Visit Tohoku! Hiraizumi

Last weekend, we went on another trip to Tohoku, this time to Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture. Hiraizumi was the base of a powerful regional family in the twelfth century, and is particularly famous for its Buddhist temples and gardens. Indeed, in June those sites were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a bit of good news that was particularly welcome at the time.

The soba on the table, with Mayuki peering through the handle of one of the bowls
Wanko Soba

We travelled up by shinkansen and train, as usual, and Mayuki seems to have got to like the shinkansen. Our only plans for the first day were to eat and take it easy at the hotel, so that’s what we did. First, we ate “wanko soba” at a restaurant near the station. That’s noodles in very small bowls — 24 of them. The idea is that you can have different toppings with each bowl, so you also get a big tray of toppings. After we’d eaten, we went to the hotel.

We stayed at Musashibo, and I was quite impressed. The accommodation is nice, and it is a hot-spring hotel. The baths are indoors, and while you wouldn’t go there just for the baths, they are good. One has the hot water coming out between rocks (probably artificially placed), while the other has a view of the mountains. Men and women swap between the baths each day, so if you stay overnight and take a bath in the evening and the morning, you will be able to see both.

The food was also good. The morning buffet was fairly standard, but nice, and the Japanese evening meal was very good. Yuriko commented that the menu was rather different from the areas around Tokyo or Kyoto, and it was true; we got the regional cuisine. There were the standard elements (rice, raw fish, tempura), but also a number of unusual vegetables and other items. One that Yuriko passed on was a tiny whole crab, cooked in its shell. You were supposed to eat the whole thing so, based on my principle of trying anything once, I did. It was fine, actually, although I don’t think I’d specially order it. We had ordered the children’s meal for Mayuki, and although she fell asleep at the table on the first night, she really enjoyed it on the second.

What really impressed me, though, was how they handled a foreign visitor. They are obviously set up for foreign guests, with translations on most of the signs and English meal tickets, but the receptionist was very apologetic as she handed me an English ticket, remarking (in Japanese) that I obviously didn’t need one. Based on the brief panicked “meal ticket, meal ticket” that I heard as I was filling in the register, I guess that they had misplaced the Japanese ones… I did get a Japanese one for the next day. She also asked whether I was living permanently in Japan, and when I said I was, she said “That’s fine, then”. The law is that when a foreigner without a permanent Japanese address stays at a hotel, the hotel must note the passport number. However, if the foreigner is resident in Japan, that’s not necessary.

This impressed me because, not only were they ready to handle foreigners who couldn’t speak Japanese, they were also ready to deal, in Japanese, with foreigners who could. In other words, they were adaptable. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have an English web page, but if you use English on their enquiry form, I suspect they’ll find a way to manage. (From the top, name, name again (Japanese people put the reading in here), phone number, email twice to confirm it, and then the content of what you want to ask.)

Another thing that Mayuki seems to really like is the onsen, hot spring baths. As soon as we got to the hotel, she wanted to go to the onsen. Yuriko wanted to go for a walk, so she went with me, and then again with Yuriko later. She also went with me both mornings, and with Yuriko on the second evening. Unfortunately, there is no family bath at the hotel, so we couldn’t all go in together; Mayuki wanted to, but she accepted that we couldn’t when we explained. Yuriko did wonder how long she could keep going into the men’s bath with me; I think the official upper limit is twelve (the end of elementary school), but, at any rate, it’ll be fine until she starts school.

On our full day, we went to visit the World Heritage Sites. The first visit was a bit delayed, because Mayuki hadn’t had enough breakfast, and so was hungry and fractious. We stopped for a snack outside the gates, and Mayuki was a lot better after that.

The pool at the heart of the garden, with a leaning rock standing in the middle
Motsuji Pure Land Garden

The first proper stop was Motsuji. All of the original temple buildings here have burned down, but the garden has been preserved, in part, and in part restored based on archaeological evidence, so the garden is the main attraction. It was designed to call to mind the Pure Land of Amida (Amitabha), and while my Buddhist theology is not good enough to comment on how far it succeeds at that, it is certainly a beautiful garden. It is centred on a large pond, and as you walk around it, the view changes. The weather was changeable while we were there, including a heavy shower, so the changing skies also contributed to its attractions. I wasn’t sure how good it would be before we went, but it is a wonderful place.

Mayuki is hopping down a path in the garden at Motsuji
Look! A pine cone!

Of course, I’m not sure how far Mayuki appreciated its sublime beauty. She certainly enjoyed playing with us as we walked round, and as the rain finished and the sun came out she did stop and watch the light sparkling on the water with us. The Buddhist halls also caught her attention. She’s more used to shrines, and temples are rather different in their construction and impact. She liked the statue of the supposed founder of the temple (he might have actually founded it, but I gather that the evidence is not great), and prayed at one where we stopped to get out of the rain. Naturally, she prayed Shinto-style, but I’m sure that’s OK.

