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Shinryoku season: A day trip to Geibikei & Hiraizumi

Shinryoku season: A day trip to Geibikei & Hiraizumi

The sight of greenery might strike as ordinary for some people, especially Singaporeans who experience tropical weather all year round and often see greenery in their home country. But shinryoku (新緑 fresh greens) in Japan isn’t anything like that. After the flowers have bloomed and before the summer heat arrives, fresh green leaves begin to sprout, and they are nothing like what most of us see: their shade of green is remarkably vivid and vibrant, as though they are brimming with life.

 

I have seen shinryoku with my own eyes several times, and the sight of such greenery never fails to amaze me. Recently, I got to experience it once again in the prefecture of Iwate (岩手県), located in the northern part of the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō). The prefecture has always been blessed with pristine nature, and I got to visit two spots in Iwate that are renowned for their greenery: the beautiful Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓) and the historical town of Hiraizumi (平泉).


Locations of Geibikei Gorge and Hiraizumi. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

For this article, I will be sharing with you my personal experience of visiting Geibikei Gorge and Hiraizumi during the shinryoku period. I had the opportunity to see both places on a day trip during my stay at Iwate’s capital city Morioka (盛岡市). And thanks to the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) and the spots’ close proximity to each other, access to the two spots was a breeze and I enjoyed some of the prefecture’s best greenery too.

 

Previously, I only got to know about Geibikei Gorge and Hiraizumi on paper but never personally, so you can imagine how palpable my excitement was at finally getting to visit them. Perhaps by sharing my experience with you, I hope that you will be inspired to go on your own shinryoku adventure that will get you as excited as I was!

 

① Gorgeous Geibikei Gorge

Geibikei Gorge. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I began my journey by paying a visit to Geibikei Gorge in the first half of the day. From JR Morioka Station, it’s a short shinkansen ride to JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅), before I switched to the JR Ofunato Line (JR大船渡線 Ōfunato-sen) and made my way to JR Geibikei Station (JR猊鼻渓駅 Geibikei-eki). The day started on a rough note, however: it was forecasted to be raining heavily for the whole day that day, but of course, that didn’t stop me from visiting the gorge.

 

Getting to the gorge

Hopping on a boat ride. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors can enjoy the sheer beauty of Geibikei Gorge by taking a leisurely boat ride along the Satetsugawa River that flows through it, and the boat dock is a short walk from JR Geibikei Station. When I reached the point, the rain began to pour, and I started to get concerned about whether it was still possible to ride the boat. Thankfully, all the boats are equipped with roofs, so they were adequately sheltered, and surprisingly, there were a handful of other people who were enthusiastically looking forward to the ride as well despite the rain.

 

Geibikei’s flora and fauna

Geibikei Gorge’s splendorous shinryoku. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the boat floated gently down the river, I was treated to magnificent views of the gorge’s beautiful limestone cliffs that are up to 100m tall, and I was also fascinated by the sheer greenness of the leaves that cover the faces of the cliffs. Strangely, the pouring rain somehow made the green leaves appear even greener!

 

Interesting sightings at Geibikei Gorge. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

During the tranquil boat ride, the cordial boatman explained and pointed out some interesting facts about the gorge, such as how the limestone cliffs were formed over time, and the different types of animals that visitors can see during the summer, such as ducks and koi fish. I even saw some during my ride, and some of the other guests on the boat even bought feed for them!

 

Here’s a tip from me: keep a lookout for Bishamon Cave (毘沙門窟 Bishamon-kutsu), a cave along the river featuring a shrine built for Bishamon-ten, the god of treasure. There is a mat laid there where you can try throwing coins; if they land on the mat, it will bring you good luck!

 

Test your luck (and throwing skills)

Throwing undama into the Lion’s Nose. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Around 30 minutes into the boat ride, my boat reached the innermost part of the river. Just a short walk from the boat’s disembarkation point is a hole known as the “Lion’s Nose” on the opposite side of the riverbank. Do you know? Lion’s nose is “geibi” in Japanese, and hence Geibikei means “lion’s nose gorge”!

 

For ¥100, you can get three undama (運玉 lucky stones) with different types of luck of your choice, and try throwing them into the hole. But take note: the hole is not that large, and it’s incredibly hard to get the stones into it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did not succeed in getting any of my lucky stones into it.

 

Soothing sounds and wondrous views

The limestone cliffs of the gorge. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

During the return leg of the boat ride, the boatman regaled the guests with a traditional folk song entitled Geibikei Oiwake (猊鼻渓追分 Boatman’s Folksong). While listening to the soothing tunes of the song, I couldn’t help but feel refreshed by Geibikei Gorge’s gorgeous limestone cliffs and greenery. Autumn is often said to be the best time to visit the gorge, when the surroundings are enveloped in crimson red and orange foliage. But the shinryoku period has its unique charms, and I got to experience them firsthand and see why the gorge is one of the best places to experience it in Iwate.

