Hiraizumi is the 12th world heritage site within Japan and the first in the Tohoku Region, recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Asset. Hiraizumi grew to importance due to the region's mineral wealth and their central position helped command control of North-South trade routes. It was the capital of Oshu (an area about a third of Japan) under the ruling of the Fujiwara Clan during the Heian Period and at its peak, Hiraizumi even rivaled Kyoto (the capital) commercially and politically.
Hiraizumi is now a small, quiet town with historically and culturally rich gems awaiting your visit. It's also home to two of four temples in the pilgrimage of four-temples of the Tohoku Region (the other two are Yamagata - Yamadera and Matsushima - Zuiganji). If you want to indulge in Japan's historic wonders without the hoard of tourists, Hiraizumi is a top choice.
Ichinoseki City borders Hiraizumi and is only a 8min train ride on the local Tohoku Main Line (if you miss the train take a look at things you can do around the station or alternatively take a 20min bus ride). From there, you can either catch the loop bus or if you want a classic adventure, hire a bicycle for the day! The walk from the station to Hiraizumi's main attraction, Chusonji, takes about 20-30mins on foot.
There is also a 1000yen 1 day bus pass available that can take you to popular tourist destinations such as Chusonji (Hiraizumi), Motsuji (Hiraizumi), Geibikei (Ichinoseki) and Gembikei (Ichinoseki). For bus times and information, the best idea is to ask the tourist information center at the west exit of Ichinoseki Station.
The top three recommended sites to visit in Hiraizumi:
1) Chusonji 中尊寺
Chusonji is a temple that was founded in 850AD by priest Jikaku Diashi and was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2011. When the Fujiwaras were in power, Chusonji was said to have had over 40 pagodas and halls but unfortunately in 1337, fires ravaged all but two structures from the Fujiwara era.
The most impressive remaining attraction of Chusonji is the golden hall - Konjikido, a designated national treasure. The intricately crafted article is decorated with gold leaves, mother of pearl, lacquer, paint and wood/metal. It is truly a marvel and gives you a sense of Hiraizumi's golden days.
The Hondo is the main hall which is shown in the first picture above.
The walk up is gorgeous with towering Japanese pine and cedar, some patches of bamboo closer to the top - you'll also come across some viewing spots of the city. Although I can recommend Chusonji all year around, its autumn scenery is breathtaking. Every autumn, the trees are lit up during peak foliage.
I always feel an incredibly deep sense of serenity walking around Chusonji and have made sure for the last couple of years to make it my first temple visit of the year.
2) Motsuji 毛越寺
Motsuji, like Chusonji was founded by Jikaku Daishi. Motsuji, at its peak had an incredibly magnificent temple decorated with jewels, gold and silver as well as 40 temples and 500 monk residences but sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1226. None of the original structures of Motsuji remain but remnants of its foundations, halls and corridors can still be seen. What makes the temple grounds relevant to this day and a registered World Heritage Site, is that it's the only remaining and preserved example of a Jodo Garden or Pure Land Garden. The tranquil Oizumigaike Pond is at the center of the eternal landscape.
There are plenty of events going on in the year such as the Iris Festival, Gokusui no En and Fall Fujiwara Festival. New Year's Eve is also a magical time to visit Motsuji as lanterns placed around the grounds reflect in the water.
Check out more at: http://www.motsuji.or.jp/en/event/index.html
3) Takkoku no Iwaya 達谷窟
Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamondo Hall, dedicated to the god Bishamon, was built in the 800s. The spectacular structure is embedded in a rock-face and resembles the style of Kyoto's Kiyomizudera. Since its establishment, fires have destroyed the temple multiple times. At present you can see the 5th dedication which was built in 1961.
Surrounding areas include Benten Hall (Bentendo), Toad Pond (Gama no Ike), Fudo Hall (Fudodo) and Golden Hall (Kondo).
Before you go, keep in mind that it's forbidden to kill animals or pick plants here. "Visitors are also requested not to smoke, drink, eat or drink, nor bring pets".
For a comprehensive guide to Hiraizumi, check out: http://hiraizumi.or.jp/en/