Sunday, 7 October 2012

In search of a golden temple

Sunday 7th October 2012

MP3 track of the day: gold -Spandau Ballet

Weather: the temperature was perfect; not to hot and not to cold. The only issue was the late morning cloud cover, though this surrendered to blue skies by the early afternoon.

Okay so before we start; the above photo was not taken by me. No photography is allowed within the building which houses the above. I just wanted to show you what all the fuss was about.

48 days...

48 days since my last trip (Hachmantai National Park, back in the middle of August) and, for a backpacker like me, I was starting to go nuts. Sure there had been events, parades (which I wouldn't have missed for the world) and school activities to keep me occupied, but nothing beats the open road. So then, why had it taken me so long to hit the road? The answer is simple and is all to do with 'geographical location'; basically everything close to where I live I have seen. Sure I want to go back to Tono and to Hachmantai, but not just yet; I want to wait for the autumn leaves. The only thing, within a days drive, left for me to see was Hiraizumi … and this was still an eight hour round trip! I was therefore waiting for a bank holiday weekend; I was waiting for a weekend where I could work Saturday, road-trip Sunday and relax on Monday before work commenced. In early October that weekend had finally arrived.

I had spent the whole 'working week' preparing for this weekend. I had worked into the evening to make absolutely sure that no chore, job or personal goal would keep me from venturing out. Unfortunately I had also spent the whole 'working week' with a cold and, as I awoke at 5am on Sunday morning, I unleashed into the world – well, my bedroom at least - an uncontrollable bombardment of coughs. Experience over the last few days had taught me that I feel worse at night and in the morning and that, as soon as I was washed, fed and dressed I would feel much better. And so it came to pass.

Once in my car I looked at the clock … 7am. I turned the keys to bring my cars microscopic engine – or 'Frank' for short – into life before sighing; I had wanted to leave thirty minutes earlier. I pulled out of my car parking space, turned up the heating and headed west to Morioka.

Apart from feeling a little rough, having the heating up to 'sweat level' and my music down to 'volume level: headache' the ride along the '106' to Morioka was the same as always. Sure the roadworks had moved along slightly – but between you and me, I feel that they should have achieved much more in the last fort-eight days – but apart from that the world was as it should be. I arrived in Morioka two hours after setting off and immediately turned south, not stopping for another hour until I had reached the small town of Hanamaki.

The time was now 10am and I found myself within a large car park with a 'twenty-four hour' MacDonald's to my right, and a huge pharmacy in front of me. This had been achieved by no mere coincidence; I had in fact visited Hanamaki previously and knew where to find the two things which I was after. I first of all visited the pharmacy to get some new, stronger, medicine to help fight the war which was happening inside me at that very moment. I had an interesting conversation with three members of staff – the member of staff I originally asked for help; the pharmacist the member of staff went to get and some 'random' employee dragged in because the other two thought he could speak English better than them (though it turned out he could only smile, say thank you and 'enjoy day'). After a long game of charades – in which my impression of a man dying of a cough, I thought, was worthy of an Oscar – left me with a packed of tables, and the pharmacy £12 of my money!

Next up was MacDonald’s in which I was a little gutted to see the breakfast menu still up. Normally I would have been overjoyed to see 'pancakes with maple syrup' still being served at 10:30am but, today, I really didn't fancy anything too sweet (I really was ill) and so I ordered a spicy chicken burger thing, a 'fried potato', an orange juice and an apple pie.

I was soon on the road again and on the last leg of my journey. Traffic became heavier and quite often I had to stop, though never for very long. Once I reached the outskirts of Hiraizumi a sea of cars, in one big line, greeted me. The town, located in a flat basin surrounded by farmland which backed onto smallish mountains, seemed to only be about six foot square in size, and yet it would appear that the whole population of Tokyo had woken up this morning with the same thought as I. Fortunately I find myself in the country of Japan; it's a country where people are unable to drive, but they do think about potential problems like “'s a bank holiday this weekend and we have a U.N.E.S.C.O world heritage site … what shall we do if a lot of people turn up?'

In no time at all a Japanese man, with a red flashing stick, wafted it in my general direction to, I think, ask me to follow a small group of cars in front of me. I then soon began to see temporary car parking signs before finding the car parks themselves. The first few car parks were full, but eventually I found one with a few spaces. I parked and turned off my engine; the time was 11:30am and I only had half a tank of fuel left.

