June 29, 2017

The Heights of Yamadera

Found in rural Yamagata Prefecture, Yamadera is one of northern Japan’s most picturesque attractions. Don't miss this one when in Tohoku!

Yamagata Prefecture's Yamadera temple complex from the mountain's summit

In today’s post we’ll be examining one of the northernmost outposts of the Tendai Buddhist sect that has been on my bucket list for years. Officially known as Risshaku-ji, the temple is more colloquially known as Yamadera (lit. “Mountain Temple”) as it seemingly clings desperately to the cliffs of Mt. Hoju. Yamadera is home to some absolutely spectacular panoramic views. But there is a catch! These promised vistas will require you to scale well over 1,000 steps as you wind your way up to the temple’s summit. As daunting as this may seem, and much like other locations in Japan, what awaits at the top will leave you breathless.

Historical records hint that Yamadera’s roots date all the way back to 860 AD. The temple was supposedly founded by a famous monk from the Tendai Sect’s home base of Enryaku-ji in Kyoto. Even today, a sacred ritual fire brought from this eminent temple continues to burn within Yamadera’s main building. Yet, despite the temple’s ancient pedigree, most of the current structures date back to the Edo period (1603–1868) reflecting the ravages of fire and war over the years.

Yamadera is also well-known for being the site where the master haiku poet Matsuo Basho composed some of his most famous work. En route to your destination towards the summit, you’ll encounter a handful of monuments honoring the poet. Additionally, the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum is located on the opposite side of the valley. I personally did not get a chance to check this site out so I withhold comment. Nevertheless, those interested in haiku might find the museum to be of interest.

Lastly, a quick warning for those considering a visit to Yamadera with their significant other. Local superstition holds that journeying up the temple’s endless steps with a love one almost always leads to a breakup; a clean and amicable one but a breakup nonetheless. Indeed many living in the area use the temple as a euphemism when suggesting that it might be better to part ways. If you are looking to stay together, it might be better to heed the old wives tales and pass on Yamadera.

Getting to Yamagata Prefecture & Yamadera

A Hayabusa bullet train (shinkansen) heading to northern Japan

Yamadera’s remote location in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture means it is quite a distance from the “typical” Japanese tourist attractions. The nearest station to the temple is Yamadera Station. This location calls for a ride on the bullet train heading north. From there, Yamadera can be reached either from Yamagata Station or Sendai Station on the Senzan Line. While the latter is usually a little faster, you’d do well do double check with Hyperdia because this train is notorious for departing only once per hour.

After arriving at Yamadera Station, the entrance to the temple complex is just a few minutes away by foot. It should be relatively self-explanatory and easy to follow the crowd but here’s a map just in case you get lost. As with most other Buddhist temples, expect things to close by 5 PM so be sure to get an early start.

Getting to the Top of Yamadera

Yamagata Prefecture’s Yamadera temple complex’s stairs to the top of the mountain

A bit of wise advice! Venturing to the top of Yamadera is not for the faint of heart. First up, you will need to climb what will seem like a million and one stairs on your ascent. As such, those without a strong constitution or those traveling in summer might want to reconsider their visit. While the base of the complex is home to the main hall and flame from Enryaku-ji, the temple’s real charms are all located at the summit. The climb will cost you 300 yen, but trust me, this minor expense is well worth the priceless view from the top.

After mustering all your grit and determination, you are ready to begin your ascent. The trek will lead you through the mountain’s towering cedar trees as it winds its way up the mountain. On the way you’ll encounter numerous small monuments and stone lanterns as well as a series of carvings in the mountainside. The Buddhist motifs, coupled with the forest canopy, combine to create a very atmospheric hike.

Approximately halfway up the mountain trail you’ll pass a gigantic rock supposedly shaped like the Amida Buddha and called the Mida Hora Rock. While you’re free to take a moment to check this out, I suggest saving any stops for the return trips. You don’t want your legs cramping up on you after indulging in a quick breather! Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way.

The Ni-no-mon gateway  at Yamagata Prefecture’s Yamadera temple complex

Eventually you’ll come across the Ni-no-mon gate pictured above. From here the upper portions of Yamadera are only about one hundred stairs away so press on. The area will open up to a number of temple buildings and a stunning view of the valley below. This panorama creates a stark contrast to the upward journey where the view is secretly concealed by foliage.

Yamagata Prefecture’s Yamadera temple complex from the mountain’s summit

In the area past the Ni-no-mon gate you’ll find two of Yamadera’s most iconic buildings, the Kaisan-do and the adjacent Nokyo-do building. The former hall is dedicated to the founder of Yamadera where as the latter was used for copying sutra. Perhaps the monks possess a much more disciplined mental fortitude but I can’t imagine getting any sutra work done with such a wondrous view like that!

The view from the top of Yamagata Prefecture’s Yamadera temple complex

Just past the Kaisan-do , you’ll find yet more stairs that lead up to a hall known as Godai-do. The observation deck dates back to the 1700’s and offers magnificent views of the surrounding valley. For sure, I spent a good hour gazing lazily out at the mountains in the distance. When the big city is your daily focus, it’s easy to forget the majority of Japan’s geographical terrain is actually quite mountainous.

Yamadera has one more point of interest and that would be the Oku-no-in. By now, it should come as no surprise; yes, Oku-no-in sits at the top of even more stairs. This final structure houses a large statue of the Amida Buddha which can be observed from the outside. As you make you way there, keep your eyes out for some of the monk’s residences and try to imagine what it would be like to live up here!

Once you’ve seen everything Yamadera has to offer, feel free to head back down. There are many soba noodle shops on the way back to the station which will provide you with some well earned and much deserved calories. Just remember to be very careful on your descent. And, especially so if it’s been raining as the footing is less than ideal.

Attractions Near Yamadera

Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture during a snowstorm.

While a visit to Yamadera can technically be done in a day, it would be a shame to go all the way to Yamagata Prefecture only to get on a train heading back right away. I suggest overnighting and sampling a little more of what the northern Tohoku region has to offer. Those with an international license would do well to rent a car and go exploring as train access isn’t that widespread.

By far, my top recommendation for the prefecture would be to check out Ginzan Onsen about 37 km north of Yamadera. It’s a real pain in the behind to get to but many people have described its ryokan as straight out of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The small hot spring town feels like it was ripped right out of the pages of the 1920’s and is especially charming in winter.

That said, like with Kusatsu Onsen, Ginzan Onsen keeps itself pretty much secluded from the outside world. Luckily, Yamagata Prefecture is home to another onsen town that is much easier to get to from Yamadera. Known as Tendo Onsen, this spot is a good overnight compromise for those who are not able to experience Ginzan Onsen.

Fan’s of shoji (Japanese chess) should also note that the city of Tendo is home to the country’s main manufacturers of game pieces. You are sure to see a lot of shoji decorations about. The town is also home to a small museum with some of Hiroshige’s works that you can check out as well.