The women in the tourist information are delighted to try their English: You are visiting the Golden Hall of Chusonji? It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage and has such a great history! They present me with a textile coaster printed with a local design: Old Nanbu stencil dyeing, they explain, and some of the patterns can be traced back to the trade routes of the Silk Road. These patterns came from China to this off-the-beaten-track region in the North of Japan in the 11th or 12th century when Hiraizumi was an important cultural centre.
At that time the local ruling clan of the Oshu Fujiwara held their own against the central government in Kyoto. But not only cloth patterns came along the Silk Road, also new ideas and concepts, like Buddhism and new concepts of garden architecture. Hiraizumi is one of the first examples where this new ideas harmoniously mixed with the older ideas of Nature worship.
On this autumn day there are not many Western tourists in Hiraizumi, but Japanese (and Koreans) flock to the site to see the autumn leaves turn a spectacular red. Chusonji Tempel consists of a number of buildings in different sizes leading up to a small hill. Tour guides hold their flags and banners like Samurai generals leading their troops.
In front of the main temple hall, a dozen young men in traditional Japanese jackets and wild headdresses with a pile of feathers are performing a dynamic dance, accompanied by drums and pipes. Behind them an exhibition of prize-winning chrysanthemums elicits admiration by the visitors.
Near the top of the hill, we are channelled into the new museum building and then to the Konjiki-do, the Golden Hall, the most impressive and well-known building in Hiraizumi. Konjiki-do, built in 1124, is dedicated to the Buddha Amida, the principal Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism, but also houses several tombs of the Oshu Fujiwara lords, the former powerful masters of the town. And they made it a showcase of their wealth: The whole structure is covered in gold leaf, even outside, and dozens of golden statues line the altars. No wonder that the complete building was housed inside a separate, protective hall only a century later; today it is displayed in a modern concrete exhibition hall. Nevertheless, you can walk all around the Golden Hall and gape at it as long as you like while a tape repeats a lengthy explanation (only in Japanese). Unfortunately, taking pictures is forbidden.
Reasons to visit the UNESCO site of Hiraizumi
Besides Chusonji, several other buildings and gardens belong to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hiraizumi, most of them dating from the 12th century. In comparison to Kyoto or Kamakura (where you also can see old temples), Hiraizumi is much less visited and especially in autumn very pleasant.
And – Minamoto no Yoshitsune committed seppuku here – admirers of this great hero of Japanese history can still visit the spot.
How to get to Hiraizumi
Hiraizumi station is only 10 minutes by train from Ichinoseki, which again is a 30-minute ride from Sendai or 40 minutes from Morioka. The best way to visit might be on a day trip from Sendai or Morioka (inexpensive luggage storage opposite the station). There are also direct buses going from Ichinoseki to Chusonji and the Golden Hall. Hiraizumi itself is perfectly walkable. If you want to stay the night there are several smaller guesthouses.