Chuson-ji: Temple of the Fujiwara Clan

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Last year, I made a brief stop in Iwate prefecture to visit the city of Hiraizumi, which was declared a World Heritage site in 2011 (the first World Heritage site in Tohoku). I hadn’t really heard of Hiraizumi before, but it was brought to my attention by my travel buddy, an art historian. Apparently, the area used to be a stronghold of the northern branch of the (in)famous and highly influential Fujiwara clan. You wouldn’t know it by how the city looks today, but Hiraizumi used to be a place of great cultural sophistication and political power, such that it even came to rival Kyoto. During the Heian Period, the Fujiwara were the most powerful clan in Japan, and Hiraizumi was chosen as the seat of its northern branch in 1105. Fujiwara Kiyohira made his fortune from local gold mines and used his wealth and power to try to create a “paradise on earth” devoted to Buddhist thought, as a reaction against the feudal wars that were plaguing the land. In 1189, however, Hiraizumi was razed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the man who would subsequently become Japan’s first shogun. Yoritomo was looking for his brother and rival Yoshitsune, who was being given refuge by the local Fujiwara leader. The city never recovered its former prominence, but it still features some of the Tohoku region‘s most precious historic and cultural properties.

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One of Hiraizumi’s main attractions, and one place where you can see hints of its former glory, is a Buddhist temple called Chuson-ji. Chuson-ji is actually a complex of buildings, many of which were destroyed by fire over the centuries (as with so many historic Japanese buildings, unfortunately). After taking the train to Hiraizumi, we rode the bus to Chuson-ji and made our way up Kanzan, the mountain/hill on which the temple sits. Looking down, we got a great view of the surrounding countryside, which, as you can see, is pretty quiet.

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Chuson-ji was originally founded in 850 by Ennin, a monk associated with the great monastery Enryakuji and third head abbot of the Tendai sect. In the early 12th century, the first Ōshū Fujiwara lord, Kiyohira, began the construction of a massive temple complex of more than 40 halls and pagodas, and over 300 monks’ residences.

Chuson-ji

Chuson-ji

Kiyohira intended that Chūson-ji would placate the spirits of those who had died, either friend or foe, in the bitter conflicts that had dominated Tohoku in the latter half of the late 11th century. Under Fujiwara rule, Chuson-ji and the city of Hiraizumi flourished for nearly one hundred years, a time of peace and prosperity. However, Hiraizumi was eventually drawn into the violent political upheaval of the late 12th century when the century-long northern Fujiwara dynasty came to an end.

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Chūson-ji’s fortunes changed drastically in the succeeding Kamakura period. In 1337 fire consumed many of the temple’s halls, pagodas, and treasures. Only two original structures remain today, though many have been reconstructed. Nevertheless, more than 3,000 National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties survived, principal among them the Konjikidō, the small, golden Amida hall which was the first structure designated a Japanese National Treasure. The significance of Chūson-ji’s treasures is that they form an integrated collection of many different crafts, including lacquer work, woodwork, metalwork, dyeing and calligraphy all of which represent the pinnacle of Heian period Buddhist art in eastern Japan.

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Photo courtesy of the official Chuson-ji website

Somewhat unbelievably, the Konjiki-dō used to sit outdoors in the open air. Later, a wooden building was built around it to protect it from the elements, and now, it sits in a concrete building behind thick acrylic glass and is only visible from the front. Visitors are not allowed to take pictures, so I borrowed one from the official Chuson-ji website. When you get close to the structure, you realize that the detail on the pillars and interior is even more impressive than the gold leaf that covers the entire structure. The four pillars, tie beams and three daises are all decorated with iridescent shell inlay, intricate openwork metal fittings, and maki-e (gold and silver illustrations sprinkled over lacquer). The Konjikidō was the first architectural structure to be designated a Japanese National Treasure. Interestingly, the mummies of Kiyohira (the founder of the Oshu Fujiwara clan), Motohira (the second leader), and Hidehira (the third leader), as well as the head of Yasuhira (the fourth leader) are enshrined here.

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Photo courtesy of Jacqueline I. Stone

There are many impressive pieces of art on display at Chuson-ji (which you should definitely read more about on their website, if you’re interested), but I was really impressed by the sutras. Again, pictures were not allowed, so the image above was taken from the website of an art historian at Princeton. Anyway, the sutras were gold ink on deep blue paper. I think the photo above is from the “Gold-and-Silver Canon,” which is a transcription of the entire Buddhist canon in alternating lines of gold and silver on navy paper with silver lines. Even if you don’t know anything about Japanese history or art or religion, it’s still a pretty impressive sight.

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Photo courtesy of the official Chuson-ji website

Even more impressive were the “pagoda sutras.” Apparently, the Golden Light Sutra is written (again, in gold ink on deep blue paper) such that the characters form the shape of pagodas. So basically, the image you see above is actually entirely composed of letters. Each pagoda represents one chapter of the sutra, and all ten chapters have been preserved. Pretty amazing, huh?

Chuson-ji

Anyway, there were a number of different buildings to explore as we walked around the temple complex. Given how spread out things are, Chuson-ji is able to accommodate a large number of visitors without disturbance to its quiet, natural atmosphere.

Chuson-ji

This little structure, for example, housed a bell. There was also a Noh stage, which seems to be used up to the present for performances.

Chuson-ji

One of my favorite random sightings were these Rilakkuma ema. Ema are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshippers write their prayers or wishes (typically things like success in work or on exams, marital bliss, fertility, and health). The ema are then left hanging up at the shrine, where the kami (spirits or gods) receive them. Normally, ema take on fairly traditional imagery, but Rilakkuma is a pretty contemporary character. His name is a combination of the words “relax” and “bear.” Check out Wikipedia for more on this cute character and his rather nonsensical backstory.

Chuson-ji

In another part of the complex, they were selling charms to help with eyesight, as one might guess by looking at the rather unsettlingly-looking banner in the photo above. The tablets above are inscribed with the character “me,” which is how you pronounce the word for eye(s) in Japanese.

All in all, it was a very interesting and worthwhile trip, and I’m very glad that we stopped for a few hours in this remarkable place. I think most foreign visitors probably don’t make it to Tohoku, and indeed, some may even be intentionally avoiding it now as a result of the March 2011 nuclear disaster. But there is a lot to see in these less-traveled areas of Japan. If you’re interested in history or art, you might want to spend a half-day in Hiraizumi, even if it’s just a stop on your way to somewhere else on Honshu. Despite being relatively out of the way, there’s pretty good English information and guidance available; the people of Hiraizumi clearly want to make it as easy as possible to visit their little town. But if you do go, make sure you check the bus and train schedules–they aren’t as plentiful or regular as in Tokyo, so you don’t want to miss your next destination!

Hiraizumi

And to close, an obligatory picture of me and my friend at the Hiraizumi train station, pretending to be a mochi pounder and a piece of mochi respectively. Good times.

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