Tohoku’s First World Heritage Site: Hiraizumi

A “Michinoku” paradise, just 3 hours from Tokyo

The northeastern region of Tohoku, where Hiraizumi is located, has been called “Michinoku” from days of old. This name means “end of the road.” In olden times, the Imperial seat in Kyoto viewed even the modern day capital of Tokyo as being located far away from the heart of Japan. And the Tohoku region, which was much farther north than Tokyo, was quite literally the “end of the road.” In addition to being the only producer of gold in Japan, 11th-century Tohoku produced special local products like high quality horses, Japanese paper (washi), and lacquer needed for craftwork. Comparing Japan to Great Britain, it is probably easiest to picture Tohoku as being somewhat analogous to Scotland with a culture that was independent from the seat of government in England.

Ok, let’s go take a look at this Buddhist culture of gold unique to “Michinoku.” Tohoku Shinansen, bullet train, now runs up to Aomori at the northernmost tip of Tohoku, making it extremely easy to take trips up to Tohoku. To get to Hiraizumi, first take a 2 hour and 20 minute bullet train ride from Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki Station. Then, transfer to JR Tohoku Main Line at Ichinoseki Station and you will arrive in Hiraizumi in 9 minutes.

If you take off from Tokyo Station in the morning, you can reach the “Michinoku” area of Hiraizumi around noon time. Step out into the lush green countryside and enjoy a leisurely stroll through the Japanese rural scenery up to the Tsukimi-zaka Slope entrance of Chusonji Temple. From Hiraizumi Station, this is a 1.6 kilometer walk of about 20 to 30 minutes. This trip to Hiraizumi may wind up being a journey back through time. It is an expedition that will take you deep into a Buddhist paradise with nearly 1000 years of history. Passing through the Chusonji Temple gate and enjoying a leisurely climb up the Tsukimi-zaka Slope lined with 300 to 400 year old cedar trees will put you at the Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) portion of Chusonji Temple.

What are Japanese Buddhism and “Jodo”?

Before entering Konjiki-do (Golden Hall), let’s talk a bit about Buddhism in Japan. The brand of Buddhism that came to Japan from China during its Sui and Tang Dynasties spread throughout Japan in the Nara era of the 8th century. In order to establish a nationalized government system, the central seat of power in Japan at that time (the Imperial Court) decided to place the Imperial palace in Nara and erected a Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue at Todaiji Temple. By placing provincial monasteries (Kokubunji Temples) in regions all over Japan with this Great Buddha as the central core, the seat of power succeeded in constructing a nationalized Buddhist network. In the 9th century, the Imperial palace moved from Nara to Kyoto and the Heian era began. The core of Buddhism also moved from Nara to Kyoto.



In this era, the two sects of Buddhism that were the most influential were the Tendai sect of Buddhism, with its headquarters in the Enryakuji Temple located northeast of Kyoto on Mt. Hiei, and the Shingon sect of Buddhism, with its headquarters in the Toji temple of Kyoto and the Mt. Koya in Wakayama. Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei particularly became a center of Buddhist culture in Japan, with its influence spreading over the entire country. The main current of Buddhism also changed from a scholarly Nara-style Buddhism to a more accessible “popular Buddhism.” Jodo Buddhism, which came from Tendai Buddhism became dominant in the late Heian era of the 11th century. This teaching states that absolutely any follower who dies, regardless of class or gender, is qualified to be taken to an afterlife paradise called “Jodo” by Amida Butsu, the Buddha that resides in the “Western Paradise.”

Reciting the words “namu amida butsu” are enough to ensure passage to Jodo (Pure Land) upon death. Faith in this teaching spread over an expansive range of followers, spanning from the royal class to commoners. In bids to receive assured passage to Jodo, the royal class commissioned the construction of temples and gardens that represent this ideal realm. The Oshu Fujiwara clan, who were largely responsible for creating an independent culture in the Tohoku region in the late Heian era of the 12th century, were staunch believers in the brand of Jodo Buddhism that came from Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei near the Imperial seat of power in Kyoto. They built a real Buddhist world centered around on the Buddhist faith of Jodo Buddhism. Hiraizumi prospered for almost 100 years and ushered in the “Hiraizumi age,” where the frontier “Michinoku” region of Tohoku existed without any warring at all. At the core of all of this were the recently selected World Heritage sites of Chusonji Temple and Moutsuji Temple in Hiraizumi.

