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Chuson-ji – One of the Tohoku region’s premiere temples

Hiraizumi’s Chuson-ji is a Buddhist temple located in Hiraizumi in the Iwate Prefecture of Japan. A quick ride on the bus or train from Ichinoseki and you are ready to explore one of Tohoku’s most elaborate and impressive temple complexes.

History of Chuson-ji

The temple was founded in the late 11th century by the local lord, Fujiwara no Kiyohira. The temple served as a symbol of his power and a tribute to his deceased family members.

Chuson-ji was at its peak of prosperity during the 12th century. At the time, the ruling Fujiwara clan made it the centre of their spiritual and political power. At its height, the temple complex had over 70 buildings, including the Golden Hall (Konjikido). Today it is one of the most important examples of pure gold plating in Japan. It is also one of the few surviving examples. It was said to have been covered in gold leaf, adorned with intricate carvings and statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas.

During this period, the temple was also an important cultural and educational centre. It focused strongly on art and calligraphy. Many of the temple’s buildings had intricate carvings and statues. It is believed that the temple was home to over 200 Buddhist statues. Not only did it attract scholars and artists, but it also was a centre of learning and religious devotion for the local community.

Unfortunately, the temple’s prosperity did not last long. By the late 13th century, it had declined in power and prestige. In the centuries that followed, war and natural disasters destroyed many of the temple’s buildings. The Golden Hall fell to fire in the 14th century, and the current structure is a reconstruction from the late 17th century. Despite these unfortunate events, many of the temple’s artefacts and treasures, such as the statues, carvings and scriptures, found safety with local people and still exist today.

Chuson-ji today

Today, Chuson-ji is still an important historical and cultural site, a testament to the glorious past of Hiraizumi and the Fujawara clan. In 2011, UNESCO added it to its World Heritage List as part of the “Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi” listing, alongside MōtsÅ«-ji and Kanjizaiō-in. These sites together form a unique cultural landscape that reflect the fusion of Buddhism, Shintoism, and Japanese traditional gardening.

Golden Hall/Konjikido

The Golden Hall, which reflects the popularity of this type of architecture in the 12th century, is one of the few remaining examples today. The hall is small and relatively simple in design, but it is covered in gold leaf and adorned with intricate carvings and statues, which are said to be gilded with gold leaf of approximately 80% purity. The gold leaf and the intricate carvings are a representation of the Pure Land, where people can achieve enlightenment. The hall today is located within another building, protecting it from the weather. Originally however, the hall was exposed to the elements, so the gold leaf had to be replaced periodically.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures in the building containing the Golden Hall. The Golden Hall is also behind glass, so you cannot get close to it. Instead of one of my own, please enjoy this image of the Golden Hall from Fun! Japan.

In addition to the gold leaf, the statues and building itself have many mother-of-pearl inlays, creating a milky white effect that dazzles in the light along with the gold leaf. I found this to be a breath-taking scene. There is also audio explanation (in Japanese) of this making and history of the Golden Hall.

Treasure House/Sankouzo

Another highlight of Chuson-ji is the Treasure House which next to the Golden Hall. It contains many of the temple’s artifacts and treasures, such as the statues, carvings and scriptures, many of which date back to the 12th century. The Treasure House is a cultural and architectural treasure and a must-see for anyone visiting the temple.

When you enter, you are greeted by three larger-than-life Buddha states that reach from floor to the second-story ceiling. Their presence is certainly not to be ignored. After entering (and in my case, a couple minutes of tasteful gawking), you then move through the halls and rooms featuring the various treasures. Some that I thought were amazing were the scrolls called the Chuson-ji Sutras. These scrolls date from the 12th century and are blue with alternating gold-and silver-leaf lettering. I could have stood there for hours pouring over the exquisite details, images and Kanji characters. Unfortunately, you can’t pictures in the Treasure Hall either, so we will have to make do with this image from the Kyoto National Museum:

Visiting Chuson-ji

If you are coming from Ichinoseki station, getting to Chuson-ji takes about 25 minutes. Simply get on the 21 bus (which starts at the station) and get off at the Chuson-ji stop. Alternatively, you can take the train from Ichinoseki Station to Hiraizumi Station and then get on the bus. However, this usually will not save any time. At the time of writing, you can only pay with cash on the bus. For the train, you can pay with an IC card if you have one.

There are also trains that go all the way to Morioka, so you can use the same train line coming from the north.

Visiting the temple complex is free. However, if you would like to see the Golden Hall and/or Treasure Hall, you will need to buy an entrance ticket. At the time of writing, the ticket costs 800 yen and let’s you enter all restricted areas.

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