrote this poem from the hill, gently shedding tears as he ruminated over the rise and fall of the Oshu Fujiwara clan and Yoshitsune’s sad fate.

In both fiscal 2011 and 2012, more than 80,000 people visited the Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center, where visitors can learn the history and other subjects related to the Oshu-Fujiwara clan. The number of visitors has hovered around 36,000 in recent years. Tsukasa Oikawa, 60, director of the center, said he hoped that visitors “will think now more than ever about what the Pure Land is, as they explore [Hiraizumi’s cultural sites].”

Visiting Hiraizumi’s temples, I forgot my life dictated by time constraints and felt refreshed.

Chochin painting experience

Visitors can try their hand at chochin painting at the shop (Tel: (0191) 46-2413), though reservations are required in advance. Painting is popular among foreign tourists, and they especially enjoy painting the characters for kenko (health) and heiwa (peace). A large 39-centimeter-tall chochin costs ¥5,000, while a smaller 28-centimeter-tall chochin costs ¥2,500 (tax included for both prices).

“It’s nice to make a chochin of which only one exists, and bring it home as a souvenir from Hiraizumi,” said shop proprietor Haruyoshi Sudo, 64.


Take a seven-minute bus ride from Hanamaki Airport to JR Hanamaki Kuko Station. From the station, take the JR Tohoku Line for about 45 minutes to Hiraizumi Station.

Inquiries: Hiraizumi Tourism Association at (0191) 46-2110.

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