The far north of Japan was the native land of the Emishi 蝦夷 people, descendants of the Jōmon 繩文. Largely a land of abundance with a central mountain range Ōu Mountains 奥羽山脈, it was conquered by the Yamato 大和 regime from Central Japan and included in the territory of Japan after some bloody battles between 7th – 9th centuries. Since then, feudal lords ruled over the land with two main provinces: Ōshū 奥州 or Michinoku 陸奥 or 道奥, meaning “End of the Road”, to the east and Ushū 羽州 or Dewa no kuni 出羽国 to the west. Understandably, the religion and practices of this far-flung territory of Japan maintained a balance between the imperial and cosmopolitan school and style of Kyoto, the capital, and the local characteristics. The worship of mountain is one example, and the belief in Pure Land Buddhism is another. The main mountain for the practice of Shugendō 修験道 in the vast natural landscape of Tōhoku is Mount Haguro 羽黑山, the fusion of imported Buddhism and indigenous mountain worship.
In the early eras of the unification of Michinoku, in addition to the military and government, Buddhism was an important tool through which the aboriginal people of the far north would be assimilated. Ennin 圓仁, later given the title of Jikaku Daishi 慈覺大師, was asked by the emperor to send 3,000 students from Enryakuji 延暦寺 in north Kyoto to Matsushima 松島 in Miyagi province. They were housed in the newly established Zuiganji 瑞嚴寺 monastery which continued to received imperial and local shogun’s support in this beautiful region of Tōhoku. While Ennin, who traveled to China in the 9th century, was well known as establishing a solid basis for esoteric practices in Tendai 天台 lineage learned from his Chinese experience, he also introduced the Pure Land practices to Japan. The following era in Tōhoku during the 100 years rule of the four generations of Fujiwara 藤原 aristocracy between 1087-1189, saw the creation of monasteries in the Pure Land tradition in the region, principally in Hiraizumi 平泉. Most of these monasteries no longer exist, but the only survival, Chuzonji 中尊寺 monastery with its golden hall, epitomized the belief in the blissful land of Buddha Amitābha.
Presented in conjunction with the Museum’s Society’s upcoming trip to Tōhoku, this lecture will outline the social-political dynamics of Tōhoku during the medieval period and trace the development of Buddhism in this region. The form of Buddhist practice in this backwater of Japan is magnificently expressed in the art and architecture. While Kyoto craftsmen and builders were invited by aristocracies to work in the highest form of art and architecture in this region, there were also local expressions which were tied firmly to the natural beauty of Tōhoku.
Professor Puay-peng Ho is Professor and Director of the School of Architecture, and Director of Centre for Architectural Heritage Research at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He received his First Class Honours degree in Architecture from the University of Edinburgh and a Ph.D in Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Professor Ho is a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Society of Architectural Historians. Currently, he serves on the Town Planning Board, Antiquities Advisory Board and History Museum Advisory Panel, and is Chairman of the Council of Lord Wilson Heritage Trust. His research interests and publications are in the areas of Chinese art and architectural history, vernacular architecture, and architectural theory. He is also involved in many architecture conservation projects in Hong Kong.