You're visiting Randy Johnson's "Favorite Getaways in Rural Japan",
Copyrighted © 1991-2013 by Randy R. Johnson.
The Kanto Plain is generally the area around Tokyo, considered to include the prefectures of Shizuoka, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki, and usually Gumma, and Tochigi, as well as the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which is called Tokyo-To. Mt. Fuji is included in Kanto; I do not include much information about it or its nearby tourist towns, as this is found in any tourist guide -- not because it is uninteresting to visit.
Tochigi Prefecture adjoins the Tohoku area, but Nikko is a popular day trip from Tokyo (by express train) for many tourists, so I mention it here. The main attraction is the Toshogu Shrine complex, built to commemorate the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu (died 1616 -- a.k.a. Toranaga, in James Clavel's novel, Shogun). It is deservedly famous for its architecture, splendid artistry (including the original three "see-no-evil" monkeys), and a beautiful natural setting, and is certainly worth the visit. It also gets really packed out with tourists.
If you can get away from the tourist attractions, it's also a beautiful natural area and there are several good hiking trails around the area, through forests of huge cryptomeria trees. And at night the town seems to shrink down to a quiet little village. However, it can take most of a day to enjoy all the interesting touristic sights, in the company of thousand of other tourists. But while you're there, keep an eye out for the hiking trails, check out some of the lodgings, and hang around town until the last train. You might decide to stay over, or come back again sometime just to enjoy the quieter side of the area.
There are two semi-passable Youth Hostels in town and a number of
moderate lodgings that could have vacancies on quieter days. I once
treated my mother to a stay at the old
The Izu Peninsula (ee-zu) is a long nodule protruding out into the Pacific, southwest of Tokyo. Lots of people come here from Tokyo to enjoy the "quiet" mountains and seaside, and as a result, much of it is pretty touristy. There are lots more quieter places than this in Japan, but if you are stuck in Tokyo for a while, it's worth a visit. I have been there several times and never found a real "getaway" type of place I could recommend, but there is fine scenery that makes for a very pleasant drive on a weekday when the traffic thins out a bit. Of course you can also get there by train and bus.
Itoh-shi ( Itoh town) is an old hot-spring town on the shores about a third of the way down the touristy east coast of the peninsula. It is very well visited, but I mention it because I once stayed at a nice hot-spring ryokan here on a company week-end. The Kawaguchi Ryokan is back against the mountains, a taxi ride or long walk from the station. It's an old place with a very nice outdoor hot-spring bath perched high on the hill above the inn, with great views. (tel. (0557) 48-9583.)
Near the tip of the Izu peninsula is
The railway ends at Shimoda, and just a short walk back up the tracks is a Koku-minshuku-sha (lodging), that is reported to be very nice, and will have reasonable (minshuku-like) prices, including two meals. The town is small and easy to stroll around on foot. Visit the temples with their museums, go to the beach, and maybe take a short harbor cruise on a "Black Ship". Shimoda is relatively laid back (for Izu) and pleasant when not crowded, and I stayed here once on another company weekend. In fact, the Izu Peninsula is so close (to Tokyo) and popular, that I count four times I've stayed here on company trips over the years, plus once on my own!
The western side of the peninsula is much less visited and has no train line, but some equally nice and less spoiled coastline. There must certainly be a good getaway or two out there on quieter days, but you'll have to find it for yourself; the place I stayed was pretty ordinary. Buses run about every hour up the western shore from Shimoda, and along several routes up the mountains in the middle of the peninsula, but they tend to stop not long after 4pm.
If you continue up the western shore of the Izu Peninsula, the main
road heads up onto the
mountain ridge in the middle of the peninsula, with some beautiful
views along the way. Much of the mountain top is rolling forested
hills (not jagged peaks), and there are a number of small "resorts" --
many of which are just a pension or two -- some with horse-riding or
tennis themes. You pass through Suizen-ji Hot Springs
and eventually up to the famous Hakone Hot Springs
This is the first place most people go. I hesitated to mention it because you can pretty easily take care of yourself in this most "on the beaten track" city, and because I don't think it's nearly as interesting, touristically, as the rest of the country. Tokyo was burned to the ground in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and bombed into oblivion again in the war. A few areas, like Kanda, have some buildings that survived, but everything else is rebuilt. Tokyo was never that old to begin with; it was no more than an encampment in a swamp five hundred years ago, when Kyoto and Nara were already ancient centers of civilization.
