THE FUJIWARA FESTIVAL
By sheer, dumb luck, I wandered into the town of Hiraizumi just hours before the main event of its biggest festival of the year.
I had marked Hiraizumi on my list because I’d read a lot about the place—how in ancient times it had been a mighty city, the stronghold of the Fujiwara Clan, who had ruled most of the north. How the city had grown so great in power, beauty, and influence that it had even rivaled the imperial capital in glory. How it had become the last refuge of one of Japan’s most famous, celebrated, and tragic samurai heroes, the young general Minamoto Yoshitsune, who fled here with a small band of loyal friends to escape the murderous wrath of his jealous elder brother, the Lord of Kamakura. And finally, how the great city had been razed by the Kamakura Lord’s armies, never again to achieve more than a shadow of its former splendor.
Still, 800 years after the great city’s fall, Hiraizumi today is one of the loveliest towns I’ve ever visited. Lush with greenery and flowers, blessed with beautiful houses and stunning hilltop views, it lies nestled amid the surrounding mountains like an emerald. It was radiant beyond anything I’d expected.
But on the first day of my visit, there were crowds—massive crowds, thronging all around the station and main avenues. Many had come from out of town to see the festivities. I’d come because I was interested to see places associated with the classical era and the tragic hero Yoshitsune—and I had stumbled unwittingly into the midst of a five-day celebration of the town’s history and heritage, on the very day of the Yoshitsune parade.
Sometimes, the stars just align on your side.
It was quite the spectacle. Scores of people in early-medieval costumes wound in a long procession through the streets. There were samurai in o-yoroi armor, warrior monks, foot soldiers with polearms, mountain ascetics, and court ladies in ox-drawn carriages. At the center of it all, dressed in sky blue, was the young general Yoshitsune, portrayed this year by the popular TV actor Itō Kentarō. The crowds screamed after him as he rode through the streets, swarming the sidewalks to better see him.
The historical Yoshitsune was the most brilliant general of his time. During the great civil war that convulsed Japan in the 1180’s, he served under his older brother, the Lord of Kamakura, in a ferocious struggle to overthrow their ancestral enemies, the proud and tyrannical Taira Clan (the most powerful clan in Japan at the time).
Through sheer genius and daring, Yoshitsune closed out the five-year war with a string of legendary battles, finally vanquishing his family’s enemies, sweeping his own clan into power, and making his elder brother the most powerful man in the country. All this while he was still in his mid-20’s.
Yet all that glory and brilliance was not to last. For his elder brother soon grew suspicious and resentful of his fame and turned against him. The Kamakura Lord was building a new government under which to unite the country, and he had no use anymore for the young general, whose daring antics, independent streak, and widespread popularity posed a potential threat.
Yoshitsune sensed his brother growing cold toward him, and he tried to make peace, but to no avail; the Kamakura Lord rebuffed him and declared him an enemy of the new government. A country-wide manhunt was ordered, and Yoshitsune suddenly found himself the most wanted fugitive in Japan. Most of his allies and comrades deserted him. With a small circle of still-loyal friends and family, he fled across Japan, pursued everywhere by his older brother’s spies, soldiers, and assassins. Eventually, he made his way north to plead help from the Fujiwara Clan, the only political allies he had left. The Fujiwara Clan, keen to maintain their autonomy from the new government regime, welcomed him into their city, sheltering the young hero from his brother’s forces and vowing to keep him safe even though the rest of the world had turned against him.
That is the event celebrated in this annual parade. Yoshitsune rides through the streets on a magnificent horse, waving and smiling as the crowds cheer, allowing the people of Hiraizumi to recreate, year after year, the welcome they gave to the fugitive hero over 800 years ago. Though the costumes glitter and the pageantry is dialed up to eleven, the triumph in the air feels somehow reminiscent of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Which strikes me as a poignant comparison, because the shadow of tragedy lurks behind this scene as well, and soon Yoshitsune would find himself betrayed by an ally, cornered by his enemies, and destroyed.