Not knowing where anything was, or how far out of town I was, I decided to join a queue which was getting bigger by the second. I picked up my guidebook, joined the queue, and read what Hiraizumi had to offer. Whilst in the queue I reached into my back-pocket to find a piece of paper. I had been given said piece of paper when I first arrived at the overflow car park and it seemed to show Hiraizumi, a bus timetable and many temporary car parks dotted all around the perimeter of the town. Using my broken Japanese I asked the family behind me where we currently were. They marked my map for me and then we chatted for a brief period using all the Japanese I knew – and all the English they knew – to agree that 'there were many people here today'.

The queue, in which I had joined, was a queue for the 'Hiraizumi loop bus'; a bus which went around the temporary car parks and attractions. Due to the size of the queue I wasn't able to get onto the first bus but, thankfully, the buses seem to be running to a fairly frequent timetable. After a little more reading – and chatting to the family behind me – I eventually boarded.

It wasn't until I had boarded, sat down and had gone past 'stop one – the train station' that I had realised I had left my camera in my car. Under my breathe I said a few choice words before trying to think of someone, or something else to blame for the inexcusable stupidity. By now I wasn't feeling ill, I hadn't been rushed neither was I distracted as I left my car. After two minutes of internal debating I realised that the only person to blame was myself; I had been a chump and, what made it worse, was that I actually had four cameras in my car (my SLR, my MP3 player camera, my UK mobile phone camera and my Japanese mobile phone camera) and the only one I had with me was the inbuilt camera within my Japanese mobile phone … and it was the worst.

Finally an English on-board announcement notified me that I had arrived at the 'Chuson-ji temple; the famous U.N.E.S.C.O site'. Actually no announcement was needed as everyone on this packed bus departed at this stop, so I knew I was at the right place. I unintentionally followed the Japanese family I had talked to earlier, to the foot of a large hill. A big Japanese gate guarded a steep path which climbed up into the trees. I walked behind the family, trying to keep my distance as not to spoil their day out, and only occasionally spoke to them when they initiated the conversation (in Japan it's very weird to be traveling by yourself therefore, I often get Japanese people speaking to me to make sure that I'm okay).

Finally the path leveled out and I found myself walking along with huge cryptomeria trees on either side. Also on either side were temples, which had been built not too long ago. With the smell on incense, and the occasional 'dong' of a bell, the whole place was quite atmospheric. Sure there were still thousands of people around but no one seemed to get in each others way; whats more, as I peered through the woodland, I could see people praying at the different temples, and they all seemed to have been able to find their own moment of peace.

I decided not to look at the more modern temples until my return journey. I decided to head straight to what I had come to see, the Konjikido (Golden Hall). I queued up at a ticket booth and paid 800 yen (£7.50) to grant me access to the Konjikido – located with the Chuson-ji Temple - and other places of 'interest'.

Before visiting the hall, I was directed to a small museum called 'Sankozo'. In here were over 3,000 treasures from the time of the Oshu Fujiwara (this is the period – the 11th century - when the hall was built). The museum was lined with scriptures, paintings and Buddhist statues; it would appear that the statues were covered in gold leaf but sadly, over time, that seems to have faded. I'm not sure if it was my cold, the amount of people or the fact that most information was in Japanese but I didn't spend too long inside the museum; in fact I'm a little ashamed to say that, once outside, I was more interested in seeing a vending machine, which sold coke in a glass, than I had been of any of the exhibits (maybe bar one; which was a Buddhist statue of the Senju Kannon, a woman with many arms). As we all know, coke from a glass tastes much better than coke from either a can or a plastic bottle. I bought one and consumed the contents before putting the empty glass in the specific rack.

Finally I found myself approaching the main attraction; Konjikido itself. I passed through the security gates and approached 'Chuson-ji', the temple which housed the wonder. Once inside the temple there were a lot of people, but it wasn't too busy. The one thing I love about Japanese people is their height; I can stand at the back of a crowd and get an almost perfect view. The golden hall itself was amazing; five-and-a-half meters wide, and five-and-a-half meters deep, plus eight meters tall the whole thing, apart from the roof, was covered in gold leaf. The visual aspect of so much gold was incredible to see. The altars themselves where not only covered in gold, but mother-of-pearl, copper friezes and dark burnished lacquer. I stood there as people passed me by and just looked at the incredible artifact in front of me.