By the way, there are only two syllables in Tokyo because 'y' is never a vowel in Japanese. If you can't pronounce 'kyo' as one smooth syllable, try to smother a 'kee-yo' at the end. The same goes for the 'kyo' in Kyoto.
Below is my list of the three tourist sights in Tokyo that are really worth visiting, and you can see them all in a day. Not that you can't have fun exploring modern Tokyo, eating, drinking, shopping, visiting museums and art galleries, and being amazed by the Japanese lifestyle. But don't look for all that many living cultural treasures in town. Yes, there are lots of shrines and temples and little gardens that are nice to visit, and I hope you do get out and see some of them, but these are the only three not to miss. (Many people would complain if I didn't also mention the Asakusa Kwanon Temple -- it is pronounced aSAk'sa -- which you will probably visit anyway; trains for Nikko leave from here.) There are a couple of other Tokyo sightseeing ideas at the end...
Getting Around Tokyo
My pages on "Riding the Trains" in Japan has a section on various Day Passes for Transport in Tokyo.
PASMO: Introduced around 2008, PASMO is a prepaid and rechargeable
transportation card that can be used at ticket gates and also as electronic
money. It is a swipable RFID card usable on trains, busses, and subways in
and around Tokyo and some other places. This is not a pass, and there is no
discount over regular fares. It just avoids the need to purchase individual
tickets or even know what the fare should be. That makes it extremely
convenient for flustered
foreigners and other tourists. PASMO and SUICA cards can
also be used in several other regional areas aroud Japan. Visit these sites
for all the details and use it!:
If you're planning on spending a good deal of time in Tokyo -- living
or doing business -- it will be quite worthwhile to get a copy of Kodansha's
Check the Lodging Section on my
Japan Links page for current info on Tokyo lodging.
Japanese shrines are made of wood and thatch. They are made to be
rebuilt. The most venerable shrine in Japan, Ise Jingu, is rebuilt
-- from scratch -- every 20 years. So fires and earthquakes
and bombings need not bother a Shinto shrine, in the long run.
Imperial Palace Gardens
You are not allowed anywhere near the actual Imperial Palace itself
except on New Year's Day and the Emperor's birthday, when you can't
get near for the crowds.
The Kabuki-za theater is a stately old traditional building that
squats over the end of the trendy Ginza area like a gargoyle. Every
other building on this street gets torn down and replaced every 10
years or so. The Kabuki-za is forever. Before performances, you can
see some fantastic costumes, and these are just the patrons milling
about outside the theater.
[Picture: 'Onna Shibaraku' Kabuki dance; paper-cut art by Shoto Kimura.]
NOTICE: The venerable Kabuki-Za theatre
in the Ginza will be
Seating and Prices: There are only two shows per day, at about 11 and 4, but they last four or five hours each! In fact, each show includes at least five or more different plays which are usually unrelated -- or occassionally different Acts of the same longer play. Interspersed may be colorful dance skits and pantomimes for relief. People come and go as the plays go on and on. It also costs a bundle to get good seats in the lowest of the three main seating sections, but you can see a lot from up towards the top, and bring your binoculars for sure.
In fact, the best way to get a short taste of Kabuki for a reasonable
price is to go around to the special little ticket window on the far left side
of the building that only sells tickets ('makumi-ken') to just one
(or maybe 2) shorter performance (30 minutes or an hour or more) at a time.
Beyond this ticket window is the long, long stairway that leads you up
into the very rafters of the Kabuki-za, where the top two rows are segregated
off only for these tickets. Seating is limited up there with only 90
seats plus standing room for 60 more.
Update: Since 2004, you can now rent earphones to hear an English explanation of what's going on, in the Makumi section as well as the main seating area of the Kabuki-za. The rental is just ¥400 per single performance, plus ¥1000 returnable deposit. Previously this was only available in the main seating area, where it costs ¥650 plus deposit.
