Located slightly north of Ichinoseki （一関), Hiraizumi is a small, unassuming town. Mostly consisting of houses and small businesses, you might easily overlook this town in the Tohoku region of Japan. However, if you did, you would be missing out on a lot. That is because it is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi sites. One such example is Motsuji Temple.
Along with nearby Chuson-ji and Muryōkō-in Ato as well as Mount Kinkeisan, Motsuji Temple and Kanjizaiō-in Ato are two of the sites that make up this World Heritage site.
History of Motsuji Temple
Motsuji Temple was founded originally in 850. Unfortunately, it had been lost (most likely to fire) by the mid-1100s, when the second northern Fujiwara lord built Motsuji Temple. At this time it had about 40 main buildings and over 500 subsidiary places of meditation. It was also a major temple of the Tendai sect. Like its neighbour Chusonji Temple, it boasted many rare kinds of wood and precious materials at its height.
Unfortunately by 1198, Motsuji Temple had already been destroyed by a series of fires, some of which were caused by conflicts. During this period, Motsuji Temple was near the Yamato Japan border with the ethnic Emishi people who were in conflict during the Heian period, so fighting was not unheard of. The culmination of border clashes and also infighting left Motsuji temple a ruin.
The current temples were built during the Edo era (think Japan’s samurai era starting in the 1600s) and were not made to look like the old temples. They also are different places than the original temples, which has helped conversation and archaeological research.
A new Hondo (main building) was built in 1989 that is a true recreation of the old Heian-era temple that would have stood on the grounds.
History of Kanjizaiō-in
Whereas Motsuji was founded by the second northern Fujiwara lord, Kanjiziao-in was founded by his wife. Kanjiziao-in is a Buddhist temple that focuses on the concept of Pure Land. Pure Land, or Jōdo in Japanese, is the idea from Mahayana Buddhism that focuses on achieving rebirth in a place that a Buddha has purified. It is said that it is easier to become a Buddha in one of these sacred spaces. Kanjiziao-in is one of those spaces.
While Motsuji and its neighbouring sister temple, Enryū-ji (also built by her husband), had walls that surrounded the compound of lavish buildings, Kanjizaiō-in was very modest. It was also a wide open space with simple buildings that focused more on bringing nature into the area. The pond in the centre was vital to the Pure Land concept. In addition to monks being able to seek enlightenment and Buddhahood here, the local nobility also came here often to enjoy the area, read and write poetry, and pursue those activities that the nobility could.
Motsuji Temple and Kanjizaiō-in Today
Today it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two entities. In fact, the entrance ticket (700 yen for adults) gives you access to both sites. Admission is from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with closing time at 5 p.m.
Motsuji Temple hosts a series of events year-round, from New Year’s celebrations to the Spring Fujiwara festival, historic poetry reading/writing, and the Fall Fujiwara festival. You can see a list of all their events here.
In my opinion, Kanjizaiō-in is the more unique of the two sites, even if it is more focused on nature rather than buildings. For example, it is one of the few Pure Land areas left in Japan. These were popular during the Heian period (when the Fujiwara clan built the temples) and many have since disappeared. Kanjizaiō-in also has 2 unique features. The land had been used for rice farming until it was rediscovered. In the 1970s, these sites were excavated and the original rock garden was discovered. Additionally, it has the second oldest feeder stream for a pond, which was found in pristine condition when excavated. It is the second oldest in Japan (behind one in Nara which was created in an earlier period).
If you go during the autumn, you will also be able to see all of the leaves turning colour. I was there at the beginning of August and already some of the leaves were shades of red and orange. Summer in the Tohoku region is very short but I didn’t realise it was that short! I was wearing a sweater during my visit.
Getting to Hiraizumi
The easiest way to get to Hiraizumi from Morioka or Ichinoseki is the local train that runs between the two. The train stop is Hiraizumi Station and takes about 9 minutes from Ichinoseki as it is the next town north. If you are coming from Morioka, it takes just under 1.5 hours. From the station, you can walk approximately 1.5 km (0.95 miles) or take a bus.
If for any reason the train is not running or the schedule is inconvenient, there are also buses from Ichinoseki station to Chusonji Temple. Afterwards, you will have to walk about 1.3 km (0.8 miles) to reach Motsuji Temple and Kanjizaiō-in.
At the time of writing (August 2022) the train station does accept IC cards but on the buses, you have to pay with cash. The cost of each is roughly the same.