Yamadera Temple in Yamagata: Ascent to The Temple of Standing Stones
Yamadera, or simply, “mountain temple,” is one of northeastern Japan's most sacred spots. Forty minutes from Sendai on the JR Sanzen line, the vertical rock face of the temple complex towers above the station platform. The view of mountains up the valley is equally jaw dropping. Officially called Risshakuji (temple of standing stones), the training ground for monks of the Tendai sect was founded here over eleven centuries ago.
A quick, ten-minute jaunt from the station down “main street” leads you to the entrance of the trail of 1,015 steps.
Tucked away next to the stairs on your right is a pottery studio, 山寺焼 ながせ陶房. Study with the master or shop for gifts here; for 1,800 yen, you receive a 1.5 hour instruction session and 1 kg of clay. Your finished product will be shipped to you after being fired in the kiln (bring your own translator; reservations recommended during peak season, phone 023-695-2015).
You’ll soon reach the massive Konponchudo Temple. It houses an “eternal flame” that has been burning continuously since it was brought from Kyoto upon Yamadera’s establishment in 860 A.D.
Here you will want to pay your respects to the jolly figure out front. Hotei, as he is known in Japanese, is a Chinese folklore deity that represents contentment and abundance. Visitors praying to heal ailing parts of the body have rubbed the wooden figure smooth. Feel free to follow suit.
Proceed left through an area dedicated to the “water children,” or those lost to miscarriage, and on through a Shinto gate.
The two statues on your left are of Basho, Japan’s master of haiku poetry, and his disciple, Sora. Basho penned one of his most famous poems here in Yamadera, and its words are engraved on the stone between the statues:
The cries of the cicadas
Sink into the rocks
After passing the Shinto shrines (separated from the temples by edict at the beginning of the Meiji Period), a prayer hall where you can hand-copy sutras, the bell tower, and ticket gate, you finally enter the forested part of the trail. The stillness that Basho experienced will begin to envelope.
You’ll see a small structure low to the ground that houses statues of ugly women. They are the gatekeepers between the land of the living and the dead, or earth and heaven. In days past, pilgrims would change their clothes here before beginning the steeper part of the trail that winds its way amid moss-covered rocks.
At 740 steps the trail comes to a T section. Turn right to continue upward toward the innermost temple that houses a 5-meter tall golden Buddha. Turn left to reach the observation deck, where the view of the surrounding mountains and valley below will not, by any stretch, disappoint. On the way to the deck, a rock outcropping with a mini red “house” accents the view. Legend has it that this is where the founding monk first slept when he arrived on the mountain.
Yamadera is open all year round and the view is enjoyable in each season. A waiting area near the ticket booth offers mud boots for those willing to brave the trail in winter and early spring.
Three foods are local specialties: konnyaku dango (balls of steamed konnyaku, or yam cake, on a stick with yellow hot mustard), imoni (beef and taro soup), and soba (buckwheat noodles). Several local shops sell these as well as homemade sweets and senbei (rice crackers) with complimentary tea.
If you’re headed back toward Sendai, stop at the unbeatable Ichinobo onsen at Sakunami Station. You can also easily explore Yamagata (just 20 minutes further on the JR Sanzen line).