The main reason you should visit Yamadera (literally the mountain temple) is to see the complex of temples and shrines along the mountainside. However, even if you’re not Buddhist, Shinto or you’re not attracted by the religious places, you should still come. The place is known as the temple of 1000 stairs (1015 in reality), which offers a great journey to the top and a breathtaking view once you’re there.
The official name of Yamadera is Hoju-san Risshakuji, which means the Risshakuji temple on Mountain Hoju. It has been founded in 860 A.D. by Jikaku Daishi and it belongs to the Tendai sect.
Yamadera Temple Complex
If you come to visit Yamadera by train from Yamagata or Sendai, exit the station and keep straight, turn right and then left, crossing the bridge on the other side. Soon after, on your right, you will find the tourist information center. Get a map of the area and be ready to start your journey. To reach the start point keep the road straight almost until the end, then follow the stairs to go up to the Konponchudo Temple.
The Konponchudo temple is the oldest beech wood structure building in the temple complex. A flame burns in front of it since its establishement, 1100 years ago. It has been brought from Enryakuji temple, the mother temple of the Tendai sect from Kyoto.
Continue walking and soon after you will find the Hiei Shrine. It has been established to house a gardian god for the temple. From here you can buy charms, write a wish on a piece of wooden or check your luck. If you get some bad luck, don’t forget to leave it there!
Not well known among the foreigners, but Matsuo Basho was one of Japan’s most famous poets. He visited Yamadera with his discipol, Seifu, where he wrote a famous haiku poem (“cicada haiku”). Their statues were added to the complex in 1989 by volunteers for their comemoration.
After this, you will soon arrive at the temple gate. Here you’ll need to pay a fee of 300¥ to continue your journey to the top.
On the way up
On the way up, there are many opportunities for good pictures and memories. There are several small monuments too you may take a look at too.
During your ascending, you will find on your right a small temple, the Ubado Hall. It is dedicated to Datsueba, an old watchwoman which separated the world of the dead. People are normally offering old clothes to her, to have new ones before ascending to heaven. However, what I could see were a pair of glasses, a comb and coins, not a trace of clothes. Maybe someone was cold and borrowed them, who knows!
Once you reach the Niomon Gate, you are almost there. Try to spy the statues of the two Nio guardians of Budhha. They will stop the ones with evil heart to enter the gate, so be careful!
The Sleeping Stone
The most famous picture of Yamadera complex is the one embracing the Sleeping Stone, the Oyasumi Ishi. According to the legend, Jikaku Daishi spent his first night on this rock when he came to establish the Risshakuji temple. This may be one of the main reasons people do visit Yamadera, to take an astoning picture with the rock.
Godaido Observation Deck
The reward of the visit will be taken once you reach the Godaido Observation Deck. From here you can enjoy a panoramic landscape of Yamadera complex and the surroundings. Stunning, right?
The last point of the visit is the Innermost Temple (Okuno-In). Inside there is a 5 meter tall golden statue of the Amida Buddha – unfortuntelly it wasn’t open to see it. Maybe you’ll be luckier than me!
The Upper Temple
There are many good spots from the top of the mountain. So, take your time to enjoy the place and create some lifetime memories. During the winter the entire place looks magic, a fairytale on earth.
Eat & Drink
To reward yourself for walking 1015 stone steps, up and down, grab a sit and enjoy a good meal. There are many places to chose from, just check their opening hours as some may close early afternoon. Don’t forget to buy some sweets to take back home, like rice crackers or dried fruits (try the cherries as the region is the main producer).
If you want to buy a gift to remind you of the day, check the local shops. They have beautiful handmade products to offer you. In this shop, the seller was even more special, as it was a cat, so try to negociate a gift for a mouse!
Time to spend
One of the key information that you may want to know to organize your trip, is how much time to allocate? Well, excluding the transportation time to Yamadera, you need about 5 hours at the place. This will give you enough time to fully enjoy the journey, take many photos, check the souvenir shops, start with a coffee and end end up with a good meal. If you want to make it short, you can even do it in 2 hours, so it’s up to you.
If you’re coming by public transportation, you will probably reach the place from Yamagata or Sendai via Senzan line. From Yamagata to Yamadera it will take about 15 minutes and from Sendai to Yamadera about 50 minutes. The journey with the train is very pleasant as the scenary is wild and beautiful. During the winter the place is quiet and white, wo you may feel like Alice in Wonderland.
The place itself is very small, so I’m not sure how many options for accommodations are around. However, as the village is so close and accessible to Yamadera and Sendai, I recommend you to stay in a big city. Like this, you can spare half of the day discovering new places and get a cheaper accommodation too. I personally slept in Sendai, in a hotel very close to the station for about 2000¥ after applying the gototravel discount.
Well, that’s it from my side! I hope you enjoyed the article and now you’re convinced to visit Yamadera. If you need more travel inspirations about Japan and not only, check more articles here.