Hiraizumi — the Kyoto of the north

<< 2012-09-02 20:48 >>

Path into the temple complex

In 1100, the Fujiwara clan made Hiraizumi their capital, and ruled almost a third of Japan from here. The city grew to a metropolis of at least 50,000 people, a shining example of Heian Era architecture and culture, to rival even Kyoto the capital. After the fall of the Fujiwaras, however, the town shrunk, and today it has only 8000 people.

We arrived by train on a slow branch line into a sleepy little station. We checked into the ryokan, and set off towards the temple hill. The temple complex itself is huge, with more temples than I can count from memory, all of them still in use, and nearly all of them built after the fall of the Fujiwara. In fact, only two buildings survive from the Fujiwara period.

The first is the centrepiece of the temple complex, the Konjiki-do (Golden Hall), a small mausoleum to the Fujiwaras, entirely covered in gold leaf and mother-of-pearl. It's now sheltered within a glass box inside a concrete building, to preserve it. Inside are the mummies of central members of the Fujiwara clan.

Inside old wooden shell for Konjiki-do

After the fall of the Fujiwaras, the whole complex was obviously in danger, but the Shogun decided that the Konjiki-do must be preserved. A wooden building was built around it, to preserve it. In other words, a 13th century nobleman actually went to great trouble and expense to preserve the cultural heritage of his enemies. A striking testimony to the importance attached to this building, and the cultural sophistication of the 13th century Japanese.

The other building that remains was a sutra repository. That is, a building housing scrolls of Buddhist scripture. There is a museum that displays these, an endless number of dark blue scrolls with neat silver writing on them. The writing was so clear that I could recognize many characters, and as far as I could tell, they haven't changed at all in eight centuries (unlike our own).

Landscaped pond

From the temple hill we walked down to the compound where the Fujiwaras actually lived. Very little remains here, except a carefully landscaped garden of ponds and stones, where the different parts are meant to evoke famous landscapes of Japan. Walking around the pond I realized that if you knew the Japanese classics you could probably connect each spot around the pond with a poem, kabuki play or a scene from some novel.

The few buildings that remain were partly temples and partly used as theatres. A small stream has been built to feed the pond, and once a year people dress up in Heian-era costumes and have poetry contests. You put a cup of sake into the stream, and have to compose a poem before it reaches the pond. If you lose, you must drink. Reading this on a sign, suddenly I could see them, the Fujiwara. Warriors in effete court dress, dominating a third of Japan, collecting Buddhist scripture, and holding poetry contests.

But the reign of the Fujiwara did not last, their fall followed not long after, and Hiraizumi sank into decay. Four centuries later, Basho came here on his journey, and was moved to write one of his most famous haiku:

Natsu kusa ya!
Tsuwamono-domo ga
yume no ato

That is:

Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors' dreams.

Path to Konjiki-do

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