Yamadera in Yamagata is one of the most scenic temples in Japan. Getting there takes some effort, but there are rewards for those who endure the somewhat cumbersome hike up the steep mountain.
The proper name of this temple is Risshaku-ji, but most people use the informal name Yamadera, meaning “mountain temple”, instead. The reason why will be obvious as soon as you exit the station. Right away, you can see some temple buildings at the top of a steep mountain.
The famous priest Jikaku Daishi, founded this temple in 860 AD as a branch temple to Enryaku-ji in Kyoto, one of the most significant monasteries in Japan at that time. Today, Yamadera is one of the most well known temples in Japan, as well as one of the top sightseeing spots in Yamagata prefecture. The temple area is designated both a national place of scenic beauty as well as a national historic site.
Before you start your climb, we would suggest you fill up your energy at one of the many restaurants in the village below. This area is particularly famous for konnyaku, a food made of Konjac starch, as well as their delicious soba noodles with mountain vegetables. Besides this, the rice from this part of Japan, Hainuki, is also considered to be among the best in the country.
The Konponchudo Hall is the main hall of the temple grounds and a good place to start, as it is located at the base of the mountain. Konponchudo is well worth a visit for the impressive architecture. Inside the temple there’s a sacred flame said to have been burning constantly for over 1000 years. While you are here, also make sure to pay a visit to the Buddha statue or “nadebotoke” in front of the temple. It is supposed to have the power to heal bodily pains you might have, if you rub the corresponding part of the statue.
The main attractions here however, are the temple buildings on the upper part of the mountain. In order to access these, you need to pay the modest entrance fee of 300 yen. Even though paying in order to climb a massive set of stairs might feel a bit odd, we ensure you that it will be worth it. Considering the fact that the temple has been standing here for so long, it makes sense to contribute a little bit to its maintenance too, don’t you think?
In order to get all the way to the sanctuary at the top called Oku-no-in you need to climb around 1100 steps. On your way up, you will pass countless graves, many statues and several impressive rock formations bearing a resemblance to faces. Almost every rock and stone you will pass on your way up has a story, and there are plenty of cultural treasures in and around the temple buildings too. If you want to learn all about it, we suggest you hire a guide from the “kizahashi society” (Tel. 023-695-2816). They charge 2000 yen to guide you through the entire hike.
Expect to spend two to three hours in order to get the most of your visit. This includes the hike up to the temple, ample time to enjoy the dramatic views from up there, and the walk back down to the station.
Even in wintertime Yamadera comes highly recommended. The surroundings are supposed to be particularly beautiful when covered in snow. But expect the hike up to take even longer than usual, especially if the stairs are covered with ice.
Yamadera is located about 20 minutes from Yamagata, on the JR Senzan line. The train runs all the way to Sendai, so you can change to/from the Shinkansen at either city.