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Hiraizumi

Tohoku Cultural Treasure Now Recognized Worldwide

Hiraizumi lies roughly at the center of the Tohoku region. To the east flows the Kitakamigawa River, which traverses from north to south through Iwate Prefecture and empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Northern Fujiwara, a noble family that ruled the Tohoku region for about 100 years from the end of the 11th century, established its base of operations here to build a state, unique in culture, that would stand as an exemplary, peaceful paradise unaffected by strife. Known for finely constructed Buddhist temples and distinguished Japanese garden landscapes based on the concepts of Pure Land Buddhism, the temples and statues, lavishly adorned with the gold produced in the region, as well as the magnificent gardens, were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2011. The World Heritage designation has provided much encouragement to the people of Tohoku, who suffered greatly from the Great East Japan Earthquake just months earlier, in March.

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The Konjikido hall is housed in a reinforced concrete building for protection.

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Oizumigaike Pond at the Motsu-ji Temple, modeled on the lake in Pure Land Buddhism

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Symbols of the Hiraizumi Aspiration for Peace and ProsperityConstruction of Chuson-ji temple was launched in 1105 by Fujiwara Kiyohira, founder of the Northern Fujiwara administration, and this temple is considered a major symbol of Hiraizumi culture. Fujiwara Kiyohira declared in his written intent of consecration that Chuson-ji had been erected to embody a desire for peace and recovery from war and to comfort the souls of the innocent who had lost their lives in war. Today, one can identify his determination and aspirations with everyone's fervent hopes for recovery from the earthquake.

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Rapids flow between precipitous cliffs at Genbi Gorge.
The dumplings are delivered to the customers in a basket that glides across the ravine on a rope.

A 25-minute walk or 10-minute bus ride from JR Hiraizumi Station, visitors come upon Tsukimizaka, a sloping approach to Chuson-ji Temple, lined on both sides with large cedar trees. Tsukimizaka is said to have been part of the Okudaido Highway, which Fujiwara Kiyohira had constructed across the Tohoku region. The highway served as a means for the Northern Fujiwara to expand trade to all parts of Japan, and the trade expanded beyond, to northern Asia, China, and the Ryukyu Islands. Among the major exports of the region was gold dust, which was abundant and is said to be one of the factors that gave rise to the legend of Zipangu, the "land of gold." As if to justify such a view, the Hall of Gold at Chuson-ji, known as the Konjikido, is a structure entirely covered in gold leaf, and it remains unchanged from when it was built in 1124. Inside, with a gold-leaf-covered ceiling and floor, are enshrined the sparkling gold statues of Amida Nyorai and 32 other Buddhist statues. The pedestals and pillars are decorated in lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay with symbols of Pure Land, conveying Fujiwara Kiyohira's desire to build a peaceful and prosperous state.

Along with Chuson-ji, another example that vividly embodies the ideas of Pure Land Buddhism is the garden at the Motsu-ji Temple. Constructed by Fujiwara Motohira and Fujiwara Hidehira, the second and third rulers of the Northern Fujiwara administration, respectively, and completed roughly 830 years ago, the temple was once a grand complex with 40 halls and pagodas and more than 500 monk's quarters. While all of these structures were destroyed by fires, the temple garden with its pond, Oizumigaike, remained untouched. The pond, measuring some 180 meters east to west and some 90 meters north to south, is modeled on the Golden Lake of Pure Land and continues to provide a feeling of cleanliness and purity to visitors. Motsu-ji is a 10-minute walk from Hiraizumi Station. A visit to this temple, in addition to Chuson-ji, is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to learn about the history of the development of the Tohoku region, which started in Hiraizumi.

Magnificent Natural Beauty in Ravines

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Geibi Gorge offers the beauty of its ravine to passengers rocking gently in a boat piloted by an oarsman.

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Hiraizumi is not only rich in cultural heritage, but it is also an area of great natural beauty. Genbi Gorge is just a 30-minute car ride west of JR Hiraizumi Station. Rapids a mere several meters wide flow between massive boulders and strangely shaped rocks and give way over some two kilometers to a full spectrum of seasonal beauty—cherry blossoms in spring, lush greenery in summer, scarlet foliage in autumn, and snowy vistas in winter. Popular with visitors are sweet rice dumplings sold by a teahouse on the trail that are transported to customers by a rope strung across the ravine. Geibi Gorge, on the other hand, is a ravine 40 minutes east of JR Hiraizumi Station. Here visitors can enjoy views of precipitous, 100-meter-high cliffs while boating past a gently sloping ravine. This hour-and-a-half round trip boat ride passes quickly as passengers, treated to traditional oarsmen's songs, are enchanted by the beauty of the ravine.


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Wanko soba served in Hidehira-style lacquered dishes (Cooperation: Ekimae Bashokan)

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Enjoy the Unique Flavors of TohokuA specialty of the region is wanko soba, buckwheat noodles served in a unique style—a lot of bowls of soba containing only a single mouthful. Diners at soba restaurants around JR Hiraizumi Station can enjoy noodles served in bowls adorned with lacquer and gold, the same as those said to have been commissioned by Fujiwara Hidehira. Hiraizumi is also known as one of best areas in Japan for rice, and it features an abundant variety of junmai-shu sake, a kind of Japanese sake brewed with no added alcohol, made from locally grown rice. Visitors can taste and compare local varieties to find their favorite. There are also many cattle ranchers in the region, and the area's specialty, Maezawa beef, represents the pinnacle of quality for beef that comes from Japanese black cows. This top-quality marbled beef is perfect for steak and shabu-shabu. Local snacks include nambu senbei, mold-baked crackers made of flour kneaded with water. These slightly sweet crackers are standard gifts for visitors to take home as presents for friends. Other popular souvenirs include Nambu ironware made from the region's high-quality iron. The subdued black-lacquer finish of this ironware displays the natural beauty of the stately iron pieces.

Many centuries ago, a foundation was laid in Hiraizumi—based on Pure Land Buddhism principles—for peace, prosperity and growth in Tohoku. Today, Hiraizumi is serving again as a beacon of hope for Tohoku as it strives to recover from the March 11 calamity and recreate the peace and prosperity that has characterized this region throughout many centuries.

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Nambu senbei comes in sesame and peanut.

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Marbled Maezawa beef, ready to be dipped in simmering broth for shabu-shabu (Photo: AFLO)

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Nambu ironware kettle (Cooperation: Kamasada)

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(November 2011)

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