At the heights of the Heian period (794-1185), the Northern branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan created political and cultural center that was said to rival Heian-kyō (Kyōto) itself. This grand capital was Hiraizumi.
Three generation of Fujiwara ruled Hiraizumi from 1089 to 1189, until Minamoto Yoritomo overthrew the hegemony of the Fujiwara, bringing the Heian era to an end. After Minamoto Yoritomo brought the Fujiwara down, his brother Yoshitsune rebelled against him and sought refuge in Hiraizumi, that eventually led to his destruction.
Most of Hiraizumi's temples were left in ruins and the city never recovered, almost forgotten for centuries. Only two original buildings remain, while others are latter additions or reconstructions.
Chūson-ji Temple 中尊寺
The Tendai sect of Buddhism first founded the temple in 850, but it was the first Fujiwara lord who decided to extended it into a vast complex of over 40 temples and 300 buildings.
Most of the complex was ravaged by a fire in 1337. The oldest surviving structure is the Kyozo Sutra Repository, built in 1108.
The Konjiki-dō (金色堂) or Golden Hall, contructed in 1124, is the most outstanding part of the temple. It is richly decorated with gold, lacquer, and pearls and contains a large Amida statue with the mummified remains of the Fujiwara lords beneath it.
The coffins, funeral adornments, katana and various images of Fujiwara clan are preserved in the Sankōzō Treasury.
The remaining buildings are the Hondō (本堂) or Main Hall, and a Noh Stage.
Admission to the Golden Hall, Kyōzō Sutra and Sankōzō is ￥800 (one ticket for all). They are open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, or 8:30 am to 4:30 pm from November to March.
Mōtsū-ji Temple 毛越寺
Established in 850, the Mōtsūji was the largest temple in Tōhoku in its heyday, totalizing with several hundreds sub-temples.
Its Heian period "Pure Land Garden" (浄土園), aiming at reconstituting Paradise on Earth, is one of the few left in Japan.
Entry to the garden cost ￥500 and is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm (Dec-Mar till 4:30 pm). Admission is free for those staying at the adjacent youth hostel.
Many seasonal events are held at Motsu-ji Temple. Ancient dances, known as Jōgyōdō Hatsukayasai, are performed on 20 January. The Iris festival is held from late June to mid-July. The Autumn Fujiwara festival takes place from 1 to 3 November.
The Takadachi Gikei-dō Hall is a small memorial dedicated to Minamoto Yoshitsune who commited suicide with his family in Takadachi to avoid the shame of being captured and executed by his brother Yoritomo.
The Takkoku ni Iwaya Cave is a temple constructed in a cliff and dedicated to Bishamonten, the Buddhist god protector of the warriors. It dates from the 9th century when the Japanese were extending their territory battling against the aboriginal Ainu tribes.
The Geibikei (猊鼻渓) and smaller Genbikei (厳美渓) Gorges are accessible by bus from Hiraizumi or Ichinoseki stations.
How to get there
Access to Hiraizumi is relatively easy. The main shinkansen line has a stop in Ichinoseki, 10min away by local train from Hiraizumi. The whole journey takes 2 hours 20 minutes from Tokyo (￥7,140), or 40 minutes from Sendai (￥1,890).
From Aomori, the fastest way is to take the JR Tokkyu Super Shirasaki to Hachinohe, then the shinkansen to Ichinoseki via Morioka, then a local train to Hiraizumi (￥4,940, about 2h20min).