Written by Patricia MacLeod-Kishi
Heian Dreams - Hiraizumi In Autumn
Hiraizumi in Iwate prefecture is a World Heritage site, with temples and buildings whose history goes back more than eight centuries. This article introduces some of the monuments of Heian culture that can be seen in Hiraizumi.
The passion of Fujiwara no Kiyohira (1056 - 1128) to build a paradise of peace on earth has left an enduring legacy and Hiraizumi (Iwate prefecture) has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
From its founding, Hiraizumi’s guiding principle was the creation of a utopia based on the principles of Pure Land Buddhism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, gorgeous temples were constructed and gardens laid out according to classic Heian period aesthetics.
For about 100 years, four generations of the Oshu (Northern) Fujiwara were able to maintain dominance in Northeastern Japan. Their capital, Hiraizumi, strategically positioned at the confluence of the Koromo and Kitakami rivers, with high ground offering commanding views of the surrounding country, lay on the long-disputed frontier between the Japan under control from Kyoto and the “barbarian” Emishi country to the north.
Recent archeological digs have unearthed large quantities of tools and cultural artifacts that show that Hiraizumi was one of the largest cities in 12th century Japan. Fujiwara patronage of religion and the arts was munificent. Artisans and craftsmen were brought from Kyoto to recreate the temples and gardens in the south. Even so, the image of Hiraizumi has been eclipsed by the radiance of the literary and artistic accomplishments of the Heian court in Kyoto, as well as the ultimate fact that the Fujiwara did not survive conflict with Minamoto no Yoritomo.
Heian Period Commerce
Hiraizumi enjoyed economic prosperity through trade in valuable goods, especially gold mined locally. Other commercial goods were horses for the warrior classes (Mutsu Blacks were prized in Kyoto), iron pots and tools, hawk or eagle feathers (for arrows), furs, lacquer, goods from China, including porcelain, fabrics and brocades.
The Building of Hiraizumi
The founder of the Oshu Fujiwara dynasty, Kiyohira (1056-1128) had suffered extensive horrors throughout his life, including the beheading of his father and killings of his wife and children. He devoted his energies to building the temple complex of Chusonji, and the splendid treasure of the gold-plated Konjikido was completed in 1124.
His son Motohira (1105-1157) continued the building program and constructed Motsuji Temple. This was a stupendously expensive project and Motohira died before the completion of what came to be considered the finest temple in all Japan. Motsuji was finally completed by the third Fujiwara, Hidehira, who also sponsored a temple called Muryoko-in.
Fatefully, Hidehira died in 1187 during troubled times. He entreated his sons to side with Yoshitsune, the fugitive lord and military general, to whom Hidehira had offered refuge in Hiraizumi, and to resist political or military incursions by Yoshitsune’s aggressive older half-brother, Yoritomo.
However, in an attempt to placate Yoritomo, Hidehira’s heir, Yasuhira (1155-1189), forced Yoshitsune to commit suicide in early 1189. Two months later, Yasuhira also turned on his younger brother, who had supported Yoshitsune.
Yoritomo, striving to revive the Minamoto clan and establish a polity of his own in Kamakura, took advantage of the split between the Fujiwara brothers and sent his armies north.
Hiraizumi fell and the brief glory of the Oshu Fujiwara went up in flames. The city was torched (initially by Yasuhira himself as he fled). Later, Motsuji in 1226 and Chusonji in 1337 also burned. By 1600, little remained of the Fujiwara ideal city.
Ghosts of the Past
Through the centuries, Hiraizumi has managed to preserve some of its temples and former palace gardens. It is special for what has survived, and also for what we can imagine about the missing or destroyed elements, and the stories of people who lived and fought there.
300 years ago Matsuo Basho made a point of coming to visit Hiraizumi and wrote poignant verses about the valiant fighters who had spilled their blood uselessly.
Although most of the original city is gone, what does remain is a tradition of courtly elegance.
Irises, bush clover, chrysanthemums and the changing leaves add color to various festivals held in Hiraizumi. Very special are the lotus flowers that apparently, after 800 years, have grown from seeds that had been placed in the coffin of the last Fujiwara, Yasuhira.
Traditional Festivals at Hiraizumi
During the Spring Fujiwara Festival (May 1st - 5th), there is a parade in Heian-style costume. The Gokusui no En, held on the fourth Sunday in May, is a type of poetry contest that was popular among Heian nobility.
Other solemn festivals are Ennen no Mai, a ritual performed since Heian times as prayer for long life, the Fall Fujiwara Festival (November 1st - 3rd), and the Chusonji Bonfire Noh (the next performance is scheduled for January 20, 2017). The cultural heritage of this special city is alive and well.
Chusonji and Motsuji both offer traditional zazen meditation practice, as well as sutra transcription classes and Buddhist teaching.
What to Visit in Hiraizumi
1. Chusonji Temple was built to comfort the spirits of those killed in the various wars. It holds over 3,000 National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties (only some of which are on display). The most important is the Konjikido Golden Hall, a major National Treasure, where the remains of the first three generations of the Oshu Fujiwara lords are entombed. (Entrance fee: 1200 yen)
2. Motsuji Temple and Garden is a designated Special Historical Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty, noted for its irises in early summer and maple leaves in the fall. (Entrance fee: 300 yen)
3. The Yanagi no Gosho is a museum that provides information about the archeology of the former Heian government offices site. (Entrance: free)
4. Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center, a museum explaining the historical background of the area. (Entrance: free)
5. Kinkeisan - a small climb to a symbolically important central mound where sutras were buried by the Fujiwara rulers.
6. Takkoku no Iwaya, a temple set in a cliff face about 7 km from Hiraizumi. (Entrance fee: 300 yen)
7. Takadachi Gikeido, a small climb to the Yoshitsune Memorial Shrine. (Entrance fee: 200 yen)
Tales of the heroism and loyalty of the ultimate warrior monk, Musashibo Benkei (1155-1189), still inspire. There is a large stone near the entrance of Chusonji commemorating Benkei’s indomitable spirit. He died standing while fighting to the last in defense of Minamoto no Yoshitsune.
Also, about 30 km north, in Oshu, the Esashi Fujiwara no Sato Heritage Park is an extensive park with buildings reconstructed from Heian period Hiraizumi. The location is often used for historical movies and TV dramas. Visitors can try wearing kimono and participating in activities such as painting pictures on clam shells, playing games enjoyed by the Heian nobility, and dressing up in full armor.
A visit to Hiraizumi at any time of the year offers a chance to wander back over the centuries to the exquisite world that Kiyohira envisioned.