My first visit to Hiraizumi was not auspicious. It was early April, less than a month after Japan’s devastating earthquake, and a powerful aftershock had knocked out electricity supplies. Night had fallen while I was reporting in the disaster zone, forcing a long drive through silent, shattered towns along roads still blocked in places by the ghostly hulks of stranded fishing boats. Even in Hiraizumi, well inland, the blackout had knocked out mobile phone networks and shrouded the countryside in a deep and gloomy darkness.
Fortunately, however, my travelling companion, photographer Toshiki Senoue, was insistent this should not be my only visit to Hiraizumi. Though the town is little known internationally – I had barely heard of the place despite more than two decades visiting or living in Japan – it has long been celebrated among the cognoscenti as the home of Chuson-ji temple, among the nation’s finest centres of Buddhist culture.
Donald Keene, a writer on Japanese arts and history and professor of Japanese literature at Columbia University, counts Chuson-ji among his favourite places and has described the temple’s golden Konjikido hall as a place of “unforgettable beauty, the supreme example of the Japanese genius for the exquisite”.
So last month, I went back to Hiraizumi for a more leisurely look at this jewel of Japan’s north-east. I found the chill winds that had added to the suffering of earthquake and tsunami victims in March and April had given way to the warm breezes of early summer. Hidden choruses of frogs sang from the rice fields that line the valleys around the town’s cultural sites.
Locals assured me that despite the extraordinary power of the earthquake, it had caused little damage to the town. An afternoon tour of Chuson-ji persuaded me that this was, indeed, a destination to rank alongside the finest sights in Kyoto or Nara.
The temple, a sprawling hilltop complex of halls and shrines scattered among four-century old cedars, was the creation of an extraordinary dynasty of frontier lords who ruled Japan’s wild north-east from Hiraizumi in the 12th century. As near-autonomous rulers buoyed by the revenues of rich local gold fields and lucrative trade routes, these Hiraizumi Fujiwara presided over a century of temple building and Buddhist art creation that could sometimes match, and even surpass, the achievements of Japan’s “civilised” central regions.
The Konjikido, miraculously spared by the wars and natural disasters of nearly nine centuries, leaves no doubt about the reach of the Hiraizumi Fujiwara’s ambition. A physical representation of paradise, it is a hall clad inside and out in gold leaf and peopled by three clusters of golden statues of Amida Buddha with attendant deities. More intimate than Kyoto’s more famous, and much newer, Golden Pavilion, the Konjikido’s pillars are adorned with gilt-bronze images, mother-of-pearl patterns and rich lacquer-work. The hall is now protected by a modern concrete pavilion but, even viewed through glass, its effect is both delicate and overpowering.
Chuson-ji’s treasure hall boasts other examples of the Hiraizumi Fujiwara’s piety, including more fine statues and selections from a complete transcription of the Buddhist canon on to indigo blue paper. Commissioned by dynasty founder Kiyohira, the sutras were painstakingly transcribed in alternating gold and silver ink. Local tradition says Kiyohira was seeking to put behind him the bloodshed of the civil war that gave him regional hegemony, a conflict in which his wife and a son were killed by a half-brother. “Kiyohira had determination to maintain peace,” says Chojun Kanno, a hereditary cleric who is the temple’s executive director.
Indeed, together with other nearby temples and gardens created by Kiyohira and his heirs, Chuson-ji and its golden hall was an attempt to create an earthly version of the heaven that is promised to faithful followers of Pure Land Buddhism.
But the full meaning of Kiyohira’s golden hall is shrouded in mystery. Hidden within its three altars lie the mummified bodies of the founder, his son and his grandson, and the severed head of the last of his line. Nowhere else in Japan have rulers been accorded such treatment in death.
Finding a quiet corner in the temple grounds to contemplate its mysteries and dip into the history books was not hard. Since the March 11 disaster, tourism to Hiraizumi and the wider north-east region of Tohoku has slumped. Around 300,000 people visited during last year’s “Golden Week” holiday in early May, but this year numbers were down 85 per cent – dealing a blow to the local economy. Foreign visitors, never numerous, were even more scarce.
