Dreams in a Golden Forest

Things were not always so good in the north. In 645 AD, Tohoku was given the official designation ‘Michi no oku no kuni,’ the ‘Land Beyond Roads,’ its inhabitants henceforth referred to as ‘Emishi’: Toad or Shrimp Barbarians. Historically, the degree of discrimination by Japanese against Japanese is extraordinary, and the northerners were not spared.
Adding to the contempt were vicious wars. The first Oshu Fujiwara lord, Kiyohira, survived the internecine imbroglios between powerful families, but at enormous personal loss, his wife, father, and at least one child perishing in the conflicts. The slaughter prompted him to try and build a Pure Land in the present world, a domain ruled not by force but by Buddhist principles. Gold, in plentiful supply in the region since the Nara era, would become a signature material in Kiyohira’s recreation of the Western Paradise, and a substance that would promote a good deal of misunderstanding about Japan.
The Venetian traveler Marco Polo, famously added to the legend of an island where there was “gold in the greatest abundance,” adding some embellishments of his own, such as a sovereign’s palace where the “entire roof is covered with a plating of gold.” Polo never set foot in Japan, but the description is quite likely to have come from accounts inspired by travelers to Hiraizumi. The vision of a golden domain in the depths of a forest was not entirely fictive. Kiyohira’s first project was the building of Chuson-ji temple, a complex of halls, pagodas, priests’ residences and affiliated temples, which formed a sacred congregation of structures at the center of the Great Outback Road stretching from present day Fukushima to the Tsugaru Peninsula. Kiyohira had golden umbrella reliquaries placed along the route, one every 109 meters.
This northern satellite of high culture must have been a sight to behold. If a reconstruction of a 300-year old Edo period map based on a record called the Azuma Kagami is even half-accurate, its depiction of five-story pagodas, private residences, immense numbers of temples and the thatched houses of commoners, shows a prosperous, ecologically and cultural endowed environment, as close an approximation of a Buddhist earthly paradise as possible.
There is still a marked air of refinement to this otherwise nondescript town. This is largely due to the great temple of Chuson-ji, its Pure Land garden, and by the excavations that are taking place in the area and adding to its historical credentials. Motsu-ji, with Oizumi Pond as its centerpiece among wooded hills and ancient cryptomerias, gives the impression of a spacious park rather than an intensely concentrated Japanese garden. Nothing remains of the huge complex of temples, pagodas and halls that once stood here, except for a scattering of foundation stones, the podia and the earthworks of former structures.
Despite that, the landscape here is immensely important. Japan’s best-preserved Jodo-teien (Pure Land Garden), the landscape was built some 850 years ago during the Heian period. The shorelines and a central island are more recent reconstructions, but several of the original stone settings have survived, providing a skeleton plan of the original garden. A particularly impressive kamejima (turtle island) formation, with a tall headstone dramatically providing counterpoint to the pond’s horizontal shoreline, is the garden’s focal point. A winding stream enters the garden from the northwest. Heian period nobility would hold literary parties here, improvising short poems in the time before a floating cup of sake reached them.
The walk to Chuson-ji from Motsu-ji is rcommended. Most visitors arrive via the road that hugs the railway track, but this quiet, uphill walk of a little under 3km, passing through forest cover and delightful rural homes, is by far the more rewarding. A sense of prosperity prevails, with no sign of the area’s former poverty. The walk under the forest canopy comes out onto a field planted with lotuses. This is the Chuson-ji Lotus, a variety whose seeds were dug up and painstakingly re-cultivated. A symbol of Buddhism, the sight is a very apt introduction to the celestial complex beyond.
The main image at Konjiki-do is of the Amida Nyorai, the ‘Buddha of Infinite Light’, driving away evil. The Konjiki-do, or Golden Hall, glitters with untold mineral wealth. Completed in 1124, tie beams and pillars surround a dais inlaid with mother-of-pearl, lacy metalwork, and maki-e paintings sprinkled with gold and silver dust. Golden statues of Amida, the bodhisattva Kannon sits on the dais, which is guarded and flanked by rows of Jizo statues, and the heavenly kings Zochoten and Jikokuten. An effort to placate the restless spirits of the dead, victims of the Nine Years’ War and Latter Three Years’ War, it was also an attempt to transport visitors to the Buddhist Western Paradise.
Why, you might wonder, is the temple located so far up the hill? In the days of pre-transport, it was, perhaps, a way of turning a journey into a pilgrimage. The setting is mightily impressive, reeking of sanctity but, like other sacred places, it has been turned into a commercial bonanza, with parking fees, souvenir outlets, vending machines, cafes and amazake (a sweet sake brew), outlets at every turn. Ultimately though, the weight of history, piety, and the magnificent wooded, hilltop setting prevail.
When the haiku poet Matsuo Basho and his traveling companion Sora passed through Hiraizumi, they found the site in a state of lachrymose decay. Stricken with thoughts of the temporal, Basho noted that three generations of Fujiwaras were now little more than a briefly recalled dream, writing in his journal, “We sat down upon our straw hats and wept, oblivious of the passing time.” Helping to alleviate the sense of decay was the Hall of Light, where heart-warming signs of preservation were apparent in new, tile-covered walls designed to protect the structure from the elements. Basho could write with renewed optimism:

