A few years ago I read Lost Horizon by James Hilton; a unique tale of Shangri-la, a utopia hidden in the mountains of Tibet. I had forgotten about the story until a few months ago, when we visited Yamadera.
Set upon a mountain cliff, Yamadera is a Buddhist temple and grounds located northeast of Yamagata City. It was founded in 860, and was officially named Risshakuji, however it is most well-known as Yamadera- which literally translates to “mountain temple.”
Yamadera is one of the most important and well-known sacred sites in Tohoku, and thousands of people come to visit the temple each year. It’s famous for the temple of breaking bad luck, and many come here to pray for good fortune.
After arriving at the Yamadera train station, you take a short walk through the town to get to the base of the mountain.
The town around the mountain is quaint, and has a special nostalgic quality to it. It’s known for soba noodles, so stop by one of the many soba shops after your trek down from the temple.
Like any other tourist town, Yamadera has shops where you can buy souvenirs, and of course, omiyage – gifts that you’re expected to bring back to your friends, family, and co-workers.
If you’re unsure of where to go from the train station, just follow the steady stream of people walking to the torii gate at the base of the mountain.
One Thousand Steps:
Some will tell you that there are actually one-thousand-fifteen steps to the top, but one thousand steps is still a good hike, so we’ll just go with that.
The first set of stairs brings you to the first level of temples and shops. Most of the shops sell hot konnyaku balls on a stick – they’re said to be a perfect snack for a long hike or a cold day, but I just can’t get over the rubbery texture, which is not pleasant.
The main temple, Konponchudo Hall, is a very popular place for visitors to pray. It is Yamadera’s oldest building, and stores Buddhist statues along with a flame that is said to have been burning since Yamadera’s foundation.
As visitors walk to the base of the staircase that leads to the upper level, a statue of Matsuo Basho greets them; a famous poet that composed a haiku inspired by Yamadera’s nature and beauty.
Ah, this silence / Sinking into the rocks / Voice of cicada
As you make the ascent up the 1000 steps, it’s easy to see why Basho was so inspired during his visit. Nature surrounds you, and while there are bound to be a lot of other tourists, it’s surprisingly calm and quiet.
We explored Yamadera in October, so the weather was deliciously cool, and perfect for hiking. Unfortunately, the leaves hadn’t completely turned, but it was still a beautiful trek.
You’ll know when you’re close to the top once you reach the Mida Hora Rock and the Niomon Gate:
And then, out of nowhere, you’ll spot the valley below, and the Nokyodo Building:
At the top of the mountain there’s also an observation deck (Godaido Hall), and Kaisando Hall.
The View From the Other Side:
Along with the incredible scenery and temples at the top of the mountain, there are a few other structures built into the mountain.
About five minutes from the train station (in the opposite direction of the temple), there is a complex called Fuga no Kuni, that has various gift shops, a restaurant, and a museum dedicated to the art of Matsuo Basho.
We walked to the complex only to find that it was closed, but were able to get another perspective of the temple buildings.
This is definitely a must see when coming to Japan.
We went back to Yamadera in the beginning of November 2017 (one month later than we went last year), and the fall colors were much better. We also vlogged this visit, so be sure to check out that video below!
|¥300 for the upper temple area||8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.||None!|
|¥200||8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.||Closed from December – late April|