 

Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓)
Address: Machi-467 Higashiyamacho Nagasaka, Ichinoseki, Iwate 029-0302
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Geibikei Station
*Operating hours:
   9:30am–3:30pm (21 March–31 March)
   8:30am–4:30pm (1 April–31 August)
   8:30am–4pm (1 September–10 November)
   8:30am–3:30pm (11 November–20 November)
   9:30am–3pm (21 November–20 March)
Admission fee: ¥1,800 per adult
*Take note that the boat operates daily and departs approximately every hour.

 

BONUS: Take a ride on the POKÉMON with YOU Train!

Planning to visit Geibikei Gorge on a weekend? Then consider taking the POKÉMON with YOU Train! The Joyful Train runs on the JR Ofunato Line on weekends, Japanese national holidays, and almost daily during Japanese school holidays, and you can join Pikachu en route to the gorge and experience a unique railway experience!

 

② Historical Hiraizumi

Chusonji Temple at Hiraizumi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After my enjoyable trip to Geibikei Gorge, I hopped on the train back to JR Ichinoseki Station to make my way to the town of Hiraizumi. The town is home to several historically significant buildings that are classified under the Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi, which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After reading up about its esteemed designation, I felt very honoured to be able to visit the town in person.

 

Making my way up to Chusonji Temple

Walking up Tsukimizaka Slope. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Hiraizumi is a short bus ride away from JR Ichinoseki Station, and can also be accessed by taking the JR Tohoku Main Line (東北本線 Tōhoku-honsen) to JR Hiraizumi Station (JR平泉駅 Hiraizumi-eki). Under the Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi, the most prominent one is perhaps Chusonji Temple (中尊寺 Chūsonji), and visitors can reach the temple by walking up Tsukimizaka Slope (月見坂 Tsukimizaka), the main approach leading to it.

 

My tip for visitors to Chusonji: take your time walking up the slope to the temple. As I made my way up, I witnessed some of the most amazing greenery I have ever seen. “Tsukimizaka” means “moon viewing slope”, and the slope is lined with many Japanese cedar trees (杉 sugi) that were planted centuries ago, which further added ambience to the environment. Even before reaching Chusonji, I could already feel myself being cleansed by the temple’s rejuvenating atmosphere.

 

But take note: the slope is a little slippery during wet weather, so watch your step while making your way up and down the slope.

 

East Observatory (top-left) and various temples at Chusonji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Chusonji also features many small temples, and it was tempting for me to deviate from Tsukimizaka Slope to check out some of them even before reaching the temple’s main complex. Another tip for me: check out the East Observatory (東物見台 Higashi-monomidai) along the slope, which offers a panoramic view of the town and the Kitakami River (北上川 Kitakami-gawa), and also provides as a good rest stop during your walk up the slope.

 

Pay a visit to the “Golden Hall”

Visiting the Konjikido. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

At the end of Tsukimizaka Slope is Chusonji Temple’s main complex, and once I arrived here, I had to check out the Konjikido (金色堂 Konjikidō). It is the temple’s grand hall, and it is also known as the Golden Hall as it is covered in gold leaf. The hall was first built in the 12th century, and is one of the earliest designated National Treasures in Japan.

 

It was a surreal experience for me to witness the hall firsthand, and I was enthralled by the sheer intricacy of the interior design, which features precious jewels and mother-of-pearls. It was also incredible to learn that the hall is the only building that retains the original appearance of Chusonji Temple since its construction! (Note: Photography and video recording are strictly prohibited inside the hall.)

 

Explore the different halls of Chusonji Temple

Chusonji Temple’s main hall. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Another significant landmark to see at Chusonji Temple is the Main Hall (本堂 hondō). This is where the temple’s ancient rituals are held, and is one of the central structures of the temple. The hall was rebuilt in 1902, and it currently houses a statue of Buddha that visitors can pay respects to.

 

Other temples and halls at Chusonji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

On the whole, visitors can usually spend 1–2 hours at Chusonji Temple. But if they have more spare time, they can check out the many smaller temples and shrines there. These structures are quaint and carefully preserved and maintained, and each has its own unique history. After my visit to the temple, I knew I wanted to come here again, perhaps during a different season when the atmosphere would be completely different. But until then, it was time for me to move over to another temple in the town.

 

Chusonji Temple (中尊寺)
Address: Koromonoseki-202 Hiraizumi, Nishiiwai-gun, Iwate 029-4102
Access: 20-minute bus ride from JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅), or a 5-minute bus ride from JR Hiraizumi Station (JR平泉駅)
*Operating hours:
   8:30am–5pm (1 March–3 November)
   8:30am–4:30pm (4 November–End of February)
Admission fees: ¥800 per adult
*Note: Entry ends 10 minutes before closing time.

