The past two days I have gone to two different UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The first was Hiraizumi. I left my hotel in Kakunodate and took the Shinkansen to Morioka and then a local train to Hiraizumi. Hiraizumi once was the ruling capital of the domain of the daimyo Fujiwara no Kiyohira. He built a great city which rivaled that of Kyoto for about 100 years from 1100 AD until 1200 AD. Afterwards, the city quickly fell into obscurity. This brief reign of power inspired the well-known Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (whose poem stones I have seen all over Japan) to write a haiku about the ruin of the city.
Kiyohira built a huge temple in Hiraizumi known as Chusonji. The temple is made up of several buildings. The first one I went to was Hondo, the main hall. Here all the Buddhist rituals are practiced. In addition, visitors are allowed to copy the sutras and practice Zen meditation here.
The next place I went to was the Sankozo. This is a museum which houses over 3000 treasures from the time of the Fujiwaras. I couldn’t take pictures in here, even though I desperately wanted to. The museum had some of the most beautiful artifacts I have seen in Japan on display. In order to show what I’m talking about, I will try to find pictures on the internet and post them in below. The first hall room had three giant seated buddhas which were burial accessories for the Fujiwara lords of Hiraizumi.
In the next hall were display cases filled with paintings, swords, and many other artifacts. What I found to be the most interesting, and the most beautiful, were the scrolls of Buddhist sutras. The scolls were a deep blue color and the writing was in a gold leaf paint. In addition, several pages had elaborate illustrations, also in the gold leaf. The current scroll on display was the Lotus sutra, which is said to be the most important in Buddhism. The Fujiwaras lords dedicated their lives to the transcription of these sutras from Chinese.
After I left the museum, the last noteworthy building in the complex was the Konjikido, or Golden Hall. Here a large golden pavilion was built to house the remains of the Fujiwara lords. Several different materials were used to inlay the pavilion such as iridescent shells and African ivory. The use of these materials reveals the importance of Hiraizumi and the expansive trade network to which it developed during its peak.
Since I had to catch my next train on the way to Nikko at 3:00 PM, by the time I had eaten lunch and toured all of these buildings, it was time to race back to the station and board the train. The next train took me right through Fukushima Station. I was looking for damage from last year’s earthquake and tsunami from the train, but I really couldn’t see any. It seemed amazing to me that there were only three or four buildings that I saw that still showed apparent damage.
I finally reached Nikko rather late at night. I had planned on running down and touring some of the World Heritage area when I arrived, but it was raining and I was hungry, so I just ate and went to bed. I decided that I would tour that all the next day.
This morning, I woke up had breakfast and started walking towards the World Heritage area. On the way there, I saw a tourist information building and decided to go in and find some English pamphlets. The woman working behind the desk showed me where to buy a ticket that gets me access to pretty much everything within the site. She also showed me some interesting things in Nikko outside the World Heritage area that a lot of tourists do not go to. She then asked me about my trip and she told me that she had spent some time teaching Japanese to young children at an Air Force base in South Carolina. She said that her English teacher while she was there was from Michigan.
With all this information, I was off, very excited to see the shrines and temples of Nikko. The entrance to the World Heritage area is marked by the Shinkyo Sacred Bridge. Its bright red paint is a sharp contrast with the blue water flowing beneath it.
Inside, the first place that the combination ticket gives you access to is the Japanese garden Shoyoen. This was one of the finer gardens I had seen in Japan. The moss along with the colorful flowers and large pond was stunning.
Next was Rinnoji. This is considered the most important of the Nikko Shrines. It was founded by the monk Shodo Shonin who brought Buddhism to Nikko in the eighth century. Currently, however, the temple is undergoing major renovation which is expected to last until March of 2021, so it is completely covered in gray scaffolding. In addition, inside there were workers crawling in between some of the most sacred artifacts. This took away from some of the sanctity of the temple as I walked through.
Next, was Toshogu. This is probably the most visited place in Nikko. It is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu who is, as you can tell from my previous posts, one of the most important people in Japanese history. When I entered the temple gate, I expected to see a lot of people, but there were a lot more than I had expected. There were at least five school groups and at least five hundred other tourists. The courtyard is lined with elaborately painted buildings and ancient lanterns.
I walked through the courtyard and up through the next gate. This gate is a favorite amongst picture takers because of its intricately carved exterior. I took a few pictures and moved on to the Ieyasu’s burial grounds.
Ieyasu’s grave was accessed by a path leading up behind the temple. The tall pines on either side seemed to give the effect that you were leaving Earth behind and going up towards heaven.
Ieyasu’s grave was simple a large urn which held his remains.
The next temple was Taiyuin which was the burial site of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. Taiyuin was very similar to Toshogu with similar colors and similar architecture, but not nearly as many tourists.
After leaving Taiyuin, I headed off in the direction of Narabijizo which is the place the woman at the tourist information building had suggested. Narabijizo is a place where there are a long line of jizo statues lined up along a river bank. I don’t know if I’ve talked about jizo before, so I will do it now. Jizo are Buddhist statues which are the protectors of lost children. You can find statues of jizo all over Japan. I’ve seen them in almost every place I’ve been, I just haven’t posted any pictures of them yet. It is traditional for those parents who have lost a child to give prayers to a jizo and even take care of it as if it is their own child. Because of this, you will see many jizo wearing red bibs which people have placed around their necks.
They walk there was quiet. I had moved away from the largest tourist area. In fact, on the way there, I don’t think I saw a single tourist. After getting briefly lost, I stopped on a bridge to take a few pictures of the river below. A Japanese man came up to me and asked me in Japanese where I was from. I told him America and he said that his wife was studying English and asked if it would be okay if I could talk to her for a little bit. I said sure and I walked over and talked for about ten minutes. She talked in English and I responded in Japanese. She told me a few of the places that I absolutely had to go in Nikko, but I told her that my train to Tokyo was leaving in a few hours and I wouldn’t have time. After that I explained to her about the all the places that I had been so far in Japan. She and her husband were very impressed and talked a little bit about when their parents had gone to Ise. After a little, bit they told me that they would let me go to Narabijizo because I was very busy and wished me luck on the rest of my trip. I thanked them for their time and told them I enjoyed our talk.
It was just about 200 more meters to Narabijizo and the river running through the path made the trip worth it. On the left were a line of about thirty or forty jizo statues and on the left was the roaring river. Again I couldn’t get over how pure and blue the water looked and I took a lot of pictures.
After a while, I decided it would be a good idea to head back to the Nikko station so I wouldn’t miss my train. On the way back, at the bridge, the woman I talked to was waiting for me. She came up to me and said “If you have a girlfriend, please give her this,” and she handed me a small gift. I thanked her greatly and I was rather touched. Americans sometimes make fun of the Japanese because their culture is so different from ours. Through my time in Japan, I’ve found that the Japanese are a little more closed off especially towards foreigners. But, they have a very rich history of which they are rightfully very proud, and if they see that you are genuinely interested in it or have taken some time to try to learn their language, they are the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met. There have been a few other occasions that almost complete strangers have given me gifts just because I have talked to them in Japanese for a few minutes. I’ve never heard of anyone in America doing anything like that.
Twenty minutes later I was back at the station. I filled up my water bottle at one of the many pure water springs around town, boarded my train, and made the long ride to Tokyo where I will spend the night.
Tomorrow, I have the morning free to wander around Tokyo and then I head to Mt. Fuji to climb it to the summit! Should be interesting as I have not worked out in almost six weeks now. The goal will be to get to the summit before sunrise and watch the sun come up. Hopefully when I post again in two days, I should have some great pictures. See you soon!