History of Hiraizumi
- The rise of the Northern Fujiwara
- Based on Buddhist principles
- The Northern Fujiwara's creation of a Buddhist realm
- The fall of the Northern Fujiwara
The rise of the Northern Fujiwara
From the eighth century and into the ninth, a centralized government was established in Japan, based on the ritsuryo (Confucian based) system and culture of the government of China's Tang dynasty. At that time, northern Japan, consisting of Mutsu and Dewa provinces as well as Kitaoku further to the north, was a remote region not under the direct rule of the central government. However, the territory ruled by the central government slowly expanded northwards with the construction of Taga-jo Castle (present day Tagajo City, Miyagi) in 724 and Isawa-jo Castle (Oshu City, Iwate) in 802.
From the tenth century until the second half of the eleventh, rule transitioned from the ritsuryo system to a dynastic state. Meanwhile, powerful clans living in the northern part of Mutsu and Dewa provinces were strengthening and expanding their influence. The Zenkunen War (1051-1062) and the Gosannen War (1083-1087) were conflicts between these powerful regional clans and the central state over who would dominate the area. Ultimately, both the Abe clan of Mutsu and the Kiyohira clan of Dewa fell, but Fujiwara no Kiyohira, who was descended from both families, carried on their legacies.
Kiyohira later officially took control of the military affairs and police powers of Mutsu and Dewa provinces. From this starting point successive generations of the Northern Fujiwara clan seized supreme power in the Mutsu and Dewa provinces, reigning as the effective rulers for about 100 years during the twelfth century.
Hiraizumi is where these generations of the Northern Fujiwara established their residence as their political and administrative base.
Based on Buddhist principles
From the closing years of the eleventh century and through the twelfth, the belief that people were living in the time of mappo (an age of decline) was widespread. Based on the passage of a certain number of years from when Buddha entered Nirvana, Japanese Buddhism believed that 1052 was the first year of mappo or the Latter Day of the Law, the age during which Buddhist law would degenerate. To counteract that, the central government undertook large-scale and wide-spread construction of Buddhist temples.
Fujiwara no Yorimichi, who was the most powerful chancellor since the Emperor was a maternal relative, built the Amitabha Hall at Byodo-in Temple in Uji, which was a typical temple of that era.
Meanwhile, conflicts repeatedly broke out in both Mutsu and Dewa provinces during the latter half of the eleventh century. Fujiwara no Kiyohira, who had seized supreme power and lived through that contentious period, spent the latter half of his life building a state based on Buddhist principles.
Kiyohira accumulated great wealth through trade based on the large amount of gold in the mountains and rivers of Oshu, as well as other products from the North including fine horses, seafood and high-quality fibers such as silk and hemp as well as feathers for arrows and leather made from the skin of sea creatures. He used these resources to form a stable government centered around his base at Hiraizumi.
Kiyohira's Buddhism-based policies were handed down for about 100 years, through four generations of his descendants. As a result, Hiraizumi was not just a base of political administration. Rather, it features a unique landscape that includes magnificent temples, as if representing the Buddhist Paradise or Pure Land (Jodo) in this world.
The Northern Fujiwara's creation of a Buddhist realm
Kiyohira's base at Hiraizumi was almost exactly in the center of Mutsu province, and the main road was an important transportation route near the great Kitakami River. Kiyohira built Chuson-ji Temple on Kanzan, a hill on the north side of Hiraizumi. This temple, with Sakyamuni as the principal object of worship, is a place to pray for a tranquil nation through the observance of Buddhist laws and for the consolation of the spirits of fallen soldiers, as well as a seminary from which to preach about peace and equality based on the Lotus Sutra. Chuson-ji is a majestic site, a major base for Buddhism with over 40 pagodas and 300 monasteries within the precincts. Many monks devoted themselves to their ascetic practices here.
Furthermore, the construction of Chuson-ji was determined not only by politics and culture, but also by geography as it was important that Hiraizumi was placed at the center of the Oshu region. It is said that Kiyohira built kasa-sotoba (stupas with conical tops) depicting the Buddha every 109m (1 cho) along the north-south road through Mutsu province as well as building and maintaining a Buddhist temple in every one of the 10,000 villages in Mutsu and Dewa provinces. Chuson-ji was positioned at the center of both politics and religion. In his later years, Kiyohira built Konjiki-do on a plot of land at Chuson-ji and when he died in 1128 his body was interred beneath one of the altars inside the hall.
Kiyohira's successor Motohira built Motsu-ji Temple. Motsu-ji consisted of Enryu-ji and other temples as well as a garden with a pond in front. In contrast to Chuson-ji, which was situated on a hill, this temple complex was built on level ground. Yakushi Nyorai is a Buddha of this world who heals people's troubles and suffering, and the entire temple complex of Motsu-ji is said to be a representation of the Pure Land of this healing Buddha. With over 40 pagodas and over 500 monasteries, Motsu-ji was built on a larger scale than Chuson-ji and it is thought that the grounds of the central temples and their surroundings, including the main hall, covered an extensive area.
Motohira's wife also built Kanjizaio-in, a temple on the eastern side of Motsu-ji, where the principal object of worship was the Amitabha Buddha.
In Motohira's time, regular road maintenance was carried out, centered on the area of Motsu-ji and Kanjizaio-in. Buildings such as oxcart sheds, storehouses for treasures and tall buildings called takaya were also erected.
Motohira died around 1157 and, like his father Kiyohira, was interred in Konjiki-do at Chuson-ji.
