In the running: The Golden Hall of Chusonji Temple, a historical site in the Hiraizumi area of Iwate Prefecture, is shown in this 2005 photo. Hiraizumi and the Ogasawara Islands off Tokyo have been recommended for listing as UNESCO World Heritage sites. KYODO PHOTO
I have never been to Hiraizumi, but somehow the place captures my imagination. Located in Iwate Prefecture, about 40 miles inland from the coastal areas most heavily devastated by the March 11 earthquake & tsunami, Hiraizumi was, in the 12th century, the central base of power of the Northern Fujiwara, or Ôshû Fujiwara, clan.
The Fujiwara clan was among the most prominent and powerful in Heian era Japan, and was eclipsed to a large extent in the mid-to-late 12th century by the samurai clans Taira and Minamoto, but remained a prominent presence in Kyoto. A branch of the family split off and moved far up north to Hiraizumi at the beginning of the 12th century, and established themselves there, on the edges of the Yamato state. There, they established a new base of power, aiming to be as independent as possible from the central authorities (i.e. the Imperial Court), and to build Hiraizumi into a city rivalling Kyoto as a cultural center.
Hiraizumi may have flourished for a time, but in 1189, the forces of Minamoto no Yoritomo, newly named shogun, stormed the city, destroying it and the Ôshû Fujiwara. The gold-covered Konjikidô, today sheltered under another roof, within the Chûsonji temple complex, still stands, the chief central marvel of Hiraizumi’s brief period of prosperity; four generations of heads of the Ôshû Fujiwara are entombed within.
And now, it has been revealed that an advisory panel has recommended Hiraizumi to be named a World Heritage Site. It has not been officially inscribed onto the list yet, but this seems a major step towards that result – some sites, such as the Iwami Silver Mine, were outright rejected by the advisory committee and inscribed onto the list in the end anyway.
The blog Heritage of Japan has an excellent post on the subject, complete with gorgeous photos, and lots of links to stories on various stages of this process. Rather than copy any of his material here, I suggest you simply go and check things out on his site. And maybe poke around at some of the other articles there. It’s really an excellent blog.
To be entirely frank, sometimes it feels like anywhere and everywhere in Japan is pushing to become a World Heritage Site, and some that don’t really seem to deserve it (e.g. the majorly obscure Iwami Silver Mine, which isn’t even significant enough to show up in most “history of Japan” narratives / textbooks) get on the list, while others (e.g. anything in Kamakura) continue to be overlooked, not to mention the tons of other sites throughout the world that aren’t getting onto the list for one reason or another (how about anything in Bhutan? Or the properties of the Kingdom of Hawaii, if properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu can get in.)
But I don’t mean for this to be a cynical or critical post. I am very glad that Hiraizumi and its treasures (and, of course, its people) survived the disaster, and that it is being (potentially) awarded this great honor. I look forward to visiting that part of the country sometime.
The Ogasawara Islands, also known as the Bonin Islands, have also been recommended to be added to the list – as a site of natural beauty, not a site of cultural heritage.