Remembering my first arrival in Hiraizumi just a few weeks after the disaster, I could understand travellers’ nervousness. But these days there is no reason to stay away. The town is well inland from the tsunami-battered coast. There have been no recent large aftershocks and communications with Tokyo are almost back to normal. Some visitors may be put off by the continuing problems at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. But radiation leaks from the plant pose almost no risk to short-term visitors who steer clear of the power station’s environs – and Hiraizumi is nearly 200km north of the plant.
A dearth of visitors is proving disastrous for Tohoku, a region that was something of an economic backwater even before March 11 and where tourism is a vital source of income. This week, however, Hiraizumi at least hopes to receive a big boost in the form of long-awaited recognition from Unesco, the United Nations’ culture arm.
Local officials say recommendation by a Unesco advisory panel means the town is almost assured of being listed as Japan’s 12th World Heritage Site during the organisation’s summit which begins in Paris this weekend. They hope that status would give the site greater international exposure and put it firmly back on travel itineraries. “This news is like a bright ray of hope,” says Chuson-ji’s Kanno.
Indeed, World Heritage listing would probably bring Hiraizumi more outside attention than it has enjoyed at any time since its frontier dynasty fell in 1189. For all their wealth and pious patronage of Buddhist arts, Kiyohira’s fractious descendents were eventually swept away by rivals from Japan’s cultural core.
“The glory of three generations,” the poet Basho wrote 500 years later, were gone “in the blink of an eye”.
Such reflections on the impermanence of human hopes are especially poignant in the aftermath of a natural disaster. But Basho was wrong when he said in a celebrated haiku that summer grass was all that remained of Hiraizumi’s “ancient warrior dreams”. After a night spent at Shizukatei, a hot spring inn nearby, I spent the best part of a lovely day strolling between generously signposted reminders of the town’s past. Modern archaeologists have restored the outlines of the Buddhist gardens and temples created by the Hiraizumi Fujiwara nine centuries ago and traced the foundations of their mansion. And in Chuson-ji’s golden hall lie the mummified remains of the warriors, in the paradise they created, still defying their enemies and time itself.
Mure Dickie is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief
For information on visiting Hiraizumi, see www.hiraizumi.or.jp and www.chusonji.or.jp. The Shizukatei inn (www.shizukatei.com) costs from Y10,500 (£80) per person per night, half board. Inside Japan Tours (www.insidejapantours.com) has a 14-night “Northern Highlights” package which includes Hiraizumi; it costs from £2,290
Taking a trip to Tohoku is not just a way to support the disaster-hit region’s battered economy, it also offers the chance to sample the cutting edge in luxury high-speed rail travel: Hayabusa Shinkansen GranClass.
This new “premium first-class” service is only available on operator JR East’s newest and fastest bullet train, the Hayabusa E5, which was brought into service only days before the March 11 earthquake. Special post-disaster schedules mean the Hayabusa is currently running at well below its 320kph top speed but the train’s sleek lines and extraordinary 15-metre long nose mean that it cuts a dash at any velocity.
Tucked into the space behind the train’s long nose, GranClass cabins have only three seats across, compared with the standard five and the four offered in “Green Cars”, the usual first class on JR trains. And in GranClass, each seat is lined with leather, has an electric foot rest, adjustable reading lamp and reclines up to 45 degrees.
Passengers on the service, available between Tokyo to Aomori, a city at the northern tip of Japan’s main island, are also pampered by attendants offering complimentary food and drink, blankets, slippers and magazines.
It is all enough to make you feel like a VIP, an impression reinforced when you step out of the carriage at Tokyo Station into a crowd of people snapping pictures with their mobile phones. Unfortunately, it is not you they are aiming at but the train. www.jreast.co.jp