Personally, I would prefer not to know the story at all, than to have someone talking in my ear, analyzing what I'm experiencing, but that's just me. It certainly helps to know the story ahead of time, and you can usually find a synopsis of the plays (as well as the individual performance schedules) in a tourist paper. An entire book in English, The Kabuki Handbook, (reasonably priced in paperback) is devoted to the stories of all the Kabuki plays.
Most Kabuki plays are adaptations of the even older puppet theater, Bunraku. It is probably for this reason that the poses (called mie), rather than the actions of the actors, are the high points of the performances. Kabuki actors belong to (or are adopted into) long lines of traditional theater families, and are raised from childhood for the stage. Famous stage names are passed down from generation to generation, with ordinals (called yago) tacked on: "Kikugoro V.". At the Kabuki-za, men play all the parts, and some actors, called onna-gata, specialize in female roles.
More History: "In the begining" were the primordial oral myths and legends of the land. A millenium later came itinerant story-tellers, who had memorized such myths as well as the legendary histories of heroes, villains, and phantasms, and who then chanted them aloud to entertain anyone who might reward them with a coin or a drink. When the story-tellers joined forces with players of the shamisen (a 3-stringed 'banjo') in the 15th century, this accompanied chanting was called "joruri", and it was a nascent art form. The chanter (tayu) not only tells the story, but takes on the voices of all the characters in the story, both men and women. At the end of the 15th century, joruri was combined with existing puppet shows to create the art of "puppet-storytelling" which became popular enough to come in off of the streets, and into organized theaters. It was not until the early 18th century that the smaller one-man puppets began to give way to the much larger figures used today, which are operated by 3 or 4 puppeteers. By this time a great body of historical and narrative plays for the puppet theater had been written down and become well-known. Informal singing and dancing performances -- usually of common or bawdy material -- were also common in Japan. It was when some of the more accomplished acting troupes decided to take on the plays of the puppet theater with live productions, around the year 1600, that Kabuki came into being.
By the way, there are also earphones in Japanese; the archaic language and style make it difficult for novice Japanese viewers to understand it either. Most Japanese young people, and many older ones, have never seen Kabuki and don't care to. But Kabuki does have its die-hard fans who visit regularly, and can be heard shouting esoteric compliments to the actors (instead of applause) at critical points in the plays -- especially when they strike a pose. Sometimes they call out the actor's "number" (or yago) -- the ordinal attached to his family's stage name: Go-dai-me! or Shichi-dai-me! Other common outbursts include Edoko no kamisama! Matte imashita! Iro otoko! and Nippon ichi! Don't be alarmed, they are harmless.
Kabuki does not play all the time. Usually a show runs two and a half to three weeks out of a month -- every day -- and a new show of different plays starts the next month. Kabuki also has a month or so off in the winter, when they go on the road. In the meantime various other kinds of dramas or dances are performed at the Kabuki-za.
You can also see Kabuki at the very modern National Theater, for less money. In its productions, women (gasp!) sometimes take the stage! It's located near the Nagatacho and Hanzomon subway stations, toward the back side of the Imperial Palace grounds. They only play four times a week but also tend to run for about three weeks per month. You can usually find some Kabuki playing at one theater or the other.
Tokyo is certainly the best place to see Kabuki, but it
travels to Kyoto's Minami-za theater in December,
for what is called the Kaomise ("debut") performances.
The Minamiza sits across the Shijo Bridge, right next to the Kamo
River, where the first crude Kabuki performances (by women!) were held,
in the river bed, in 1603.
Kabuki can occasionally be seen in other places. Three or four
times a year, you can see the traditional Japanese puppet theater,
Bunraku, upon which Kabuki is based, at the National Theatre, but
Osaka is the place to see the puppets. Here is one
Well, not exactly esoteric, but a few places that residents of Japan
might enjoy visiting more than some tourists. First is
In Kappabashi you can get plastic sushi, ice cream cones, cups of coffee being poured, or any of your favorite dishes. Shop curtains (noren) are also plentiful, and I picked up a genuine sushi shop curtain to adorn my kitchen. There are also many interesting folk-art items that often fill old-fashioned drinking houses. It's fun just to wander around. Kappabashi is just about five blocks down the main street from the Asakusa Kwanon Temple, near the Tawaramachi subway station. Ningyo-cho, the street of dolls, is just a few blocks down.
