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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Japan Trip: Day 8 - Hiraizumi

Ah, the JR Pass. Because of it, I was able to reconfigure my typhoon-disrupted itinerary so that I ended up seeing and doing almost everything I had set out to do when I'd arrived in the country a week earlier. It isn't cheap - a 7-day pass costs ¥28,300, though I later calculated that I used Japan Rail trains during the validity period of the pass to the tune of over ¥41,000, so I ended up getting more than my yen's worth. On this particular morning (Wednesday the 18th), I availed myself of the pass to take the bullet train 新幹線 (the one on the right in the picture above) from Morioka 盛岡 to Kitakami 北上, where I then transferred to a local line to my destination, Hiraizumi 平泉.

For those of you not in the know, Hiraizumi is a small town located in the Iwate Prefecture 岩手県 countryside. Though it's hard to believe nowadays, in the 12th century it rivaled the imperial city of  Kyōto 京都 in terms of the size of its population and the splendor of its Buddhist temples. That is until the area's lord, Fujiwara no Kiyohira 藤原清衡, made the mistake of giving shelter to the fugitive Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経, thereby incurring the wrath of his brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝, and leading to the almost complete destruction of the city and its treasures. It's a fascinating part of Japanese history, and the story of Yoshitsune and his loyal servant Benkei 武蔵棒弁慶 has become a source of artistic inspiration over the centuries. One temple remains from the glory days, Chūson-ji 中尊寺, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was the main reason I came to visit on this particular day.

Upon reaching Hiraizumi Station 平泉駅 and depositing my bags in a convenient coin locker, I caught the bus for the temple. After arriving, I started walking up the path under the tall cryptomeria trees, admiring the glimpses of the countryside as I made my way.

Though Chuson-ji was founded in the mid-9th century, thanks to Minamoto no Yoritomo's sacking in 1189 only two of the original forty buildings remain. The most famous is the Konjiki-dō 金色堂 (the Golden Hall), which is housed in the concrete structure pictured above. 

The Konjiki-do is a small mausoleum housing the remains of four Fujiwara lords under its altar. With the exception of the roof, it's covered with gold leaf, while the inside altar is done in mother-of-pearl inlay and dark-colored lacquer. Within are statues of Amida Nyōrai 阿弥陀尿来, standing among various other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and guardian kings. The Konjiki-do was completed in 1124 after fifteen years of effort, and is well-deserving of its World Heritage Site status. Photography inside the shelter was verboten, so I've cribbed a couple of pictures from the Internet. 

This is the Kyōzō 経蔵, the other of Chuson-ji's two original buildings. It was built in 1108 and was used to store 5000 Buddhist sutras written in gold or silver characters on indigo paper. Some of these could be seen in the Sankōzō 讃衡蔵, the temple's modern museum next door to the Konjiki-do, which also contained statues and metalwork decorations, among other treasures. 

Next to the Kyozo was a building dating from 1288 that used to shelter the Konjiki-do. 

This is a Noh 能楽 stage, which every August 14 is used for outdoor performances by torchlight of Japan's ancient theater.

Chuson-ji's  Main Hall, the Hon-dō 本堂

Back at the station, it was time for lunch - hatto gozen 八斗五膳, handmade wheat dumplings. 

After lunch, it was a short walk from the restaurant to Mōtsū-ji Temple 毛越寺. The temple was initially laid out in 850, and was gradually added to until it was the largest in northern Japan. Through the years, various calamities such as fires and lightning strikes befell the various buildings until all that remains today are some foundation stones and a 17th-century temple. 

Oh, and Japan's only surviving Heian period 平安時代 garden, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the real reason for coming to Motsu-ji. The garden is dominated by a large lake and its symbolic islands.

This feeder stream dates from the Heian period, and was the scene of poetry-writing contests among the Fujiwara aristocrats.

An artist's rendition of what the temple looked like during its glory days

The temple museum had photos of garden flowers in full bloom, as well as displays on two festivals, the aforementioned poetry contest which is reenacted on the last Sunday of every May (top) and the sacred Ennen no Mai 延年の舞 dance, held by torchlight every year on January 20, May 5 and from November 1-3.

From the ancient town of Hiraizumi and its nearly thousand-year-old treasures, it was back on the trains and to the modern world for the journey to my next destination, Sendai 仙台, one of Japan's major metropolises and the largest city in the Tōhoku region 東北地方. My timing was good as I arrived in time to check in to my hotel, drop off my things and catch the train to Kleenex Stadium Miyagi クリネックススタジアム宮城 (yes, that really is its name) to take in a baseball game between the hometown Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles 東北楽天ゴールデンイーグルス and the visiting Fukuoka SoftBank Haws 福岡ソフトバンクホークス.

The Rakuten Eagles had been the doormats of the Pacific League パリーグ since their formation as an expansion team in 2005, but this season has seen a transformation, as the club clinched its first pennant under the guidance of legendary manager Sen'ichi Hoshino 星野仙一, along with contributions from former major leaguers Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee, and Kazuo Matsui 松井稼頭央, who played in the U.S. with the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros. The biggest star this season, though, has been pitcher Masahiro Tanaka 田中将大, who has gone an unbelievable 22-0 this season.

Jones in action. He hit a three-run home run in this at-bat, staking the Eagles to an early 3-0 lead. It wasn't to last, however.

To see what the seventh-inning stretch is like at a Japanese baseball game, you can go to a this video I uploaded onto YouTube (technical problems have prevented me from posting it here).

It was an exciting contest, but a long one, and the final result was disappointing to the majority of the 17,667 in attendance that evening. The Eagles led 5-0 and 8-2, but the Hawks scored nine runs in the last three innings to go up 11-8. Rakuten rallied for two in the bottom of the ninth, but SoftBank held on to win 11-10. It was late when I got back to my hotel, and I had to get up early the following morning to catch another shinkansen.



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