Hiraizumi – 平泉
In the southern part of Iwate Prefecture, in the northern Tōhoku region, you can visit the historic town of Hiraizumi.
This small town is famous for its many World Heritage sites, beginning from Chūson-ji’s Golden Hall.
Being located near the Kitakami river, Hiraizumi flourished thanks to transportation by water since the old times. During the Heian period Hiraizumi was an important base, and so was fortified by the lord Ōshū Fujiwara.
At the time according to historical records, at Hiraizumi lived more than 150 thousand people, making it one of the widest cities of the Tohoku region, but during the following centuries it slowly declined, and today is just a tranquil town of 7000 people.
Hiraizumi so, prospered during the Heian period, especially thanks to the growth and diffusion of Buddhism.
Such impact is visible nowadays too, with the amount of religious buildings remained.
By the way, in 2011 Hiraizumi gain a global recognition as a World Heritage Site for its role, with the official title of “Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land”.
Hiraizumi’s most famous spot is the Golden Hall of the Chūson Tendai temple, nestled in its forest: with its shining gold, it resembles Kyōto’s Kinkaku-ji. However, in order to preserve this inestimable repert, the Golden Hall is located inside a wooden building realized in a following period. However, the location of this complex, among the Japanese cryptomeria trees and at the end of an elegant stone stair, create an unique charm.
Dislocated from Chūson-ji, the so-called Mōtsu-ji temple takes place. Yakushi Nyōrai is mainly worshipped here, but also Nikkō and Gekkō Bodhisattvas are venerated (a bodhisattva is a buddhist term to indicate an human being that accomplished in reaching the enlightenment, but chooses to remain on the human earth to help other sentient being to reach it as well).
There is also a wonderful pond among Mōtsu-ji’s boundaries, it is possible to behold some ancient buildings by walking in the surrounding area.
Hiraizumi has hosted some historical figures on its land, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the Kamakura period, and the famous poet and haiku author Matsuo Bashō during the Edo period. Hiraizumi is so located on the “Oku no hosomichi”.
How to reach Hiraizumi
To reach Hiraizumi from any area of Japan you have to get to Iwate Prefecture first.
To access Hiraizumi from Tōhoku region or Tōkyō, you must head to Ichinoseki Station by Shinkansen. The journey takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes. If you travel by Hayabusa Shinkansen running through Sendai Station the journey will take a bit less.
At Ichinoseki Station you need to transfer on the Tōhoku Main Line (regional line) and get off at Hiraizumi Station, which is not far (just two stops, about 10-15 mins by train from Ichinoseki).
Fares and travel-times from the main stations
Tōkyō: 13.000 yen – about 2 hours and 40 minutes
Sendai: 4.500 yen – about 1 hour
Aomori: 8.900 yen – about 3 hours
Ōsaka: 25.000 yen – about 6 hours and a half (transfer in Tōkyō is needed)
If you intend to use the Japan Rail Pass, or the East Japan Rail Pass, even just a round trip between Tokyo and Hiraizumi pays off the price of the rail pass. If instead you want to save up money, you can first reach Morioka or Sendai by other ways (such as a night bus), and then arrive to Hiraizumi by the Tohoku Main Line (from Sendai it will take about 2 hours).
Accessing Hiraizumi from the Tōhoku area is quite easy, however we recommend to travel by plane if you come from other areas of Japan.
The nearest airport is Hanamaki Airport. As of 2014, it is connected with direct flights from Tōkyō Haneda, Sapporo Shin-Chitose, Nagoya Chūbu, Ōsaka Itami and Fukuoka. The fares go from 20.000 to 40.000 yen.
At Hanamaki Airport you need to take the “Airport Access Bus”, and get off at Hanamaki Airport JR Station. From here, just take a southbound Tōhoku Main Line train and reach Hiraizumi Station.
You can access Hiraizumi also from Sendai Airport, which offers more services than Hanamaki Airport does. The airport is connected to Japan’s main terminals with direct flights, and it also offers some international routes, mainly to South Korea, China and Taiwan.
At Sendai Airport get on the train to Sendai Station, and from there you can go to Hiraizumi by Shinkansen or by a local train (change needed in both the cases, usually at Ichinoseki).
There are night-buses heading to Ichinoseki, Morioka and Hiraizumi leaving from Tōkyō. If you book in advance you can reach the Hiraizumi area as cheap as 3500 yen.
(Bus timetable research site, in Japanese: http://tinyurl.com/p4hfj2a)
I visited Hiraizumi in the beginning of a beautiful, greenish June, coming by Shinkansen from Tōkyō to Ichinoseki Station; then I transferred on the regional line and reached Hiraizumi Station.
A tourist office, bus stops and small shops are located in front of the station. I first walked for about ten minutes to the Mōtsu temple; the morning cool breeze felt really good, and the sky was blue with a few clouds.
When I entered the Mōtsu-ji, my eyes were first hit by the main hall and the Oizumi pond. There are some rocks called Dejima Ishigumi in it: these rocks are the main symbol of the Mōtsu-ji. The water surface was very tranquil, and besides the rocks, I could spot also a kind of boat resembling a colorful dragon.
In the temple area there were many beautiful flowers blooming. There is also a hall called Jōkō-dō which maintains its original aspect: it is a rustic Hōgyō-style building. Besides the main building, there are many ancient remains: unfortunately the time and the calamities deleted most of the building of this area, and you can only see the bases.
After taking a bus near Motsu-ji (the temples of Hiraizumi are sligtly spread on a wide area, but if you have got time it’s not an unwalkable distance), I got off the bus and walked on the so-called Tsukimizaka path (which means “slope from where you can stare at the moon, how poetic!).
On both sides of the path Sugi (cryptomeria japonica) trees planted in the Edo period are located next to each other. I felt like entering a time-tunnel. Going on the path I reached the main hall. This gorgeous wooden building was reconstructed in 1909 and enshrines a statue of Shakanyōrai.
I followed the Sugi trees path again and I noticed that the Golden Hall, a mausoleum containing the mummified remains of Ōshu Fujiwara, was getting closer and closer. The trees and a stone stair lead to the building, the Golden Hall looked mysterious.
Taking pictures inside the hall is forbidden, some are visible on the official site (Click here). So everybody, inside the building walked slowly, to catch all the particulars of the Golden Hall with their eyes.
The Chūson-ji area is pretty wide, there are many smaller temples and shrines in the forest, and it is a interesting and relaxing site.
Thanks to the recognition as a World Heritage Site, I think that the popularity of Hiraizumi will increase from now on, and more and more visitors will come.
Try to visit these spots next time, Hiraizumi feels like the Tōhoku’s Nara (there are not the cute deers, though).
We recommend you not to miss Hiraizumi on your Tōhoku itinerary!