Next is Tsukiji, () the fish market. The Fish Market of Japan, and possibly the world. It's huge, raucous, crowded, smelly and wet. All kinds of creatures of the sea are sold wholesale here, live, dead, and frozen. Just one thing: the market starts about 3 or 4 am and starts tapering off by 7. There is a Tsukiji subway station (one stop beyond Higashi Ginza); it can get you there by 7am, but you'll have to go by taxi to catch the early fish auctions. The sushi shops here open early for breakfast around 7am, and need I say they have the freshest fish anywhere. Note that the Tsukiji fish market -- and therefore many of the (better) sushi shops in Tokyo -- is closed on Sundays.
One fairly relaxing excursion in Tokyo is to take a
Vingt-et-Un Cruises also provides 2-hour harbor cruises in
the afternoon and evening, including
Heading to Tokyo soon? Check out the list of upcoming
This section is not so much for casual tourists, but more for the English-speaker living around the big city. There are plenty of great hikes to be made in the mountains west of Tokyo and it is a wonderful way to leave the rat race behind. You need a good hiking map and the ability to read it, as well as the Japanese skills necessary to catch buses and trains and find your way around when you get lost. But anyone with rudimentary Japanese and a little adventure can really enjoy a hike deep in the woods for a day or three, if you know where to go.
Hiking is not just for summer; in fact summer is so humid that it often feels too hot to move. I did a lot of hiking in winter, when there are plenty of beautifully clear, dry -- and cold -- days. Rolling out from under a couple of heavy quilts to see a crispy clear Mt. Fuji bathed in a red sunrise just about makes you forget a week's turmoil in the Big Mikan (Tokyo).
The trails are all well used and well marked (in Japanese) all along the way, including approximate hiking times. You will usually find plenty of Japanese hikers up there with you. The convenience of cozy mountain huts, far back on the trails, makes it possible to do an overnight trip, or longer, without a sleeping bag or tent. But you have to know where your huts are, and if they will be open, or if they are just shelters; this is marked on the hiking maps that you can get in any reasonable book store. See Mountain Huts under Other Lodgings, in the lodging notes section of this guide.
Okutama Lake and the Okutama - Chichibu National Park /
Catch the Chuo Line west out of Tokyo or Shinjuku stations to
The town at the end of this line is called Hikawa
The old wooden station at Hikawa lets you know you've already started
to get away from modern Tokyo. Out the front of the station, find the
bus stop for Okutama Lake
Along the road are several small villages, and a few will put you up for the night, or feed you a hot meal. Above the road you will find several old wooden houses, and people still living along trails up in the woods.
Above the lake and road, steep mountains rise to a ridge that runs all the way from Hikawa into the Oku-Chichibu area of Saitama Prefecture. This is the ridge I like to hike. You can go up and down at numerous places along the way, depending on how many days you have.
Only 10 minutes up the road, and before the dam, you can get off at Sakaibashi (bridge) and head south up a trail to Mt. Gozen, but this is in the opposite direction from the ridge. The next good possibility is to get off at Nagatani-bashi. Walk away from the lake a few hundred yards to a little hamlet there, from which a trail on the left leads gradually up to the ridge. The trail is marked, but you can ask the local farmers. Once on the ridge, it's a short hike to Mutsu-ishi Peak (Six Stones), from which a steep trail leads back down to the lake. There is a basic shelter near Mutsu-ishi.
Continuing along the ridge for a couple of hours you get to Nanatsu-ishi Peak (Seven Stones). Just below this peak is a mountain hut which is usually tended all summer and on week-ends the rest of the year. This means they have a stove, hot tea, and warm bedding. It has a nice view out toward Mt. Fuji, on a clear day. A nice trail leads down from here a couple of hours to the lake. This is also a good place to start up from because fewer buses pass here in the afternoon. If you get caught out, the next closer bus stop to town is just two kilometers down the road, and several more buses go that far. (Photo, clickable, left: Instant ramen in the snow below Mutsu-Ishi peak.)
