Once the capital of what is now Tohoku, Hiraizumi was a city that rivalled even Kyoto in scale and opulence, with a population of 100,000 people in the 12th century. Today, its legacy re-mains in the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage sites of Chusonji and Motsuji temples, alongside the breathtaking local scenery of Geibikei Gorge and the mouthwatering, award winning Maesawa Beef. Hiraizumi region truly offers travellers a rich and rewarding treasure trove of Tohoku's history, nature and cuisine.
Chuson-ji originally dates back to 850 and is regarded as one of the most important Buddhist temples in all of Japan. It rose to prominence during the 12th century, when the powerful Northern Fujiwara Clan, made Hirazimu the capital of Oshu region (modern day Tohoku). Home to the Sankon-zo treasure hall, housing a collection of more than 3,000 National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties and the miraculous Konjikido ‘Golden Hall’.
To wander through the sprawling forest of temples and shrines is to step back in time to the 12th century Heian Period; in many ways, what makes the site so unique is that anything re-mains to this day at all, given that many halls and pagodas in the region were burned down after the downfall of the Fujiwara clan.
Chuson-ji's crown jewel is the Golden Hall (Konjikido), a class 1 national treasure, where you'll be almost blinded by the sheer quantity of gold used upon the surfaces of the unnaturally illuminated mausoleum. Built in 1124, the Golden Hall is dedicated to Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light who's images can be found alongside Bodhisattvas and guardian kings. It's dazzling decorative woodwork, metal work and mother of pearl inlays give a remarkable sense of the importance of the four generations of the Fujiwara clan that remain preserved together.
The temple complex lies upon a small mountain hidden amongst an enchanting forest, with sweeping view over the Hiraizumi plain and the Kitakami river. The best spot to appreciate the view is from the Kanzantei cafe you can enjoy Matcha green tea and a choice of delicious traditional confectionary.
Founded in the 9th century, Motsu-ji temple is home to the Jodo teien Heian garden, one of the last remaining pure land gardens in Japan. Pure land gardens were popular in the Heian period and recreated the idealist “Buddhist paradise”, typically centred around a large pond. It was built after a cruel civil war in which many lost their lives. The Jodo Teien Heian garden represents Buddhist paradise, not only for its beauty, but also as a symbol to the people who lost their lives in the civil war; both enemy and ally for their way to Jodo; heaven.
The best way to appreciate the garden is to stroll the circumference of the Oizume ga ike, along its gently lapping shores, where you can feel truly relaxed and quickly understand how the idealistic Buddhist afterlife is reflected through the gardens aesthetic design. Wandering for several minutes, you'll soon find the ponds source; the meandering ‘yarimizu’ stream, where every May the Floating Poetry Festival takes place.
Once an aristocratic tradition, the “Kyokusui no Utage” Floating Poetry festival combines drinking sake with writing and reciting poetry. Lacquerware sake cup (sakazuki) are filled with sake and floated down stream. Those taking part must write a poem before the Sakazuki arrives before them. Only then can the poet stop writing, elegantly remove the cup from the stream and drink it with the hope of gaining inspiration. It's without a doubt, the most refined way of getting drunk.
Today, monks at Motsuji still train within the Jogyo-do, and for visitors looking to immerse themselves in Buddhist culture, there is the opportunity to take part in early morning Zazen (seated meditation). The peaceful and calming practice is said to sharpen your senses and give you a clear mind, making it the ideal way to start your day.
Considered one of Tohoku's most scenic locations, Geibikei gorge runs 2km in length and is traversed by a flat-bottomed boat, gently pushed along by a friendly local boatman. For 90 minutes your senses are treated to the calm breeze, rippling waters, tall cliffs and mesmeris-ing rock formations, as an escort of ducks and koi carp swim alongside your boat, hoping to catch a snack from generous visitors.
After gliding along to the end of the gorge, passengers can wander the area for 20 minutes on foot, where you'll find a hole in the edge of the cliff on the opposite side of the water, in which you can attempt to throw rocks for good fortune (it looks a lot easier than it is).
Geibikei is an impressive experience all year round, but particularly in Autumn, when the fall colours explode into a captivating natural fireworks display. There's a real sense that everybody who makes the journey is enjoying it together, as fellow travellers smile and wave from passing boats, and the trip is punctuated by the boatman singing a local traditional folk song as they push you carefully along the river, towards your final destination, with their voices echoing from the towering nearby cliffs.
If you're a lover of beef, visiting Hiraizumi without trying the local award winning Maesawa wagyu beef would be unthinkable. Maesawa beef is considered to be one of the top cuts of Wagyu beef in Japan, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, as a result of the streaks of fat running through the beautifully marbled beef, which melt at a low temperature. One of the best places to appreciate Maesawa is Restaurant Ogata, a Yakiniku restaurant in Maesawa town, where you can prepare the mouthwatering cuts of beef firsthand over a bbq grill. Be sure to drop by and get a taste for the region; eating regular beef will never be the same again.
If you travel Japan extensively, sometimes it can feel like many temples look and feel the same. This isn't a problem you'll find at the 1,200 year old site of Takkoku no Iwaya, where the Bishamon-do Hall is seamlessly built into the base of a cliff, blending in amongst the rocks. Built to enshrine the Bishamonten in memory of a military victory in northern Japan, it's a great spot for contemplation and for admiring the temple's unique design aesthetic.
Whilst the current Bishamon-do hall was built in the 20th century, modelled on Kyoto's famous Kiyomizu-dera temple, on the cliff to the left of the hall you'll find a large image of Buddha carved into the rocks. At 6.5 meters tall and 3.6 meters long, it's a rare sight to behold in Tohoku region, dating back over 900 years ago. Depending on what angle you look at it, you'll either find the face uplifting or slightly unnerving.
Hiraizumi is easily accessible by Shinkansen. From Tokyo station to Ichinoseki takes approxi-mately 2 hours. From there transfer to local train on the JR Tohoku line which takes 10 minutes. Alternatively from Sendai station to Ichinoseki takes just 40 minutes.