 

Moving over to Motsuji Temple

Motsuji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After visiting Chusonji Temple, it was time for me to head over to another historically significant temple that is one of the iconic landmarks of Hiraizumi: Motsuji Temple (毛越寺 Mōtsuji). It bears a history that stretches back to the 9th century, and like Chusonji Temple, it bears important designations such as the Special Place of Scenic Beauty and Special National Historic Site.

 

Arriving at Motsuji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Motsuji Temple was a short walk for me from Chusonji Temple, and once I arrived there, I was pleasantly surprised at the difference in terrain. Unlike Chusonji Temple which is situated on a hilltop, Motsuji Temple is built on flat land so there are no slopes to walk up. Nevertheless, the temple is just as prominent, and I was still excited to visit another temple of such historical importance.

 

Historical halls abound

Various halls at Motsuji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Motsuji Temple features several prominent halls such as the Main Hall, which is the temple's main building built in 1989, and other more historical ones such as the Founder’s Hall (開山堂 Kaisandō) and the Circumambulation Hall (常行堂 Jōgyōdō) that have been carefully preserved since their construction during the 12th century.

 

Perhaps more importantly, however, visitors will notice several posts throughout the complex indicating the sites of former buildings such as the Bell Tower Remains (鐘楼跡 Shurō-ato) and Sutra Repository Remains (経楼跡 Kyōrō-ato). Many of the original structures were destroyed either by natural causes or conflicts centuries ago, leaving only their foundations today, and the posts are a reminder of what Motsuji Temple used to be like during its glorious days.

 

Motsuji Temple’s centrepiece: Oizumigaike Pond

Oizumigaike Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

During the Heian Period (794–1185) when the temple was established, Pure Land Buddhist (浄土 jōdo) gardens were prevalent and they were conceived with the concept of the “Buddhist paradise”, and thus many gardens were built around a large pond. Motsuji Temple is one of them, and its centrepiece is the Oizumigaike Pond (大泉が池 Ōizumigaike).

 

The pond has remained unchanged since the 12th century, and visitors can appreciate the pond’s placid water and scenic bridges. It was quite interesting for me to explore the pond, especially when it features several outstanding rock formations. Another tip from me: don’t miss Tateishi (立石 standing rock), a striking rock formation jutting out on the southeastern side of the pond that has become an iconic image of the temple!

 

Motsuji Temple’s vivid greenery

Motsuji Temple’s vivid shinryoku scenery (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang).

 

As I was wrapping up my visit to the Motsuji Temple, and making my way out of the temple complex, I was in for another surprise: a glimpse of the most impressive shinryoku scenery I had ever seen. The vivid greenery can be found throughout the garden, and it was unlike anything I see back home in Singapore, looking almost surreal in my eyes.

 

It was a stark reminder of why the shinryoku period is a great time to travel to Japan, and I wished more people would consider this period and see such a magnificent sight for themselves.

 

Motsuji Temple (毛越寺)
Address: Osawa-58, Hiraizumi, Nishiiwai-gun, Iwate 029-402
Access: 20-minute walk from Chusonji Temple, or a 10-minute walk from JR Hiraizumi Station
Operating hours:
   8:30am–5pm (5 March–4 November)
   8:30am–4:30pm (5 November–4 March)
Admission fees: ¥700 per adult

 

Closing

The shinryoku period is often overlooked by many people, as most of them would travel earlier during spring for the cherry blossoms, or later during the summer when festivals abound. Personally I feel like it is an underrated time, especially when it feels like Mother Nature comes alive during this period, when the new leaves are at their peak greenery. Moreover, there are fewer crowds during this time, so travelling would be a pleasant experience too.

 

I learned first-hand how Iwate is a wonderful prefecture to explore and appreciate the shinryoku period in the Tohoku Region, and two of the best places to experience the green leaves are indeed Geibikei Gorge and the town of Hiraizumi. Not only are they beautiful in their own right, but they are also relatively close to one another, so visitors like me can easily visit both places in a single day!

 

I highly encourage everyone to give the shinryoku period a try and explore the natural beauty of Iwate for a start (if they haven’t visited before). The prefecture certainly fascinated me, making me want to come back again, and I hope you get to have the same feeling for yourself!

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Thinking about exploring Iwate and other prefectures in the Tohoku Region? Then check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including JR Ofunato Line and JR Tohoku Main Line) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it is cheaper than a return ticket between Tokyo and Morioka (~¥29,000).

 

The pass can be used at the automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use it. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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