Beyond Nanatsu-ishi, the ridge trail leads up to
Back at Kumotori-Yama, there is a tended mountain hut just beyond the mountain on the trail to the right (to Mitsumine). They even have food! and a traditional hori-kotasu -- a table set over a pit where you dangle your feet over hot coals. There is another tended hut another hour or so along this trail.
It is a good day's hike from Kumotori-Yama to Mitsumine, and when you
get there, you can stay at the large and interesting shrine atop the
mountain; they even have a hot bath! And maybe some food, but don't
count on it. Then you can walk or take the nearby rope-way down to
the road below the mountain. No, this is not the same road, you've
hiked all the way across into another prefecture! From this road you
catch a bus back toward civilization to Mitsumine-Guchi station on a
spur of the Chichibu Railway, which takes you back via Chichibu town
If you take the left (south) fork from Kumotori-Yama, it goes off along the
side of a mountain, and within a half hour there is a steep trail down
to the left (it's easy to miss!). This trail gets almost down to the
level of Okutama Lake, when you come to a mountain hut called
From Sanjonoyu, you hike down a little ways before hitting a rough dirt road, which takes you several miles to the main road along Okutama Lake. Not many buses come this far, and you may have to hitch-hike back to Okutama Station if you get there in the late afternoon; better to stay over at Sanjo and have another bath. The nearest bus is Omatsuri, about 1km (left) toward Hikawa (= Okutama Station); but there are more buses if you walk even farther back to Kamozawa-Nishi (1km) or Tozura (2km) bus stops.
If you manage to get a bus from Hikawa (Okutama) all the way past the
lake to the end of the line, it stops at a little house below Yanagisawa Pass
that has a few rooms and some warm meals. From here you can get over the
pass, but last time I was there we had to walk a couple of miles to the
pass and then down a little more before we came to a bus stop. This bus runs
Back near the top of Yanagisawa-Pass, on the Enzan side, is a short trail to
If you get down to Enzan, you can buy a bottle of wine -- or grapes, in season -- and catch the Chuo Line train straight back to Tokyo. Getting on a Tokyo-bound train here on a late Sunday afternoon will teach you the meaning of "crowded". Or you could continue West to Kofu, a gateway for hikes into the Central Alps of Japan.
Other Hiking Areas
Japan is mostly mountains, and there are few mountains without regular hiking trails. A recent book that can be recommended is "Day Walks Near Tokyo", by Gary D'A. Walters, which includes hikes in the Okutama, Tanzawa, Takao, and Miura areas, as well as one in Hakone and another at Nikko. You can find this book at English bookstores in Tokyo. I see that he now has a second volume out. Another recent book about pleasant walks in the western suburbs of Tokyo is "Water Walks" by Sumiko Enbutsu and Mimi Le Bourgeois; look for it in the Tokyo area.
Beyond Kofu, Nirasaki station is a gateway to buses up toward mount
There are also plenty of fine hikes in the low mountains just north of Kyoto, but the trails are not as well marked, and you need a good hiking map for the longer ones. I've hiked all over that area, but I guess I never made any notes on those Kyoto hikes...
VI. Tohoku ("the Northeast")
Just about everything north and east of Tokyo, until you get to Hokkaido Island, is known as Tohoku (to-HO-ku), the Northeast. Technically, it comprises Fukushima, Yamagata, Miyagi, Iwate, Akita, and Aomori Prefectures. This area is mostly rural and mountainous, with a few larger cities, and does not have many (internationally) well-known tourist sights. During the ancient rise of Japanese culture, this region was only inhabited by early Ezo and Ainu peoples, and until the last century it was mostly considered an 'outback' of Japan. The weather is harsher here and the winters cold and white.
The people of Tohoku are naturally somewhat more relaxed than Tokyoites, and speak with a dialect that some Japanese find difficult to understand. Their dress and housing remain predominantly old-fashioned. While they are sometimes portrayed as country bumpkins, they are certainly in touch with the modern world, they just don't seem in much of a hurry to adopt the fast modern lifestyles of central Japan. Those who wish to, have already migrated to Tokyo. They are not used to seeing many foreigners and can be friendly and curious.