During the time of the third-generation ruler, Hidehira, the area on the east side of Hiraizumi near the Kitakami River included the Hiraizumi-kan (Hiraizumi Hall), the family mansion and seat of the government. That area is now known as the Yanagi-no-Gosho site. Hidehira also built Muryoko-in Temple on the western side of the river. Muryoko-in represented the Pure Land of Amitabha and is thought to have been a place for meditating on the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss of the Buddhist afterworld.
Hidehira was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Defense of the North in 1170, and was at the height of his prosperity when officially appointed governor of Mutsu province. Hidehira died around 1187 and was also interred in Konjiki-do at Chuson-ji.
The fall of the Northern Fujiwara
In 1185, as Minamoto no Yoritomo of Kamakura was unifying powerful samurai clans throughout the country through the Genpei War, his relationship with the Northern Fujiwara became antagonistic. Hidehira's successor Yasuhira did everything he could but was unable to avoid a military conflict. In 1189, Yoritomo invaded Oshu and the Oshu Fujiwara clan, including Yasuhira, was defeated.
After the battle, Yasuhide's decapitated head was interred in Konjiki-do. Yoritomo returned home, promising to protect the temples that had been built by the Northern Fujiwara. With this battle, Hiraizumi lost its function as a political and administrative base, and the power of the Fujiwara clan passed to the Kamakura shogunate.
Deterioration of Hiraizumi's temples
With the fall of the Northern Fujiwara, the temples of Hiraizumi fell under the protection and the control of the Kamakura shogunate. However, without a strong protector in the area they gradually deteriorated.
Motsu-ji (Enryu-ji) was destroyed by fire in 1226. In 1288, the Kamakura shogunate built a sheltering hall to protect Chuson-ji's Konjiki-do. In 1304 repairs were carried out on the sutra repository of Chuson-ji. However, many of the temples at Chuson-ji were destroyed in a fire in 1337, although Konjiki-do was spared. Even though they were under the protection of the government of the time, the condition of the temples changed and they were not restored to their former state.
When the Muromachi shoganate was born in Kyoto from of the battles of the Northern and Southern Court (Nanboku-cho) era, the temples depended on the patronage of the local powerful feudal lords, but maintenance was planned by worshipers who visited Hiraizumi as a sacred place.
Hiraizumi lost many buildings over the years, such as the 1573 destruction of the main southern gate of Motsu-ji and the temple of Kanjizaio-in through fires due to conflicts between feudal lords. By the seventeenth century, the only remaining example of the magnificent architecture of the temples built by the Northern Fujiwara was Chuson-ji's Konjiki-do.
Protecting the remains of a dream
When the Edo shogunate began in 1603, Hiraizumi came under the protection of the Sendai Domain, and the feudal lords of the Date clan recognized the right of ownership of the land on which the temples stood. In 1689 they forbade the removal of stones from the gardens or foundation stones from the temples, and planted rows of cedar trees around the ruins. It was also around this time that Tsukimizaka, the sloping path approaching Chuson-ji, was built.
When the haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi, he wrote with deep emotion of the "glory of three generations vanished in the space of a dream..." Furthermore, in the poems of his collection "Oku no Hosomichi" (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), such as "The summer grasses— For many brave warriors, the aftermath of dreams" and "Have the summer rains come and gone, sparing the Hall of Light [Chuson-ji's Konjiki-do]?", Basho depicted aspects of Hiraizumi which extend into the present day, including the fact that it was the site of many buildings that were ruins. Even now, Konjiki-do and other buildings are still vivid reminders of the unique structures that have been lost.
Basho's introduction as well as visits to Hiraizumi from many writers and artists since the eighteenth century have both played important roles in conveying the legacy of the Northern Fujiwara to the present day.
Restoration of Hiraizumi's cultural heritage
With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan took its first steps on the path to becoming a modern nation, and Iwate prefecture used the Meiji Emperor's 1876 Tohoku tour as an opportunity to undertake preservation projects at Chuson-ji and Motsu-ji. Meanwhile, after the enactment of the "National Treasures Preservation Law" in 1929, the scope of cultural properties to be preserved was expanded. Moreover, the enactment of the 1919 "Law for the Preservation of Historic Sites, Places of Scenic Beauty and Natural Monuments" had also expanded preservation efforts to historic sites, places of scenic beauty and natural monuments, including scenic and historic places on the grounds of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. After each of these laws was initially enacted, Chuson-ji's Konjiki-do, Motsu-ji and the site of Muryoko-in were targeted for national preservation, taking into account their historic and cultural importance,
while religious ceremonies and festivals with long traditions have been consciuosly and steadfastly handed down to the present day through the beliefs and efforts of many people.
In 1950 the "Law for the Protection of Cultural Property" was enacted. Since then, many of Hiraizumi's cultural properties have been designated as national cultural properties and preserved until today.
Hiraizumi's cultural heritage is still being restored through scientific repair and restoration projects carried out after the Second World War.
In 1968 the complete disassembly and repair of Konjiki-do was completed and it was restored to the brilliance it had originally displayed when first built. In 1977 the gardens of Kanjizaio-in, which had been turned into rice paddies, were repaired and restored. In 1992 the repair of the garden at Motsu-ji was completed. In the course of this project, the complete remains of a beautiful garden stream were discovered and the ancient forms of the stream and garden can now be seen. The restoration project of the garden of Muryoko-in began in 2012 and soon this masterpiece of Pure Land gardens will be returned to its original form.
In addition to these preservation and restoration efforts, lively events such as religious activities and traditional festivals held by the townspeople are flourishing, and even today Hiraizumi attracts a many visitors, as both worshipers and tourists.