A world of gold! Konjiki-do (Golden Hall) in Chusonji Temple



Now it is time to enter Konjiki-do (Golden Hall). Stepping into the dim main hall, you are overwhelmed by the sheer world of gold. Konjiki-do, which presents the same image as it did when the Chusonji Temple was first built in 1124, depicts the golden world of the Buddha. Here, gold is not used to symbolize power, but instead to portray the beautiful world of the Buddha, permeated with light. It is composed of an array of Buddhas, centering on the “Amida Nyorai” Buddha. The altar on which these Buddhas are arranged is called a “Shumidan” in Buddhism. Shockingly, at this Shumidan the mummies of Kiyohira (the founder of the Oshu Fujiwara clan), Motohira (the second leader), and Hidehira (the third leader) as well as the head of Yasuhira (the fourth leader) are enshrined. Examples of the mummies of parents and their children with a clear line of descent through four generations cannot be found anywhere else on the earth. In the popular culture of the time, when a leader died, mummifying that leader was a way of praying for the peace of that land. Konjiki-do became the first National Treasure Building in Japan, and has come to symbolize the Oshu Fujiwara culture of the Tohoku region.

A Jodo landscape! The Jodo Garden at Motsuji Temple

After exiting Chusonji Temple, if you walk back along the same route as the one you came on, you will come to Motsuji Temple. Compared to the wooded Chusonji Temple, Motsuji Temple has a more spacious and brighter feel. The main attraction to see at Motsuji Temple is the beautiful and expansive Jodo garden. Other temples, like the Byodoin Temple of Kyoto, also have famous Jodo gardens. So, let’s take a closer look at what kind of a realm Jodo is.

Buddhist sutras state that, “Jodo is expansive without end and everything there is beautiful. All of the ponds, buildings, and trees are decorated with beautifully sparkling gold, silver, and jewels. Everyone who lives there is never for want of clothing and food. The climate is temperate, and truth of the Buddha emanates through all sounds, such as trees rustling in the wind and birds chirping. There is no suffering in Jodo, and it is brimming with joy.”

That is the general spirit of how it is usually rendered. The Jodo garden of Motsuji Temple was created to depict the scenery described in the sutras using the Heian era pinnacle of garden landscaping technique. The center piece of the garden is Oizumi ga Ike, a pond measuring 180 meters in the east-west direction that is extolled for its beautiful water. An island covered with beautiful round stones peaks out near the center of the pond. In the pond, aesthetically well shaped rocks and stones as well as sandy banks are arranged to artistically portray natural scenery. Following the description of Jodo as, “expansive without end and everything there is beautiful,” the Jodo garden of Motsuji Temple has stood for some 800 years amidst the year-round beauty of Hiraizumi nature.

The spirit of the UNESCO Constitution and Jodo ideology

A message from Fujiwara no Kiyohira upon the construction of Chusonji Temple was left for future generations.

It reads, “From days of old, Tohoku has seen many lives lost in war. And beasts, birds, and fish have also been killed without measure. The souls of living beings have departed for the afterlife and their bones have crumbled, becoming part and parcel of the Tohoku soil. It is my sincere hope that every time the bell in this Chusonji Temple is rung, the souls of all of the innocent beings that have had their lives stolen from them will be soothed and lead towards Gokuraku Jodo (the Pure Land of Bliss).”

On this same note, the UNESCO Constitution rings out loud and clear with the principle stating, “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” This profound spirit of peace embedded in the UNESCO Constitution shares a very close kinship with the realm of Jodo that Fujiwara no Kiyohira attempted to reproduce in this world.

The cultural legacy of Hiraizumi that was selected as an ensemble of World Heritage sites is deeply permeated with a universal longing for peace.

Having Hiraizumi registered as a World Heritage Site has been a dream of ours for many years, and it has finally come true. After the disaster and destruction caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the people of Tohoku now face an overwhelmingly difficult path towards reconstruction. It is our sincere wish that this registration can be of some small help for them in paving that path. Hiraizumi was born from the ashes of a land ravaged by war that struggled to rebuild in the 12th century, constructed there by the Oshu Fujiwara clan in a bid to fulfill their longing for permanent peace and the achievement of the ideal Buddhist territory. I would be very honored if you visit Hiraizumi, take in the sites of unparalleled Jodo Gardens, and cast your thoughts towards the Buddhist ideal of peace.

Head Priest of Motsuji Temple  Myokyu Fujisato

Information

Chusonji Temple
Hours: March 1 – November 3 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
* November 4 – The end of February 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Admission fee: Adult 800 yen

Motsuji Temple
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
* November 5 – April 4 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Admission fee: Adult 500 yen

Access

2 hours 20 min by Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki Station.
Transfer to JR Tohoku Main Line at Ichinoseki Station and get off at Hiraizumi Station in 9 minutes.