I have only visited one place in Tohoku, which I describe below. There are also a number of high mountain areas suitable for mountain climbing and hiking trips, especially around Mt. Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture, which is the farthest south. You could spend a lot of time exploring Tohoku, and I refer you to someone who has, Jan Brown, who wrote "Exploring Tohoku" in 1982.
Hiraizumi (hira-iZUmi) was once, and for a brief time, the political and cultural center of the Tohoku area, rivaling even Kyoto with its wealth of ornate Buddhist monasteries. It was also the stronghold of the Fujiwara clan, whose power once threatened the central government of western Japan in the 11th and 12th centuries. The power struggles of the Fujiwaras are celebrated in many well-known legends, dramas, and poems, and Hiraizumi remains an interesting reminder of the history of that era.
Once a large and thriving cultural center of perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, Hiraizumi today is just a small rural town (population just 9,000) in a pleasantly wooded setting, and most of the thousands of temples and noble houses once surrounding it were destroyed or abandoned after the Fujiwaras were defeated. But a few splendid temples, monasteries, and gardens remain or have been restored, and there are many historical sites and monuments to be seen, as well as nice countryside and some large old farmhouses.
I chose Hiraizumi as my one stopover en route to Hokkaido,
after reading Exploring Tohoku; I stayed three days
and I was not disappointed.
Still, while the area is relaxingly rural and the scenery is nice, it
is largely of historical and cultural interest, and the main temples
see plenty of tourists in season. Hira-izumi means 'flat springs'.
Go to the
In 789 the Imperial Government constructed a small fort in this area, on the Koromo-gawa river where it enters the Kitakami River, as a base for the conquest of the Ezo tribes in Tohoku. By this time the original Fujiwara clan had already risen to positions of great power in the ancient imperial courts of Nara and later, Kyoto. They married their daughters into the imperial line and became regents and advisors with as much power as the Emperors, and often more.
By the mid-11th century (hmmm, a mere three hundred years later) the power of the Fujiwaras was diminished by the rise of more militaristic clans who forced the emperors and their gentrified regents into the roles of powerless figureheads at a mainly ceremonial court in Kyoto. The most powerful of these clans were the Minamoto and the Taira -- also known by their "nicknames" the Genji and the Heike. (The Taira were themselves an early offshoot of the original Fujiwara clan.) The rivalry of these two warring clans provides material for many of the historical dramas of this era.
As much as a snub as a reward, the Fujiwaras were granted official dominion over most of Tohoku, where they already held some local power. With their decline in the capital, and the corruption of the Buddhist sects in Kyoto by military powers, the Fujiwaras turned their energies to building up an alternate cultural center around their isolated country home near Hiraizumi, in what was then called Mutsu Province. With the great wealth they had accumulated over the centuries, they founded and enlarged magnificent temples and monasteries, beginning in 1105. Their culture was to be one of peace and piety.
Within three generations, the wealthy Fujiwaras had created a magnificent cultural center to rival Kyoto. Built on Chinese designs, it was filled with glorious temples, dripping in gold and filled with master works of art. It attracted and patronized many of the finest artists and people of religion and learning.
In 1185, the Minamoto clan finally defeated the Taira at Dan-no-ura, and Yoritomo Minamoto set up the first Shogunate in Kamakura, southwest of present-day Tokyo. This was a militaristic government that held power above the titular emperors in Kyoto, who they themselves installed. But Yoritomo feared his powerful brother, the warrior Yoshitsune Minamoto, and endeavored to have him killed. Yoshitsune fled to Hiraizumi to take asylum with his old friends the Fujiwaras. The diminutive Yoshitsune and his equally famous side-kick Benkei are the heroes of numerous legends and Kabuki dramas.
In 1189, after the death of the third great Fujiwara lord of this
period, his son Yasuhira was persuaded to betray Yoshitsune, and led
Minamoto forces to attack his stronghold at nearby Takadachi Castle.
The first great battle ended with Yoshitsune killing his family before
taking his own life. Benkei fought valiantly to the very end, dying
in a hail of arrows, or by his own hand, depending on the legend.
[Picture (clickable): 'Benkei at the Bridge', paper-cut art by Shoto Kimura.]