Then we went to Chusonji. We had lunch at the rest house outside the entrance and, unusually for somewhere in Japan, I don’t recommend it.

A view of mountains and fields, from a mountain
The view from the top of the mountain

Chusonji is spread out across a mountain, so the path up to it is quite steep. Mayuki decided that it looked a bit too steep, and decided that she wanted to be carried. Very soon I am going to give up climbing mountains while carrying her, as she is really getting rather heavy, but not quite yet. However, the view from the top of the mountain makes it worth it. This is actually the view from a cafe at the top; if you’re visiting, I’d recommend waiting until you get here to eat. We didn’t actually try the food, but the staff were nice, and the view is as you can see.

Buddhism is, of course, a religion that rejects worldly things, and values poverty and austerity. Naturally, then, the main attraction at Chusonji is a gold-plated temple, Konjikido. This was built in the early twelfth century, and has managed to survive all the vicissitudes since then. It is now housed in a very solid concrete building, protected by glass, and looks likely to survive for some time longer. It is quite impressive, but I have to confess that I don’t particularly like gilded buildings. It’s not the expense; I do like the ones that are lacquered. There’s something about the colour and the effect that just doesn’t appeal to me.

Mayuki getting water from a rock basin in front of a thatched Noh stage
Purification and the Noh Stage

After the gold-plated temple, we visited the shrine on the mountain top, Hakusan Shrine, where the tutelary deity of the complex is enshrined. The most notable feature of the shrine precincts is a large, thatched Noh stage, which is a National Important Cultural Property. It is still used for Noh Performances. The shrine itself is quite small, although there was a priest present, so I was able to get a Goshuin. There was also a set of twelve small shrines to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Since Mayuki and I are both boars, we went to that shrine to pay our respects together.

Mayuki was agitating to go back to the hotel by this point, but Yuriko wanted to quickly visit the museum. At first I didn’t want to, but I gave in, and it was a good choice. The museum contains a lot of Buddhist images, and one of them is a standing wooden statue of Thousand-Armed Kannon. As soon as Mayuki saw it, she was hooked. “Hasn’t it got a lot of hands!” she said, and refused to go and look at anything else. In the end, I stayed with her while Yuriko looked at the rest of the museum, and we bought her a postcard of the statue when we left to go back to the hotel.

On the way down the mountain, Mayuki fell asleep riding on my shoulders, so I had to take her down and carry her with her head on my shoulder, which is more effort. I was thus quite tired when we got to the bottom, but we made one more stop before returning to the hotel. This was at a lacquer-ware shop that has been in the town for some time. Their traditional product is called Hidehira ware, named after one of the twelfth century nobles of Hiraizumi, and uses red, black, and a gold-leaf diamond design. They also have a number of newer designs, some of which were very nice; wooden cups with lacquered interiors, for example. In the end, though, we bought a pair of traditional soup bowls and some chopstick rests. We’ve already used the bowls, and they’re very nice.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of a large cliff and the river

On our final day, we went on a side trip to Geibikei. This is a river gorge with impressive towering cliffs, but the river itself is very shallow, so you can go up and down part of it on a punt. Unlike Cambridge, you don’t get to punt yourself, but rather go on a guided tour. The punt operators tell you about the river, and the names of the various cliffs, and then you get out and walk past some rapids to see the last and possibly most spectacular cliff. It has a small cave on the opposite side of the river, and apparently if you can throw a small clay ball into it, you get good luck. Mayuki wanted to try, but couldn’t do it. One of the other people on the boat, however, managed to get his in; I think he must have played baseball as a young man. I might have been able to get the ball across the river, but certainly not into the cave by anything other than pure luck.

Mayuki throwing fish food from the boatOn the way back, Mayuki fed the fish. She wanted to feed them on the way out, but we didn’t see any. That was because they were all on the other side of the boat, so when we turned round to go back, there they were. Mayuki had a lot of fun, also telling off the ducks who kept stealing the fishes’ food.

The gorge was spectacular, and because we were on the noon boat, the sun shone into it, so we got reflections off the river onto the cliffs. After we got back, we had lunch at a small restaurant near the boat pier, and I ate river fish, which was delicious. Then we headed back home on the train. Mayuki enjoyed the shinkansen, playing the “piano” on the ledge under the window, but fell asleep on the train home after that. Of course, when we got home, she woke up again, and was lively until quite late.

I really liked Hiraizumi and Geibikei, and I’d definitely recommend them as a destination (although I’m not sure how the people at Geibikei would cope in other languages). Being inland and on very solid ground, both suffered very little from the earthquake. Indeed, according to the young woman at the shop at Geibikei, nothing even fell off the shelves there. So, go and visit.







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