The ancient capital that once rivaled Kyoto in size and splendor
As home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, Hiraizumi is the most famous of the Michinoku Gold areas. It was the administrative center of northern Japan during the late Heian period, ruled by the Oshu-Fujiwara as a semi-autonomous region. During their reign, Hiraizumi rivaled Kyoto in population and splendor. Much of the wealth came from gold. Gold mined in the surrounding lands was brought to Hiraizumi for trade, and to adorn temples and luxury items.
To make the most of your trip, start with a visit to the Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center. This free, English-friendly museum explains the history of the area, putting Hiraizumi’s historical relevance into a broader cultural context. It also exhibits interesting cultural artifacts, three of which have been designated National Important Cultural Properties. The first two of these are pieces of a crucible and a bowl flecked with gold, evidence of the area’s gold-mining past. The third is a Heian-period lacquerware mirror case. Even though the mirror case is several hundred years old, it’s still beautiful and in amazingly good condition.
Hiraizumi lacquerware, called Hidehira-nuri, continues to be made to this day. The craft’s origin traces back to Hidehira Fujiwara, an Oshu-Fujiwara lord who ruled Hiraizumi during the 1100s, the one who commissioned the construction of Konjikido. In addition to Konjikido, he ordered the craftsmen he had brought up from Kyoto to also develop a new style of lacquerware. What they created was decadent: Japanese hardwood coated in layer upon layer of black and red lacquer, accented by gold leaf cut into geometric motifs.
Quality lacquerware like Hidehira-nuri is quite durable and will last for years even when used on a daily basis. We visited the lacquerware workshop Ochiya, where fifth-generation owner and craftsman Yuya Sasaki taught us all about the lacquerware-making process. I was so impressed by the quality of his work that I ended up purchasing Christmas gifts for my parents there. It turns out I’m not the only one impressed—the Japanese prime minister is a fan too! Cups made by Mr. Sasaki were presented as gifts from Prime Minister Abe to world leaders at the G7 summit in 2016.
Naturally, the must-see in Hiraizumi is Konjikido, the golden temple at Chuson-ji. Chuson-ji is a large temple complex located on a hill, and Konjikido is located a better part of the way up. Instead of making a beeline for this famous attraction, take your time to enjoy the walk there. Chuson-ji houses numerous more modest temples enshrouded in towering cedars and colorful maples. Some are as old, or even older, than Konjikido. Take time to enjoy the natural scenery of the season and explore the charm of these little temples on your way up.
Konjikido is housed inside a protective building. This predates the development of the temple into a tourist attraction—Konjikido has been enclosed for most of its existence! Konjikido was built in 1124. A few years later, a simple roof-like cover was put over the temple to protect it from rain and snow. Then, in 1288, Prince Koreyasu commanded that a fully fledged enclosure be constructed to better protect it. Konjikido remained in that wooden enclosure until 1965, when it was moved to its current fireproof one. The wooden enclosure from 1288 still stands, just a little way up the hill from Konjikido’s current location. Visitors are free to enter and imagine what it would have looked like with Konjikido still inside.
Be sure not to miss Sankozo, the temple treasure house and museum located next to Konjikido. Inside, you’ll find a number of remarkable Buddhist statues and a magnificent 900-year-old scroll, a copy of the Great Perfection of Wisdom sutra gorgeously handwritten on indigo paper in real silver and gold ink.
Lastly, for those looking for something a little off the beaten path, consider hiking Mount Kinkei, the small holy mountain around which the Hirzaizumi empire was built. Though designated a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Chuson-ji and Motsu-ji Temples, it is much less frequented by tourists. Like Mount Tatsugane in Minamisanriku, holy objects have been found buried at its peak as offerings. A round-trip hike to the peak of this 99-meter high “mountain” can be done in under an hour, easy to squeeze into a day of sightseeing. The trailhead is located about a five-minute walk from the Hiraizumi Cultural Heritage Center.