In the unexpected battles that followed, Yasuhira Fujiwara was rewarded for his treachery by having Yoritomo's armies turn against him, resulting in the Minomoto's long-anticipated annihilation of the ancient Fujiwara clan. Yasuhira, the last of the powerful Fujiwaras, was beheaded. What was not destroyed of the great cultural center at Hiraizumi fell into disuse and was abandoned by all but the most pious Buddhists clerics.
When the poet Basho visited Hiraizumi on his personal pilgrimage five centuries later, there was little left to be seen of the power and the glory of the great Fujiwara clan. This -- and not the great 1600 battlefield of Seki-ga-hara, as is sometimes reported -- was the inspiration for his most famous haiku poem "Natsu Kusa" (Summer Grasses). My translation:
Oh, the summer grasses -- Natsu kusa ya! Are all that remain Tsuwamono-domo ga Of all the young warriors' dreams. yume no ato
There are two main temple complexes and numerous lesser historical sites within bicycling distance of Hiraizumi station and the small town around it. If you don't mind walking a few miles, you can see them all just as pleasantly on foot with a little extra time. You could run through the highlights in one full day, but since it's a pleasant area with several other natural sights, it's worth relaxing for a couple of nights here -- or I wouldn't have recommended it. Bicycles can be rented in front of the station.
Motsu-ji Temple is a large and rambling monastery complex just a kilometer (8 to 10 minutes walk) from town, straight ahead from the station. Founded as a small temple in 850, it reached its glory in 1105 when the Fujiwaras turned it into a vast monastery complex of the newly popular Pure Land Buddhist sect. It had over 500 buildings and 40 pagodas, but what little is left today was all reconstructed around 1909. It continues to operate as a fair-sized monastery.
An exception is the large and more-or-less original Heian Period Jodo (Pure Land) landscape garden, built around the large Oizumi Pond and several forested hills. The grounds are quite pleasant and shelter a few little shrines and temples as well. Near the present main temple is a stone monument to the poet Basho, with his famous poem (above) inscribed in flowing script. Another monument not far away claims to be the grave of Benkei, Yoshitsune's loyal priest-warrior who is remembered in legend as something of a Falstaff--Friar Tuck character.
About two or three kilometers north down the tree-lined road is the gateway to the much-revered Chuson-ji Temple complex, which is built atop a high hill. Frequent buses also stop at the foot of the hill. From there it is a fifteen minute walk up through the ancient forest to the temple grounds. Along the way are various curio shops, but also some nice tea houses, shrines, and lovely views over the surrounding countryside.
Chuson-ji holds a number of national treasures that are well worth seeing. Of the forty buildings in the original complex, founded in 1105, two rare originals still remain. The Golden Hall (Konjiki-do) was Japan's first designated National Treasure. It is a small square building whose exterior is completely covered in beautiful black lacquer, with inlays of mother-of-pearl (from Okinawa) and panels of pure gold leaf. It is sometimes called the Hall of Light (Hikari-do).
In 1288, Japan's rulers had the foresight to construct a sheltering wooden building around it, with a tile roof. This original shelter is also now preserved as a revered relic, enclosing only the original foundation stones of the Golden Hall. Basho wrote:
All June's rainy days
Have left untouched the Hall of Light
In beauty still ablaze.
Or something like that. In 1962 the Golden Hall was moved a few yards, inside of its new concrete shelter, built to look somewhat traditional. This gives the visitor room to view the outside as well as the inside of the Golden Hall.
If you thought the outside was beautiful, the inside of the Golden Hall dazzles the eyes with ornate gold, lacquer, bronze, and mother-of-pearl panels, pillars, beams, and ornaments. The ceiling seems to be of pure gold, and there are three blazing gold altars with many Buddhist statues. The Golden Hall took 15 years of labor before completion in 1124. It has been restored a couple of times, but most of what you see is original or repaired with authentic materials. You can only look inside the small hall from the outside, and if you are not lucky, there could be a few hundred other people in the line with you.
The remains of the three great Fujiwara lords of this period used to rest beneath the altars, but their coffins have been removed to the Sanko-zo (Treasury of the Three Lords). This museum contains a number of other beautiful Heian Period ornaments, many from the Golden Hall. These include intricate lacquered bronze hanging decorations, jewelry, swords, statues, scrolls, and sutras, some of them written in gold and silver. The head of Yasuhira, the forth and last, but less-than-great Fujiwara lord is also said to have been kept under the altar, after it was sent for display to Yoritomo. An admission is charged for the Golden Hall, which includes entry to the Sanko-zo museum.