Once outside there was a souvenir stall – handy that – and, usually, I walk past without taking even the slightest interest. However, due to forgetting my camera – and actually you couldn't take photos in either of the two places I had visited so far – I decided to have a look, and purchase, a photo book containing some excellent images of what I had just witnessed.

With the main show over, I pondered around the area looking at all the other temples (which included a main hall called Hondo, and a stage for outdoor performances). Surprisingly for what seemed like such a small mountain / hill, there were quite a few 'other temples' and so I took a few photos from my camera phone (to say I had been) and left the area. I didn't spend to long at these other temples because, just like in South-East-Asia, I was getting 'templed out'.

I found myself back at the 'Hiraizumi loop bus' stop, with a bus waiting for me. I got on with the intention of heading to Motsu-ji; a site which used to house a temple, but still houses one of Japan's best preserved Helan gardens. However, as the bus only 'loops' one way, I would have to go back to the car park first. I decided, as these buses were so frequent, I would get off there, pick up my camera, and board another bus. As we got nearer to the car park the family (consisting of a mother, farther and one young boy) got on from another stop. They seemed to have done Hiraizumi in 'formula one speed' and had seen everything; they were returning back to their car to head back home which, coincidentally, is in a town near to the Ogre peninsular … where I went for my holiday back in August. I waved them off before darting to my car for my camera and awaiting the next bus.

I arrived at Mostu-ji at around 3:10pm. After paying the 500 yen entrance fee I looked in my wallet to see only one 1,000 yen note … I needed to get some cash. The garden wasn't actually worth it; sure it was nice and pretty, but when it came down to it, it was just a large man-made lake in the middle of a grassy field with temple ruins (stones actually) to one side. There were a few modern temples, and a small museum, but like I said earlier I was a little 'templed out'. The only two interesting things about this garden were the English signs (the English was exceptional, which is rare in Japan) and a man-made stream which fed the lake, and which was designed according to some 'ying-yang' principles.

I didn't stay long and soon I was walking into town. I found a post office but, sadly, the ATM part of the building was closed by the time I got there. I tried the bank across the street and, even though I could access the ATM's, there didn't appear to be the usual 'English button' option. In the end I gave up and walked back to the car. I decided to forgo lunch (I had eaten two breakfasts) and put my remaining 1,000 yen into fuel - when I actually find a petrol station that is. As I started the cars engine I had four bars (out of ten) of fuel left, plus the 1,000 yen … I should be okay, I thought to myself.

I never like traveling the same way to, and from, a location. The main reason for this is because I like to always try to see new things and places, no matter how depressing or mundane they turn out to be. This morning I had driven 'in-land' before heading south; now I would drive to the cost, before driving north. This would give me a kind of 'box journey', allowing me to see new things and, though I didn't know it at the time, it would make my journey home thirty minutes quicker. Also going this way would mean I would miss having to travel over a huge mountain range … which was good for the old fuel.

The trip back was rather uneventful. I saw some small places, some larger places and some places I wondered why on earth they were, where they were. I did find a great piece of road with stunning sunset views, a petrol station and a town which had been hit by the tsunami of last year. This towns repair work seems to be way behind every other towns reconstruction, so much so I'd almost say it had been forgotten.

The sun set as I reached familiar territory (Kamaishi; I went there to see the big Buddha statue). With the setting of the sun my nocturnal cold reappeared with an almighty headache; it felt as though someone was playing one of those large Japanese drums within my head … and playing it badly. One thing was for certain, there was no way I was going to 'fall asleep at the wheel' with that strong pounding occurring. I put on some classical music and settled in for the journey.

I arrived home at around 7:30pm, with three bars of fuel left. I ran inside where I dropped everything on the floor and put a pizza in the microwave. Having not eaten for nine hours (I do not count the two Worther's Originals I had in my car as 'food') you would have thought that I was starving … but no. The reason for the urgency was that, to take these new tables, I have to take them with my meals. As my pizza was cooking I delicately, and quietly, moved around my apartment putting all my stuff away. I ate tea quickly before going to sleep at around 8:45pm.

I had enjoyed my day, and I was glad to have seen Konjikido. However, I would say that it is a bit of a 'one-hit-wonder'; there doesn't seem to be that much else to see within the area and so, like most of northern Honshu, visiting Hiraizumi to see Konjikido is a must … but there isn't much else to do.

Toodle Pip!

P.S. I have no idea when my next trip will be. The weather will be getting cold soon and the next bank holiday is ages away. What's more, everything else I want to see will require a 'stop-over' ... so who knows.


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