Three years ago, I set foot on Tohoku for the first time, including Sendai and a small town called Karumai that many Japanese don’t even know about in my itinerary. It was my dream trip since Sendai and Karumai are among the main settings of Haikyuu!!, one of the most inspiring manga and anime ever for me. This first trip to Tohoku gave me many unforgettable memories that extend beyond Haikyuu!!.
Two years ago, I returned to Japan’s deep north for more of its treasures as well as Haikyuu!! experience. With more confidence than before, I also ventured into obscure onsen towns whose names were used as the last names of many Seijoh and Shiratorizawa characters. I have fallen even deeper in love with the peace that is hard to come by in the more popular destinations, the rustic beauty, and the warm-hearted people. There were still more Haikyuu!!-related locations that I missed, though, and since I kept discovering more hidden gems in Tohoku, I vowed to revisit.
It is now 2019 and I have come back to Japan as a student in Nagoya. Of course, I had to go to Tohoku again. Last week, I finally visited one of the top Haikyuu!! pilgrimage destinations, the Haikyuu!! Room at Obonai Ryokan in Kindaichi Onsen. The onsen is located in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, but even before the Haikyuu!! Room came into existence, Kindaichi Onsen is home to therapeutic hot springs that served local samurai about 400 years ago as well as the myth of the mischievous spirit Zashiki Warashi (Guest Room Child). What’s more, Obonai Ryokan itself is a wonderful accommodation that I wholeheartedly recommend for Haikyuu!! fans and non-fans alike (Normal rooms are available). For a truly relaxing vacation where you can experience rural charms, traditional Japanese ambience, and unforgettable hospitality all at once, this is the place to go.
As much as I love the views from the top, I usually hesitate to buy tickets for observatories.
While I don’t mind paying entrance fees for museums, religious sites, national parks, and whatever I am really interested in, I ask myself whether paying a (usually) large sum of money to go up a tower or a building will be worth it. When you go up such landmark, you get to gaze across the cityscape and maybe the mountains or the sea in the distance, but in the end, if there isn’t anything I want to see in particular, I mostly end up skipping these observatories. I love the views, but I have other priorities.
So what made me pay the daunting 3,000+ yen fee to go up Tokyo Skytree?
As a former capital of Japan, Kyoto has always been world-renowned. Its name evokes images of time-honored temples and shrines, rows of traditional wooden houses, and refined culture of old. It is hard to believe there was a Japanese city that rivaled Kyoto’s glory, but there once was.
Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, isn’t a name everyone has heard of and it is located far north in the rural Tohoku region. With its modest-looking temple complexes and lack of traditional streets, how the small town appears at first glance won’t convince us to believe that it was once a cultural and political center almost as powerful as Kyoto. It is a pity that the majority of Hiraizumi’s heritage was razed to the ground, but its rich history remains in places that survive. UNESCO has also acknowledged this and Hiraizumi’s Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land was designated a World Heritage Site in 2011.
Everyone who travels to Hiraizumi visits Chusonji Temple and Motsuji Temple. Many visitors probably know that these two temples flourished under the influence of the Oshu Fujiwara (Northern Fujiwara) clan, the noble clan that ruled Mutsu Province or Oshu, which has become present-day Tohoku. However, fewer know about the Fujiwara lords’ connection with the historical hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune. The great warlord paved the way for Japan’s shogun or military government regime, but had to flee from Minamoto no Yoritomo, the soon-to-be first shogun and his older half-brother who turned against him. In this second and last part of my Yoshitsune pilgrimage, I will show you the Fujiwara clan’s legacies in Hiraizumi and reveal the end of the Yoshitsune tale. (You can learn more about Minamoto no Yoshitsune in my Semi Onsen travelogue.)
Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Does the name ring a bell?
If not, let me show you why he was a big name in Japan anyway. Knowing its meaning or not, most of you probably heard the Japanese word shogun before. This title belonged to Japan’s supreme military and political leader for almost 700 years. If you have read the most significant parts of Japanese history, the name Minamoto no Yoritomo must have been mentioned. Yoritomo was the one who established the title of shogun as the highest power in the country and also the first to ascend to power. His founding of Kamakura bakufu (shogunate or military government) in 1185 marked the end of the imperial court-dominant Heian period and the beginning of the feudal age of the Kamakura period.
While Yoritomo’s skills as commander and warrior are undisputed, it can’t be denied that his ultimate triumph greatly owed to his younger half-brother. That is right, said brother was Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the most skilled and respected warlords in Japanese history. It was Yoritomo who became the ruler, but it was Yoshitsune who led the Minamoto clan’s army to victory in the final battle of Genpei War, the war that decided which clan would rule Japan. A feat that yielded a new future for not only the Minamoto clan, but also the whole country. Despite that, Yorimoto later suspected his brother of treason and Yoshitsune had to run. With his wife Sato Gozen, right-hand retainer Musashibo Benkei, and few other loyal men, Yoshitsune left Kyoto and braved the arduous northbound journey in the rugged and harsh region of Tohoku to seek refuge in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. Semi Onsen in Mogami Town, Yamagata Prefecture is one of the towns along their escape route where traces of those turbulent times remain.