Even older than the Golden Hall is the Sutra Hall (Kyozo) which once housed 5,000 Buddhist sutra scrolls. Built in 1108 or 1109, its upper floor was destroyed in a fire in 1337. The original ornate octagonal altar and several of the remaining sutras and sutra boxes are on display in the Sanko-zo.
Also on the grounds of Chuson-ji is a nicely restored outdoor Noh stage with beautifully painted wooden panels as a backdrop. Traditional plays are staged here several times a year. Other buildings include the Main Temple Hall, the archive hall, and various smaller temples and shrines, including a small temple to Benkei on the path up.
I've spent a lot of ink on these temples and treasures, so a small disclaimer. I know that you would enjoy them if you got there, but I'm not sure every tourist would find them worthy of a special trip to Tohoku, given the number of other beautiful temples and shrines in Japan. However, this is an interesting historical area to visit, and the temples are a special bonus.
The remains of Yoshitsune's Takadachi Castle are on a hill across the road just before you get to the Chuson-ji gate. Now there is a small Buddhist hall there, called the Gikei-do. Along the road, and all around the general area are the marked sites of ruined temples, halls, residences and another castle or two. Most of them have been claimed by the summer grasses and the winter snows.
In the nearby area are two river gorges which I did not visit, but which can be reached by bus or car. Gembikei Gorge is west of Ichinoseki and is filled with numerous waterfalls; you can walk through it. There is also a hot-springs here, and several inns. The Geibikei Gorge is east of Ichinoseki and is much larger. In fact, you can take a float trip through the gorge in small boats, which my Lonely Planet book speaks of glowingly. Sorry I missed it.
There are a couple of other hot-springs in the area, including Shinyu and Sukawa, both of which have lodgings. I haven't seen them.
Well, it is a long way from down-town Japan, but nowadays Hiraizumi
can be reached in three hours or so by bullet train from Tokyo. From
either Tokyo or Ueno stations in Tokyo take the Tohoku Shinkansen
(bullet train) a little over two and a half hours (at near-light
From there you can continue by local train or regular bus to Hiraizumi. The train is easiest since you can buy just one ticket all the way through from Tokyo; it's the second stop north and takes eight minutes. But you can also get sight-seeing buses at Ichinoseki that stop off at Geibikei and Gembikei Gorges on the way to Hiraizumi. By car, take the Tohoku Expressway to the Hiraizumi - Maezawa interchange, just on the north side of town.
The next main stop on the bullet train north is Morioka city
Staying in Hiraizumi:
There is a simple and reasonably priced inn, the Tabeshine-so, just behind the Chuson-ji temple at the top of the hill (tel (0191) 46-2326). It's a long way to haul all your gear up -- remember that it's 3 kilometers from Hiraizumi town to the foot of this hill -- but it will be very quiet to walk around the temples and forest in the mornings and evenings. Notice: There is no longer -- since 2008 -- a standard Youth Hostel inside the Motsu-ji temple complex! But there is a campground near the road between the two temples. There is also a Kokumin Shukusha with 27 rooms near the Koromogawa battleground, several miles north of town (tel (0191) 46-2131).
Just out of the little Hiraizumi railway station, there are several inns in the small town itself. I stayed at the Shirayama Ryokan, which was very pleasant and with an atmosphere and price more like a minshuku (nine rooms; tel (0191) 46-2883). They had good local food, which also seemed to draw some local residents for dinner. Local dishes you might expect to get at any good inn are mountain vegetables (zansai), hand-made wanko soba (noodles), mochi (rice cakes), tororo soba (mountain potato noodles), and natto (fermented soy beans), in various combinations.
Notice, Dec. 2008: Things seem to have changed in Hiraizumi
since it applied to be a World Heritage site. The Youth Hostel is
gone. The Shirayama Ryokan initially moved its location, but is is still
listed on the Hiraizumi home page with the same phone number.
Please refer to the