When thinking about the large population or cultural centers in Japan, most people think of Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama, Osaka, and other such places. Really, the little town of Hiraizumi, Iwate prefecture, between one and two hours north of Sendai by train, with a modern population of just 7,000, wouldn’t even be considered.
That wasn’t always the case, though. For about 100 years in the Heian period (794-1185), Hiraizumi was the second-largest city in the country. At that time, it was the capital of the north and was established within frontier territory.
One of the most important events in the history of the town was that Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the hero of the Gempei War (1180-1185) was raised there by the local lord after his father was killed. It was also the place where Yoshitsune was forced to kill himself after the war. Their stories are well known in Japan because of the war tale Heike Monogatari and the numerous ways traditional theater has depicted them. Japanese literature is, in many ways, steeped in the Minamoto family history, as well as that of Hiraizumi itself.
What’s Been Dug Up?
Records claim that the first building in Hiraizumi was a shrine, so it’s only fitting that some of the more important places in the area are religious sites. Some were destroyed long ago, and nothing but foundational stones remain. However, in recent years, archeologists discovered where some of them were and made markers for what their design and purpose had been. Tourists can now walk at their leisure and learn more about the history of long-gone shrines and even Yanagi-no-Gosho, the palace of Lord Fujiwara, who ruled over the region. The palace, especially, is a large area of land with many markers in both Japanese and English to explain buildings.
For those who have trouble visualizing the layout by looking at the foundation stones, there’s another option! It’s possible to rent VR headsets that give a virtual reconstruction of these buildings. There are multiple stations across several different locations, and they’re all close enough together that tourists could easily walk or ride a bike from one to the other. The ones that I saw were the Yanagi-no-Gosho, Muryōkō-in, which was a neighboring Buddhist Pure Land sect temple with a beautiful pond, and the parade grounds between two temples near the train station.
More archeological sites are still being found and worked on, so be prepared for the number of places available to grow!
History Through Religion
For those who aren’t interested in ruins, there are still options available. Right by Hiraizumi station, there’s a large temple called Mōtsūji. While it does have a small entrance fee, the place is well worth it. The temple precinct has a large pond, which is great for relaxation. There are so many buildings that it takes over an hour to give it a proper look. The museum on the grounds is also worth the diversion. There is plenty of art and writing to see!
Just outside the gate is another pond and a few old buildings for perusal. This was part of another temple called Kanjizaiō-in. It’s also part of the parade grounds in the VR tour.
A more famous location in the area is Chūsonji, a Buddhist Tendai sect temple. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. The temple complex is large and worth spending several hours in. There are many small temples and shrines, and two of the buildings are original structures! The more attention-grabbing of these is Konjiki-dō, The Golden Hall.
It’s a mausoleum for three of the Fujiwara lords that’s covered in gold leaf. Visitors can’t take pictures of the structure, so anyone wanting to take a look will need to travel there in person!
History and Literature Through People
For those who love poetry, Hiraizumi is also the furthest place north that the famous poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) visited when writing Oku no Hosomichi, known in English as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. His poem was about how nothing remained of the town, despite the warriors’ efforts to build it up into greatness. Bashō’s poetry tended to be more than a little sarcastic, so be prepared to read additional meaning into that. One of his statues is at the town’s cultural center, alongside a local history museum. There’s more around town, so if you want a challenge, try to find them all!
The museum is mostly focused on the social and archeological history of the area. This is the place to find pottery, construction materials, and written works. They have a full wall of broken pottery, such as bowls and cups. This made more sense to me when I found out that there was a ceremony where people would drink a cup of sake and then smash it on a rock.
Another history museum isn’t too far away from there. Thankfully, it’s easy to spot, due to the fact that it’s on a hill right next to a mock castle tower and a large ryokan, a traditional inn with a large onsen style bath. I call the structure a “mock” castle tower because there has never been a castle there, so it’s not a recreation. Instead, it was a lookout and encampment location.
The museum here is more dedicated to the warriors of the Fujiwara and Minamoto houses. There are models, dolls, historical timelines, and even family trees throughout the building. Honestly, I would’ve loved to be able to take one of the dolls home with me.
While any time of year is great for seeing Hiraizumi, it’s hard to beat spring (May 1st-5th) or fall (November 1st-3rd) for the Fujiwara Festival. This is a celebration of the town’s history, the Fujiwara clan, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and the literature they’re inseparable from.
While I haven’t seen the spring festival, the fall one is amazing!
Two Day Trip Part 1
When I arrived, there was a traditional dance performance right in front of the train station! A large group was wearing animal masks, beating drums, and moving in unison. This was part of a two-day trip, but until that moment, I didn’t know that there was a festival that day, so it felt like such a grand greeting! I had to be dragged away from the performance because I otherwise would have happily stayed until it ended, which might have caused problems in the schedule.
