Yamadera temple in Winter – Hoju-san Risshaku-ji

Spectacular views. Moments of contemplation. Immersed in nature.

Yamadera’s location is a small village in the Yamagata prefecture. Nestled among the steep cliff faces are various shrines and temples which are beautiful to view from the village.

These temples are known as Hoju-san Risshaku-ji. It was started in 860AD, and subsequently built up through the ages.

Although the view from the village is still beautiful, to truly experience it, it is best to commit to the hike up to the top, where you can meander through the trees and rocks at your own leisurely pace. There are about 1000 steps, so be aware of your own health and capacity to do this walk.

Japan’s most beautiful temples are usually located in the most natural of surroundings. As a nature lover, a large part of the pleasure of visiting a temple in Japan is inextricably linked to its location. Hidden under a canopy of old cedars, or stoically overlooking a lake, nature and worship are intertwined. Forest bathing is a form of therapy, for the Japanese, and even if you’re not culturally inclined to enjoy the shrines, the landscape and natural surroundings are still worth the trip.

We made the trip from Sendai, which was about a 40 minute train ride through lovely scenery and local stations. It was a day trip and well worth it.

A few tips if you’re going in winter:

  • Wear weather appropriate clothes. We wore snow boots. If the weather surprises you in winter, you can rent/ borrow rubber boots from the temple entrance at the bottom before you make the climb.

 

  • Take some water with you. The air is dry in winter, and you may find yourself sweating as you climb the steps.

 

  • Take your time. It’s not a race. Wander. Meander. Stop. Stare.

 

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Steps can be icy, so take it slow and be measured.

 

  • Some of the stairs are narrow, so if you see someone coming up/ down on them already, let them pass if you can before you start your climb/descent. There are hand rails, but usually only on one side. Use them.

 

  • Be aware of the train timetable and give yourself some time to do the climb. We gave ourselves 3 hours to make the trip up and back down.

 

  • Be aware of daylight as it gets dark before 5pm, so get there earlier and you won’t have to rush down the track.

 

  • Eat before or after your walk – but note that the cafes and restaurants shut around 4pm, so make sure you take this into account when you plan your trip.

 

A very useful and informative guide can be found here.

Yamadera is nothing less than spectacular. And it is different for every season. I visited in winter, and with that came the silence of snow. Snow is a sound-eater. And as you climb higher through the tracks, the lack of sound accentuates your inner dialogue. Forcing you to turn inwards, as the noise and distraction of the outside world reduce until you’re left with only the (sometimes uncomfortable) presence of self.

What thoughts will come to the fore?

What voices will crystallise in the silence of winter?

Yamadera is both a pilgrimage and a catharsis. If you’re in Yamagata or Sendai, make the trip. Whatever the season may be, you’ll find some moment of relief in this secluded mountain temple.

 

View from the Yamadera train station.

View from Yamadera train station. The village at the bottom of the hill, with the temples up on the cliffside.

 

Tachiya River bridge in Yamadera.

From the train station, it is a short walk through the village to the temple entrance. The walk takes you across the Tachiya River. The pop of red on this bridge was stunning in the snow-scape.

 

Tachiya River bridge view.

View from the bridge at the Tachiya River.

 

Tori gates of Yamadera temple grounds.

The route to the temple is clearly marked, and it was easy to find the entrance. These stone tori (shrine gates) mark the entrance to a holy site. The Yamadera temple grounds begin here.

 

Information about Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

Information in English at the other entrance to Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

 

Yamadera statues.

Statues in the snow. One of these statues is of the famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho. He visited Yamadera’s temples and was inspired to write a haiku. I’m just not sure which one is his statue as I cannot read Kanji. If someone knows, please let me know. Thanks 🙂

 

Tori at the second entry to the hike.

From the temple entrance, there is a main site on the lower grounds, but we decided to go straight up to the track, as the weather could turn. Some of the statues on the site were incredibly beautiful and lifelike.

 

Snow falling in Yamadera Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

By the time we got to the Sanmon Gate entrance to the proper start of the tracks, the snow was falling quite heavily, but it did add to the ambience. This is where you’ll need to pay the entrance fee, and where you can borrow or rent rubber boots for the walk.

 

Snow covered tracks in Hoju-san Risshaku-ji, Yamadera.

Walking to the stairs in Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

 

Forest in Yamadera Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

Walking through the forest without many tourists was one of the best parts of the trip.

 

View looking down the track at Niomon Gate in Yamadera.

Nearly at the top of Hoju-san Risshaku-ji, looking back down at Niomon Gate. This track leads up to the Upper temple area.

 

 

One of the shrines near the top at Yamadera Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

One of the shrines which were close to the top. Covered in plastic sheeting to protect it from the elements.

 

 

Swastika - an age old symbol of good, has nothing to do with Nazis.

Detail of the sign. The swastika has been used for millennia before Nazi Germany plagiarised it. It would be a great injustice for us to only remember the use by Nazis and to ignore the millions of Buddhists and Hindus around the world who have always used it as a sign for good.

 

 

Walking further up the Hoju-san Risshaku-ji track.

View as we walked further up the track, looking back at this compound of shrines and temples.

 

 

View looking down into Yamadera village.

View looking down into Yamadera village.

 

Yamadera valley.

View from the viewing platform taking in the valley of Yamadera.

 

 

Godaido Hall viewing platform.

Yamadera viewing platform. Not a tourist to be seen.

 

 

A shrine with swastika symbol.

Another beautiful shrine where the swastika has been used (again, way before Nazi Germany) to denote good luck, harmony, good fortune and a holy space.

 

 

Shrine to Mizuko Kuyo and children in Yamadera.

Shrine to children. The Japanese have shrines to Mizuko Kuyo (“water babies”) which are shrines for unborn fetuses or children. Despite being sad, it also makes me grateful that there are shrines like this to allow parents to grieve, as we have no such ritual or ceremony in the West. You can see where people have left beanies or scarves and plush toys for their children.

 

Place to burn incense for Mizuko Kuyo shrine in Yamadera.

Place to burn incense across from the preview shrine for Mizuko Kuyo.

 

 

Small statues inHoju-san Risshaku-ji, Yamadera.

Small statues and shrines near the waterfalls. We paid our respects at each place. Coupled with religion is the animist belief that each place or item has an energy and spirit residing in it.

 

 

Another small statue or shrine to Mizuko Kuyo at Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

Along the track at Hoju-san Risshaku-ji, we came across other small statues and shrines for Mizuko Kuyo.

 

 

Wooden Buddha in Hoju-san Risshaku-ji, Yamadera.

We ended our walk back at the bottom, at the main temple where this wonderful wooden Buddha greeted us with smiles and joviality. Yes, we rubbed his belly and paid our respects. 🙂

 

Wooden Buddha temple in Hoju-san Risshaku-ji grounds.

The main wooden temple is quite grand, but the wooden Buddha statue seems to welcome everyone with open arms and big belly laughs. 

 

 

Parting view of Hoju-san Risshaku-ji.

Our view of Hoju-san Risshaku-ji as we returned to the train station.

 

Hoju-san Risshaku-ji in Yamadera is a wonderful temple.

It is both placid and alive, both reserved and booming with beauty. We saw it only in its winter coat, but because it is so deeply rooted in such a natural location, I have no doubt that every season would offer something unique and just as beautiful.

Whatever the season, if you’re in the area, do try to make it there. And let me know what it was like!

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