Hiraizumi features a cluster of temples and ruins left by the Oshu Fujiwara warrior family that ruled Japan’s Tohoku region from the 11th to the 12th centuries. Its most famous attraction is Chuson-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple established in 850 with a stunning Golden Hall.

Hiraizumi’s World Heritage sites, which were officially granted the status in 2011, comprise a small group of temples, gardens and archaeological sites representative of the cosmology and design of Pure Land or Amida Buddhism. The sites encompass four temple complexes with their Pure Land Gardens and the sacred mountain of Mt. Kinkeisan to which they are visually aligned. Two of the temples and their gardens - Chūson-ji Temple and Mōtsū-ji Temple - are extant, while two more - Kanjizaiō-in Temple and Muryōkō-in Temple - lie in ruins.

 

Chusonji Temple, Hirazumi

The sites date from the 11th and 12th centuries, when Hirazumi was the political and administrative centre and de facto capital of Oshu, the northern realm of Japan. In about 1100, the leader of the northern branch of the ruling Fujiwara clan, Fujiwara no Kiyohara, signalled by the building of his new abode in Hiraizumi that he intended to rule the north of Japan independently of the court in Kyoto. After settling in Hiraizumi, he embarked upon an ambitious program of temple-building projects based on the principles of Pure Land Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that spread to Japan in the 8th century.

Kiyohara constructed a spacious temple complex atop Mt. Kanzan, beginning with a large pagoda on the very top of the mountain. In conjunction with the pagoda, small umbrella reliquaries (kasa sotoba) with placards depicting the Amida Buddha painted in gold were placed every 100 metres along the Oshu Kaido highway. Other pagodas, temples and gardens soon followed, all based on Pure Land Buddhist principles of cosmology and design. Carefully placed in relation to the ponds, trees and peaks of Mt. Kinkeisan, they were intended as symbolic manifestations of the Pure Land - quite literally, a vision of paradise on earth. 

The four Pure Land gardens attest to the diffusion of Buddhism over south-east Asia and exemplify a unique fusion of Pure Land Buddhism with indigenous Japanese beliefs, especially those pertaining to the relationship between the gardens, water and the surrounding natural landscape. Two of the gardens have been reconstructed, with many details discovered during the excavations, while two of them remain buried.

Konjiki-do Hall, Chuson-ji Temple

Hiraizumi’s complex of splendid temples, pagodas, repositories and gardens was intended to be Kiyohara’s legacy as well as the embodiment of his vision for the future of his dynasty and domain. Of the original buildings dating from the 12th century, only two structures survive, both at Chuson-ji Temple complex, Hiraizumi’s most famous attraction.

One is a sutra repository, while the other is the Konjiki-do Hall, a mausoleum  representing the Buddhist Pure Land intended to be the final resting place of the northern Fujiwara lords. This jewel-box of a building is heavily gilded inside with gold leaf and mother of pearl; its breathtakingly opulent appearance reflects the enormous wealth and power of the Oshu Fujiwara clan when they built it. 

At its height, Hirazumi boasted a population of 50,000-100,000 people, and rivalled Kyoto both politically and commercially in size, splendour and power. However, its success was not to last, and Hiraizumi’s golden age came to an abrupt end after only around 100 years. Much of it was destroyed in 1189, when the area was razed to the ground by Minatmoto Yoritomo, who would shortly after become Japan’s first shogun. He was searching for his brother and arch rival Yoshitsune, who had been given refuge by the local Fujiwara leader.

Kanjizai-oin Hall ruins, Hiraizumi

After the fall of the Oshu Fujiwara, the town lost its political and administrative clout and sank back into relative obscurity, and most of the buildings that had given it its cultural prominence were either lost or destroyed. So rapid and dramatic was the spectacular rise and fall of Hirazumi that it became a source of inspiration for poets of later years. When Matsuo Basho, the celebrated Haiku poet, witnessed the state of the town in 1689, he was inspired to pen some words on the impermanence of human glory:

Natsu kusa ya! / Tsuwamono-domo ga / yume no ato
Ah, summer grasses! / All that remains / Of the warriors' dreams. (1689) 

Hiraizumi never recovered its former prominence and wealth, but it is still home to some of the Tohoku region’s most precious and important cultural, historical and religious properties. According to UNESCO, “The four temple complexes of this once great centre with their Pure Land gardens, a notable surviving 12th century temple [Chuson-ji], and their relationship with the sacred Mount Kinkeisan are an exceptional group that reflect the wealth and power of Hiraizumi, and a unique concept of planning and garden design that influenced gardens and temples in other cities in Japan.”

Access: From Tokyo - between 2 hrs to 2.5 hrs by JR Tohoku Shinkansen Line from Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki Station and then 7-8 minutes by JR Tohoku Honsen Main Line to Hiraizumi Station. The Japan Rail Pass is valid on these trains, as are the JR East Tohoku Area Pass and the JR East South Hokkaido Pass.

On the JR Tohoku Shinkansen Line, Yamabiko bullet trains go directly to Ichinoseki Station in about 2.5 hours, however you may be able to shave about 20 minutes off the journey if you take a faster Hayabusa bullet train from to Sendai Station and transfer to a slower Yamabiko train there. Seat reservations are mandatory on Hayabusa trains, whereas Yamabiko trains also offer some unreserved seats.

From Osaka - first travel from Shin-Osaka Station to Tokyo Station by the JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line (4 hours 40 minutes) and then the same as the route from Tokyo.