Back in January, I announced that there would be a new category about traveling to and around Japan added to the blog. Since then, keen readers will have noticed that I have not actually posted anything about travel. My original intention when adding this category was to give myself something to write about, in case I run out of ideas for other blog posts. Constantly finding new topics to write about can be exhausting, especially if your target audience (people wanting to work and live in Japan in my case) is relatively small. I thought writing about travel would help me tap a broader audience, who then would maybe also take interest in my other content.
But then I ran into an issue: would it be okay for me to write travel-posts about places that I haven’t actually been to myself? While I like traveling well enough, I am far from an enthusiast and would not count myself as a “hobby traveler”. I like to travel as a means of escaping routine, so if traveling itself were to become routine it would lose most of its appeal to me. All that is to say, that I haven’t traveled around Japan nearly as much as many other travel bloggers have. For example, I have never actually visited Kyoto, which would probably be considered sacrilege by many a Japan-fan. Anyway, for now, I have decided to stick with posts about places that I have actually been to, few as they might be. Hopefully, I will still be able to offer a nuanced view, from somebody that actually lives in Japan.
Travelling to Japan – Hiraizumi
Today’s topic is Hiraizumi, a small town located in Iwate prefecture in the Touhoku region, a pretty long way north of Tokyo. It used to be a pretty big deal in the past (read 1000 years ago), but now it is just a very small rural community, that seems to be living entirely off the tourism that its past significance brings in. Hiraizumi itself offers historic temples on wooded mountains, making you feel like you entered some kind of enchanted fairyland, good food, and stunning views. The area surrounding Hiraizumi can also be very interesting if you are into temples and nature. There are flowing ricefields, temples with beautiful gardens, mountains, lots of woodlands, Genbikei and Geibikei gorge (which we will get to later), and caves to explore. If you want an experience that is a bit different, where you have to somewhat choose your own adventure instead of following tried and true guidebooks then Hiraizumi might be just the place for you.
Base of operations: Ichinoseki
Actually getting to Hiraizumi can be a bit of a hassle, the Shinkansen only stops in nearby Ichinoseki. From there you have to take a very small, very slow and very infrequent local train that will get you to Hiraizumi proper. While the area certainly has lots of charm, staying in Hiraizumi itself is probably not the best idea. If you are planning to spend multiple days exploring the surroundings, Ichinoseki will offer a much better base of operations, since there are regular busses departing for all the tourism spots outside of Hiraizumi as well. You will however have to accept, that Ichinoseki is not the nicest place. Boarded up shops, the sort of destitute, gray atmosphere that many smaller Japanese towns can have, where most of the young population has left for bigger cities. But if you are planning to be on the move, exploring around, then getting a cheap business hotel here will be the most economical solution, both money and timewise. If you want a more immersive and relaxing experience, then looking at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Hiraizumi itself might be a good idea, but basing yourself here will certainly make exploring the surroundings a lot harder unless you rent a car.
Onto Hiraizumi itself – Straight outta Ghibli
The main attraction of Hiraizumi is the aforementioned fairyland temple, Chusonji temple. It sits on top of a heavily forested mountain and is famous across Japan for the Konjikido, a hall that is almost entirely covered in gold and was built in the 12th century. Considering that traditional Japanese architecture is almost entirely based around wood and paper, there are actually not many buildings that are even more than a few hundred years old (many castles that you can find across Japan today are modern-day replica for example), so having a building survive for almost a 1000 years is pretty noteworthy. For protection, the Konjikido is housed inside another structure and you can not enter the golden hall itself, only gaze at it from the outside (also no photography allowed). The Buddhist monks of the area are nothing if not industrious, so you can find lots of souvenirs, whole restaurants if you are hungry, and small food stalls if you just want to snack. The whole area could almost feel like a theme-park, but somehow it manages to still retain the whole fairy tale atmosphere as if you had walked into a Studio Ghibli movie. A note of warning, if you are not good on your feet then the hike up to the temple can be pretty exhausting.
Apart from that, there is unfortunately not a whole lot to Hiraizumi itself. At the bottom of the mountain, there is the grave of Benkei, who is a pretty famous figure from Japanese history and often appears in various Anime or Movies as a Character. Surrounding the train station, there are a few restaurants and more souvenir shops, but if you have not rented a car you will most likely have to return to Ichinoseki if you want to do any exploring beyond that.
Nature in Action – Genbikei and Geibikei Gorge
There is of course lots to do Hiraizumi and Ichinoseki, but listing every single activity would take forever. As I said earlier if you are looking to travel to Hiraizumi it’s probably best to explore a lot by yourself, and not follow any sort of itinerary. So instead of giving you one, I will just briefly talk about two other landmarks that were the most memorable to me – Genbikei and Geibikei Gorge. The names might sound similar, but it’s actually two very different places with a very different atmosphere and charm to them.
Geibikei Gorge can be reached by train from Ichinoseki station (though again, trains are very infrequent, get used to that when traveling the Japanese countryside). The main attraction here are the boat rides. For a small fee, you can enjoy being staked around the gorge by a boatman with a pole in a flat-bottomed boat. The boatman might even sing some traditional Japanese songs for you, while you enjoy eating snacks that you bought before departure. The ride takes around an hour or so. If you are now having visions of a romantic boat ride, like gondolas on the channels in Venice (they never tell you how stinky the channels actually are), you will be disappointed however as you will be sharing a boat with roughly 20 other people. If you can get over that fact, then there are many beautiful views to gawk at and once you return you can buy some traditional grilled fish.
Genbikei Gorge, on the other hand, offers a different view of nature in Japan. Where Geibikei Gorge is more a calm and serene place, Genbikei Gorge can be a more rough experience. When it rains, the water in this jagged canyon can become a torrent, reminding everyone of the power that nature holds over Japan. There are not boats this time, only a walkway that you can follow which will take you around the best views the gorge has to offer. There will be small pavilions where you can rest, wobbly hang-bridges that you have to navigate, if you are lucky you might also spot some pretty big and funny-looking mushrooms. Once that’s done, you can enjoy some Dango (traditional Japanese sweet) and tea at the nearby snack-shop. They even have a system where you can order Dango from across the gorge, which involves only a rope and a basket, showing you do not need an app for an efficient food-delivery system (take that Uber).
I will leave it at that for now. Again, this is not meant to be a guide or anything of the sort. Rather, I hope that by reading this I have managed to pique your interest in simply going to and enjoying Hiraizumi, maybe even without planning too much in advance! I might add to this in the future but for now thanks for reading.
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