The Tranquil Hill

Posted by on Sep 27, 2011 in Iwate, Travel Volunteer Journey | 4 Comments
The Tranquil Hill

I can think of no other country in the world that feels so simultaneously futuristic and steeped in history as Japan. Without ever having come here, I always imagined that Japan essentially existed five years in Europe’s future. Yet no right-minded wee boy would fail to fantasise about the machinations of the samurai and ninja.

Until today, we hadn’t really had a chance to experience either of those preconceptions. But a trip into the south of Iwate prefecture is like a trip back through time, and some hours of bumbling around the ancient town of Hiraizumi have totally satisfied my desire to hear of heroes, villains and no small amount of beheadings.

The life and times of the Fujiwara family are too chaotic and complex to go into in any great detail here, but listening to tales of death by blunt sword, betrayal, heroism and redemption was a real treat. Not least because of our wonderful guide Kuzuaki Okada.

The late-summer sun shone all day as the 69-year-old led us up through the cedar trees and burning incense, around the hilltop relics. Now retired and living his life at his own pace (slowly) Mr Okada has a serenity about him that it’s hard not to envy. In the peaceful atmosphere of these Buddhist Pure Land relics, his calm was probably accentuated, never more so than when a dragon fly saw fit to land and hitch a ride on his gently rocking hat.

When the great haiku poet Basho came here in 1689, he famously lamented the ruins of the Fujiwara family. “The summer grass/ ‘Tis all that’s left/ Of ancient warrior’s dreams”. Yet, thanks to some clever archaeology and a bit of funding, what remains today is a good deal more spectacular than the little master ever got to see. The hard work paid off this year – of all years – when UNESCO saw fit to award the mount World Heritage status. As a newcomer, and as tourism slowly rebounds in this region, it is now one of the least cluttered, least populated sites on their hallowed list (come quickly, in other words).

They endorsed it in recognition of all the various temples, pagodas and shrines that spread over Mount Kanzan, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Konjiki-do, or the Golden Hall.

If Goldfinger had a mausoleum, it would look like this: a 8m-tall, 5.5m x 5.5m gilded masterpiece, complete with ornate mother of pearl finishings, a healthy dose of Buddhas and the mummified bodies of three generations of the Fujiwara clan. Or four, if you count the embalmed head of Fujiwara no Yasuhira, whose gruesome demise ended the dynasty.

It took seven years for the UNESCO bid to come to fruition; seven years that included one flat-out rejection and of course one enormous earthquake. Thankfully, the damage to the site was minimal, and the United Nations, unlike so many other foreign bodies, weren’t to be put off. And, in our humble opinion, it was about time it was endorsed, too. There are sites in other countries that have half the history of this place, or that lie in far greater disrepair, and yet they were added to the influential list years ago.

A mere 900 years since the warrior lord Fujiwara no Kiyohira made his utopian dream a reality, it’s now getting the modern recognition it deserves.


Our time in Iwate prefecture was made possible by:

The Hanamaki City Council, and in particular guide, whisky-fanatic and fan of the Queen’s English, Mr Fudai who showed us all around his beautiful city and bought us the biggest ice cream we’ve ever seen. How could we not like him?

Hanamaki’s Folkloro Hotel, who gave us the most over-the-top regal welcome and send-off we’ve ever had in years of travelling. The onsen was great, the food was better. And Katy would like to give a special mention to the goats bumbling around in the back garden.

Our friend, Mr Okada, the slowest moving man I have ever met. A volunteer guide, it seems impossible that he’s achieved such a nuanced, varied grasp of English and yet has never left Japan. If I could slow the rest of the world down for him, and pack him an emergency sachet of miso soup, I’m sure he’d love it. But for the time being, it’s everyone else who’s missing out.






もしゴールドフィンガー(ジェームスボンドの敵!)が自分の霊廟を作ったらこんな感じなんだろうか。高さ8m、縦5.5 x 横5.5の霊廟には藤原氏3代にわたるミイラ化したご遺体といくつかの仏像が安置されており、絢爛豪華な細工(真珠層の細工)が施されている傑作である。








  1. Ami
    September 29, 2011

    As an architect I am well aware of the properties a building has when photographed, and must say that the best pictures that can be made to a building are the ones that shows the harmony of proportions in the building, and for japaneese architecture these proportions are golden in nature :) so well thought of that one could compare to a greek temple architecture that has made even visual corrections that allows the viewer to take a glimpse of the building without being distorted by our spherical perception in our eyes.

  2. Kazuaki Okada
    October 7, 2011

    I am sure you are enjoying every place you visit. Would you paraphrase your following statements. I’m enjoying your blog very much. “Our friend, Mr Okada, the slowest moving man I have ever met. A volunteer
    guide, it seems impossible that he’s achieved such a nuanced, varied grasp
    of English and yet has never left Japan. If I could slow the rest of the
    world down for him, and pack him an emergency sachet of miso soup, I’m sure
    he’d love it. But for the time being, it’s everyone else who’s missing

    Especially,”If I could slow…..he’d love it” is difficult to understand. My Brittish friend couldn’t make it out,either.

    • Katy & Jamie
      October 8, 2011

      Hello Mr Okada! Thanks for reading. With that line, I was referring to your slight apprehension when it comes to travelling around the world – you’d mentioned that some of your friends who have travelled missed miso soup when they were abroad. We shared a joke that you would need to have some “emergency miso” if you went travelling. Hope that clears it up?
      Thank you again for your time in Iwate, it was a real pleasure to spend time with you. Also, I managed to mention Chusonji in a recent article for a newspaper in the UK:

      • Kazuaki Okada
        October 11, 2011

        Now my lingering question was solved. No wonder native speakers around me failed to comprehend that line. They had no knowledge of what we spoke at meals about traveling abroad. I am also greatful that you refered to flying dumplings and Chusonji temple in the Brittish newspaper. And your post and picture of Chiba city makes me nostalgic of my hometown. I can even recognize where you took that picture of the giant crab.I sincerely hope your efforts will be fruitful.