On my way to the cultural center from the station, I passed by Kanjizaiō-in. People were setting up a stage for a concert at the ruins. I didn’t get to watch, but I was curious if the event was more modern or traditional in form.
For the rest of the first day, I went through several of the other ruins, watched the VR tours, and made taiyaki, a fish-shaped waffle filled with a sweet red bean paste. The taiyaki was at a place called Taiken Cafe + Wa, which can translate to “Experience Cafe plus Japan.” There, you can rent a bicycle, make taiyaki, do karaoke, or just eat delicious local foods. The wonderful people who run the place also sell goods with the town mascot, Kerohira, an adorable green frog, as a boost to town spirit. I could’ve written an entire article about this cafe, but that’ll have to wait for another day.
I explored some of the smaller shrines in the area and took a long stroll through the museum that’s in the cultural center. It’s a good way of looking at how the culture of the place changed in a fairly rapid time, as it became a population hub.
The main attraction for the day was an evening visit to Chūsonji. Usually, the temple closes at 5p.m., like many attractions in Japan.
However, during the festival, it stays open into the evening for a light-up event that displays the trees in their full fall color glory! While the entire complex is great to see, the entry slope might be the best if you’re after fall colors. Because Chūsonji is a hilltop temple, there’s a long, steep path to get to the main buildings. This path is lined by both deciduous and evergreen trees on both sides. For anyone who enjoys trees in red, yellow, and orange, this pathway is a must-see in day and night while the fall colors mingle with greens. Admittedly, the trees were changing colors a bit late in 2019, but it was a nice sample, all the same.
Two Day Trip Part 2
The following day, I had lunch at a traditional Japanese restaurant called Nmeegasuto (んめぇがすと). Japanese speakers may recognize that such a name is an incomprehensible mess that doesn’t fit into the phonetics of the language. It comes from the local dialect and means, “Delicious”! I was given a large platter full of seasonal foods. There were so many mushrooms! For anyone who loves tempura, I’ve been told it was amazing. I can’t eat it, so I was just left imagining the taste. The name of the restaurant is certainly fitting.
The whole building has a relaxing feel that comes with the traditional design. The roof is thatched, and there are kotatsu tables inside with blankets and heating elements below to keep your legs warm. Due to the harsh winters in this area, the restaurant closes after the final day of the festival and only reopens again in the spring. I wish I had gotten more time there but was glad I had the opportunity to stuff my face while I could.
Just across the street from the restaurant, I took a short trip to the military history museum. The museum portion is fairly small, but there are other interesting sections, such as a historical costume area. While small and slightly restrictive, the costumes are appropriately flashy for use in a festival! There’s even a koi pond and a small theater outside.
The last event on my itinerary was a trip back to Chūsonji. However, this wasn’t to see the trees or buildings. Instead, I was there to watch a nō performance. Nō is a traditional form of Japanese theater, and it usually focuses on ghost stories about famous warriors, poets, or religious figures. It has a pattern, both in the writing of the story and movements of the actors, to start out slow and finish fast. Plays also tend to frequently cross over with medieval literature.
If you watch nō in Kyoto, even a student performance, it’ll be fairly expensive. It’s something most of us couldn’t afford to regularly go see in theaters. However, this performance was completely free! Because it was outdoors, photography and taking videos was also allowed. Normally, the only time you can take pictures of an indoor stage is when it’s not in use.
The nō performance is a large part of why I went to Hiraizumi in the first place. Unsurprisingly, the show was about Yohitsune and the Fujiwara lords. Like all nō, it was slow paced and difficult to follow in terms of the chanting. Even Japanese people have trouble understanding what’s said, so don’t worry about that part. Even if you can’t understand what’s happening, you can still appreciate the dancing and the drama behind the traditional ghost story. I was taking a train home that night, so I couldn’t stay to watch the final showing, but I truly did consider doing so.
The nō performance is the final event of the festival, but there was so much history left to explore! There are other times of year where Chūsonji puts on nō shows. There’s also a Daimonji festival, where they burn a giant Chinese character in the mountains. I still have too much left unseen to stay away from Hiraizumi!
If you get the chance, go and take a look through Japan’s history and literature!
To get there from Sendai, you can take the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen bullet train from Sendai Station to Ichinoseki Station and then hop on to the Tohoku line train from there to Hiraizumi. For a cheaper trip, you can take the Sendai-Ichinoseki bus to Ichinoseki, followed by a short ride to Hiraizumi by the Tohoku line.
Other important sites:
Chūsonji: 〒029-4102 岩手県西磐井郡平泉町平泉衣関202
Nmeegasuto: 〒029-4421 岩手県奥州市衣川日向60-2
Taiken Cafe + Wa: 〒029-4102 岩手県西磐井郡平泉町平泉花立91-4
Check out STAY JAPAN to book a stay in Iwate and enjoy the same experience as Kenneth.