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.
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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