HIRAIZUMI - HISTORY, TRADITION, AND ICE CREAM

 


Northern Japan usually isn’t too high on people’s lists of places to visit. Even the Japanese further south don’t seem to know much about the place other than it snows a lot in winter, and that people from Aomori have a funny accent. One thing is certainly true, the Tohoku region is home to some of the most rugged beauty in the country. By the time the train pulled up to Hiraizumi Station, I had already seen from the somewhat grimy window the mountains and acres of bright green rice fields that filled much of the surrounding landscape. 

 

Hiraizumi itself is the smallest municipality in Iwate prefecture with less than ten thousand residents, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most noteworthy towns in the north. Nestled between two of the region’s major cities, Sendai and Morioka, its hands are firmly gripped to the idea of keeping the place traditional, and free of the gaudy 80s signs and lights that you often see in countryside towns, making them feel like they’re stuck in some kind of time warp. This was evident when looking at chain businesses like 7-Eleven and car dealerships, who had their normally colourful signs muted to a simple brown and white.


There was an amazing sense of calm as soon as I stepped out from the station, and it didn’t take long to understand why Kiyohara Fujiwara decided to make this the spot where he could establish his Buddhist paradise around 900 years ago. I started walking along the tree-lined road that looked out towards the Kitakami mountains, appreciating the moments of silence whenever there was a break in traffic. It wasn’t quite the Buddhist paradise it once was; a pristine purple lorry with chrome bumpers, flashing blue lights and a fur covered dashboard that passed me after evidently driving through a local Don Quiote made sure of that. 

 


Eventually, I saw the town’s main attraction up ahead. The entrance to Chuson-ji sat at the bottom of a hill covered by a rich blanket of trees, with the two roads that wrapped around its base giving the impression that it would be pretty modest up there. Through the entrance, I walked up a path flanked by giant gnarled roots under towering cedar trees, and almost immediately the mechanical grind of car engines had been replaced by the creek of ancient wood and the refreshing flow of a light hilly breeze.


Off the main path was a never-ending series of winding trails which I was more excited to follow. Most of them led to small wooden shrines decorated with elaborate carvings that appeared as old as the site itself, although history will tell you this is incorrect, as everything still standing had been rebuilt many times throughout the years. Others looked evidently modern with fresh, sand-coloured wood, yet still held true to their traditional designs. Back on the main path, I approached Konjikidō, the Golden Hall, which in reality was more of a golden shrine inside a non-golden hall. Still impressive, mind. 

 

Built in 1124, it’s the only structure that has survived from this period, and the level of detail found in the metalwork really is a remarkable showcase of the artisans who created it. There was a museum nearby filled with more shiny gold things, but I opted to skip it in favour of frolicking through the rest of the site which had, at this point, revealed itself to be quite impressive in size. 

 



I felt completely taken in by the charm of the place, the forest, the winding trails, the torii gates, the bamboo groves. Even when I walked down a wrong set of stairs and found myself in a car park, it still looked scenic enough to pause in appreciation for a minute or two. After examining each temple and shrine with, I’m sure, as much mindful contemplation as the ancient priests who once worshipped here, I couldn’t help but think back to a uni trip to Rome. We were herded around the city for eight hours every day to look at the ceaseless number of churches and temples that inhabit the city, which I can tell you after a week of doing so, became difficult to distinguish one from the next. Chuson-ji felt perfect in comparison, not too little, not too much.


I left Chuson-ji after I’d had my fill and headed back the way I came, this time towards another temple complex. Two elderly men played bowls on a large green, where opposite the neatly crafted fences of Motsu-ji lined the grounds’ border. When I entered through the large wooden gate, I was met by a temple and an incense burner in the courtyard that I used to cleanse my tainted soul. It seemed only proper to stop for a moment and breath in the powerful scent of burning wood. 

 


As the story goes, the original temple on this site was founded by a Tendai priest in 850 after he followed a white stag into the forest. The stag vanished in the thick fog, and in its place appeared an old man who professed the land to be sacred, and that Buddhist law would spread should the priest build a place of worship there. After the building was complete, Motsu-ji did indeed become a primary hub where hundreds of Buddhist priests lived, fulfilling the prophecy of the old stag-man. Japanese folklore is filled with stories of shape-shifting beings, both benevolent and malevolent, from foxes, tanukis, and cats, all the way up the food chain to dragons. They often play tricks on their human victims in these tales, transforming themselves into beautiful women, leaves into money, or feces into delicious food. But for the fortuitous Tendai priest, this shapeshifter was on a mission from the gods. I’ll leave you to decide the veracity of this story.


On my right lay the large pond sitting in the middle of the site. The water was calm, and looking closely at the ripples, I could see orange and white koi fish swimming below. It was impossible to suffer from shrine-itis while wandering the tranquil garden, because almost every single building from its long history was burned down at some point through conflict or natural misfortune. This mostly coincided with the fall of the Fujiwara clan, which left the site completely razed by 1226, but since then, several buildings had been rebuilt, although not in the same location or style as those before them. 

 


There still existed the original posts for many of the buildings, with signs detailing what once stood there, so it wasn’t too difficult to imagine how alive the place must have been at the height of its power. They also had miniature models (the Japanese bloody love a good miniature) of what the area once looked like, showing that Motsu-ji was just as important as its partner on the hill. 


As an enjoyer of Japanese history, it was remarkably easy to imagine I was a thousand years in the past, ready to be inevitably tortured and executed for being a strange shapeshifting menace. I joined a crowd of Japanese tourists viewing rows and rows of colourful azaleas in a garden at the rear of the grounds, but after garnering more looks than the flowers, I decided to sit in contemplative silence on a bench beside the lake. I thought about the people in big cities who go home to the countryside during the holidays, escaping the hordes of suits marching through the grey sprawls, breathing in pollution, and being barraged by the never-ending cacophony of noise from traffic and pachinko parlours. I imagined it’s coming to places like this that they most look forward to. 


I checked out a small souvenir shop in the car park, where the shop assistant boastfully claimed that her ice cream was the best ice cream in the entire prefecture. I must state for the sake of impartiality that this is, frankly, a wild statement, but as of writing, one I’ve been unable to verify. It was nice though, so maybe she was telling the truth. 

 


As I headed back towards the station to find somewhere to eat what would be, no doubt, the best lunch in the entire prefecture, an aroma drew me towards a narrow street lined with old houses. My hope that it was a restaurant rather than some local grandmothers’ cooking was thankfully fulfilled. The server smiled and bowed as I entered, while a mother with her young daughter sat at the bar waiting for their food, which sizzled in the smokey kitchen. I sat down and the chef wearing all black appeared in the kitchen window. He spoke in perfect English, prompting many sugoi's from both the mother and her daughter during our conversation, in which he revealed that he’d spent time travelling all over the world. 

 

Out in the countryside, you rarely come across people who can speak more than a few words of English, or have even left their own prefecture more than a handful of times. He didn’t make me wait long for my meal of pork, potatoes, and veg, and as it was the only meal I’d eaten in the prefecture, I can confidently say it was the best. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and say the ice cream was too.

 

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