All June’s rainy days

Have left untouched the Hall of Light In beauty still ablaze.
Given its self-evident historical and cultural credentials, it’s a mystery why Hiraizumi failed in its recent bid to gain Unesco World Heritage Site status. Perhaps its treasures were not properly assessed within their cultural context. Unless you realize, for example, just how phenomenally rare an 850-year old paradise garden is, the Pure Land garden at Motsu-ji may seem little more than a pleasant park-like landscape. But therein lies the mystery, as the Unesco people are supposed to be the ultimate authority on heritage.
The recently built and pointedly named Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center, a superb local history museum, may be an effort to gain inscription when the town’s case comes up for reappraisal in 2011. Hopefully, cultural pride is at the root of the reapplication, though in Japan there is almost always an economic motive lurking at the back of any apparently worthy cause. A mind set has grown that a Japanese town without a cultural, natural or culinary asset runs the risk of obscurity, perhaps even economic oblivion. Here at the center, all the exhibits are carefully captioned in both Japanese and English, and curators are on hand to provide explanations for those in need. There are other museums in Hiraizumi, but this is the single best historical overview of the area. The center has a model of the pink lotus at Chuson-ji, symbol of the Pure Land.
History is being continually unearthed in and around the town. I stumbled across a major excavation site not far from the station. Surveyors, local volunteers and elderly, bonneted women were removing trays of topsoil that were already revealing traces of an ancient site. This turned out to be the remains of Muryoko-in Temple, a complex commissioned by the third Oshu Fujiwara lord, Hidehira, in the late 12th century. Modeled on Uji’s Byodo-in, remains of a Pure Land Garden are surfacing.
A rewarding side trip from Hiraizumi is to Geibikei. Here, wooden boats propelled by oarsmen take you between sheer gray and blue cliffs, over a shallow, sandy-bottomed river full of gold and brown carp, sweet-fish and smaller, trailing shoals. As the vessel glides over the water, the boatmen provide commentary and sing Iwate folksongs that ring along the gorge. A passenger asked what lay beyond the invisible top of the gorge: answer – a public housing estate and cement works. The cliffs, it seems, are also a screen.

The bullet train stops at Ichinoseki, just 8km from Hiraizumi with connections on a local line or by bus. Trains for Geibikei leave from Ichinoseki. Some visitors opt to stay at Ichinoseki, just one stop from Hiraizumi, where there are several business hotels. Be warned though, that there is absolutely nothing to see or do here, it is just a convenience for the bullet train. The comfortable Shirayama Ryokan in Hiraizumi (0191 46-2883) is just west of the station. There is a helpful information desk inside the station, and another in a building on the right as you exit. A number of small restaurants can be found along the main street from the station to Motsu-ji. These include the yakiniku eatery Seoul Shokudo, and the more upmarket Gokusui-tei, a traditional Japanese restaurant.

Admittance to the outstanding Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center is free.

Festivals & Events: On the fourth Sunday in May, short poems are improvised beside the feeder stream at Motsu-ji by contestants dressed in Heian period costumes. This is part of the Spring Fujiwara Festival, which includes historical and children’s parades, dances, and a Noh performance. Flower events take place at Motsu-ji in late June (irises) and mid-September (bush clover). Another one takes place at Chuson-ji in late October (chrysanthemums). A sacred dance called Ennen-no-Mai is held by torchlight at Motsu-ji on January 20, May 5, and November 1–3.

Story and pictures by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, January 2010