A temple tour of Iwate and Tokyo

Visitor’s guide to Tokyo and Tohoku: exploring the holy sites
in association with Tokyo Convention Visitors Bureau |
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Japan is a country of more than 70,000 temples, so picking out the ones worth visiting can be, well, challenging. Going through the entire list would require the patience of a Buddhist saint, while randomly hitting all the places of worship along your path would quickly see you catch acute temple fatigue.

But that's where our tips come in: we hold that eastern Japan is home to many of the country's most impressive holy structures, and the northern prefecture of Iwate is a particularly interesting destination for temple enthusiasts. Below you'll find three of our top picks in this history-rich region, in addition to a couple of must-see temples right here in the capital.

Iwate

Chusonji Temple

A temple of the Tendai sect founded back in 850, the Chusonji Temple is located in Hiraizumi, which was once the capital of the Oshu (aka Northern) Fujiwara clan that ruled Tohoku in those days, but now a tranquil countryside community.

The Chusonji Temple was reconstructed in the early 12th century by Fujiwara-no-Kiyohira, the founder of the Oshu Fujiwara clan, to spread the principles of Jodo-shiso (or Pure Land Buddhism, a peaceful and ideal place based on Buddhist teachings) in Hiraizumi and as a way to comfort the souls of the victims who lost their lives during the wars in the previous century.

The Chusonji Temple consists of an extensive network of buildings surrounded by lush woods. Most of the original temple complex was destroyed in a fire in the 14th century but was later reconstructed.

However, two existing buildings date back to the Fujiwara era: Kyozo Hall, a repository for Buddhist scripture, and Konjikido, considered the most important part of the temple. This petite mausoleum, now located inside another building to protect it from the elements, houses the remains of the first four generations of the Fujiwara clansmen and is covered with gold leaf both inside and out. It is a gorgeous piece of medieval architecture that surely helped sway the decision of Unesco in making the Chusonji Temple a world heritage site in 2011.

Fukusenji Temple

Occupying a piece of high ground just outside the city of Tono, the Fukusenji Temple is best known for its five-storey pagoda, perched on a tree-covered hillside at the heart of this extensive temple complex. In addition to said centrepiece, the grounds also include an impeccably maintained Japanese garden, several smaller temples and a 17-metre statue of the bodhisattva Kannon, carved out of a single piece of wood.

The Fukusenji Temple is about 20 minutes by bus from Tono Station, and we recommend you trek up through the complex to discover all the many different buildings.

While the Fukusenji Temple itself is far from ancient – it was founded as recently as 1912 – it's well worth including in any itinerary covering Tono, a small town known as the setting for ‘Tono Monogatari – The Legends of Tono’, a collection of folk legends written by Kunio Yanagita. It is also home to the mythical kappa, a cucumber-loving creature that lives in ponds and rivers. The best time to visit is in autumn, when the momiji maple trees on the hillside turn a fiery red. Note that the temple is open on Sundays only between January and March.

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Motsuji Temple

Similar to the Chusonji Temple mentioned above, the Motsuji Temple is a large temple of the Tendai sect and it’s founded in 850 by priest Jikaku Daishi Ennin. Most of the buildings were constructed in the mid-12th century by the second lord of the powerful Fujiwara clan, Motohira. Back then, the temple complex was one of the most impressive in the region, featuring 40 buildings, 500 monasteries and a colourful main hall decorated with wooden ornaments and gold leaf details. But after the downfall of the northern Fujiwara clan at the end of the 12th century, the temple grounds were completely destroyed by several fires – today, only a part of the garden still stands.

Along with the foundations and base structures of the former temple buildings, you can now marvel at a splendid reconstruction of the main hall plus the carefully preserved Pure Land garden with its large pond Oizumiga in the centre. This garden design was typical of the Heian period (794-1185) and Motsuji Temple’s green space is one of the last few remaining from that time period. Go for a walk and take in the tranquil scenery of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was designated in June 2011.

The Motsuji Temple is also famous for its year-round flowers. They attract many visitors especially during early summer, when about 30,000 colourful irises are in full bloom.

Tokyo

Gotokuji Temple

Hidden out deep in Setagaya, Gotokuji has quietly become one of western Tokyo's most in-demand tourist attractions in recent years. That's because this ‘cat temple’ is thought to be the origin of maneki-neko, Japan’s famous ‘beckoning cat’ that serves as a symbol of good luck and happiness.

Gotokuji may seem ordinary at first glance – until you see the army of cat figurines sitting in a corner next to one of the halls. These figurines are sold at the temple’s office building and customarily returned to the shelf after wishes are granted. After battling it out with the crowds of eager Instagrammers looking for that perfect snap, see how many hidden feline motifs you can spot across the site, which is also known for its beautiful autumn leaves.

On your way back to Gotokuji tram station, consider stopping at the Tohiken dessert shop to pick up some lucky cat-shaped butter cookies, manju cakes, or monaka wafers filled with sweet red bean paste.

Tsukiji Honganji Temple

The Tsukiji Honganji temple is the Tokyo branch of the Nishi-Honganji in Kyoto, which is the head temple of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, the most practiced brand of Buddhism in Japan.

Reconstructed in 1934, the current oriental-looking exterior of the main worship hall, or Hondo, is made of stone with an ancient Indian architectural style, while the interior has a traditional Shinshu temple style whose decorations of stained glass, chandeliers and furniture is worth seeing up close. This iteration was designed by architectural historian Chuta Ito, an honorary professor at Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University).

You should also stop by in the evening when the temple looks different all lit up; it reveals a beautiful alter ego of the building, which has also been used for the funerals of countless celebrities.

A renovation in November 2017 saw a Japanese-style café called Tsukiji Honganji Café Tsumugi opened on site, which provides a good view of the grand facade. Get there before 10.30am and order the gorgeous Japanese-style breakfast set ‘18-shina no Asagohan’ (¥1,944) – it consists of 16 dainty small dishes plus rice porridge and miso soup.

How to travel between Iwate and Tokyo

By train

The train ride between Tokyo Station and Morioka Station takes approximately 2hr 15min by JR Tohoku Shinkansen 'Komachi' or ‘Hayabusa’.

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