After the excitement of Rokkonsai I opted for a more solitary day, taking my first steps along haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s ‘Narrow Road to the North’, or ‘Oku no hosomichi‘ (奥の細道). In the late spring of 1689 Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) and his haiku poet apprentice Kawai Sora (河合 曾良) set out on their epic journey, and by around the middle of July they reached Yamagata Prefecture (山形県).
Setting out from a city called Obanazawa (尾花沢), Basho and Sora walked around 17 miles south to reach their destination: Yamadera (山寺). I, on the other hand, woke up in my tiny Toyoko Inn hotel room, had a simple breakfast of onigiri (rice balls) and walked to the nearby train station.
Trains from Yamagata to Yamadera run roughly once an hour, and by around 10am I was there, about to begin my pilgrimage.
It was a cloudy day, and there weren’t many people around in this sleepy town that hadn’t quite woken up yet. A few shops and restaurants lined the streets, although many weren’t yet open (or never seemed to open at all). The other tourists I saw were all Japanese.
Guiding the way to the entrance of Yamadera (or Risshakuji (立石寺) to give it its formal name), were these slightly freaky looking monks:
Although the area was far from touristy, it is a tourist spot and it was therefore possible to buy small souvenirs and ice cream. One could even purchase sugegasa (菅笠) – pointed hats often worn by pilgrims.
The entrance to the temple complex was obvious but unassuming, and here the steps began…
Founded in the year 860 by Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師), Yamadera is famous for the 1,000 or so steps which lead to its summit. I was a little intimidated by the thought of these steps, but in reality they weren’t so bad. The steps were well maintained and easy to climb, and along the way were lots of interesting things to stop and look at. As is often the case with Japanese temple complexes, there is not just one temple building at Yamadera. A handy map in both Japanese and English appeared at various points along the way:
The first building I encountered was this colourfully decorated temple, Konponchudo (根本中堂).
Nearby were some Jizo statues and shrines for lost children.
I paused for some Tama Konyaku or ‘chikara konyaku’ (力こんにやく), which is the famous snack at Yamadera. Konyaku is not something I usually enjoy, but it was a fitting snack for the mission ahead.
The next building I encountered was Hiei Shrine (日枝神社):
Not far from Hiei Shrine were some statues I was particularly keen to see:
These statues are Basho and Sora, immortalised on their path to the north. Continuing on my path, I next visited Nenbutsudo (念仏堂) and its nearby bell tower.
All of this was like an introduction to the temple, and the next point on the map was the temple gate, Sanmon (山門) where an entrance fee of ￥300 was payable.
From this point onwards the adventure really began.
As I climbed these small steps higher and higher I found all sorts of interesting things along the way. From tiny shrines…
Containing terrifying statues…
To hundreds of stone statues and carvings…
Tall trees surrounded me, and there was hardly a sound apart from the gentle chatter of the occasional passing hiker.
One place I paused for quite a while along the way was Midahora (弥陀洞), the Cave of Amitabha. In this cave area there were lots of one Yen coins stuck into the rock face. I don’t know what the significance is, but I can only assume it’s some kind of wishing thing, like coins in a wishing well.
Yamadera is a popular place to go in autumn (late October/early November) for autumn leaves. Although I was there at the end of May I was delighted to see these beautiful coloured leaves as the sight conjured up thoughts of how wonderful it must be to visit in autumn.
All along the route there were lots of senjafuda (千社札), which are worshippers’ name stickers or wooden slats. It’s incredible to think how many people must have walked these paths and climbed these steps.
Continuing further up the mountain I came across a rest area and small gift shop. The gift shop was selling these cute postable kokeshi dolls:
I didn’t buy one of those, but I did treat myself to a Basho kokeshi doll.
Climbing further still, I eventually reached Okunoin (奥之院) and Daibutsuden (大仏殿). I was excited to see the word ‘daibutsu’ as I knew that meant there would be a big Buddha statue to be found somewhere!
The higher I climbed, the more atmospheric and misty it got. I didn’t really mind that the view wasn’t perfect, as it was still amazing.
Finally I found myself close to the peak and with this iconic view of Nokyodo (納経堂), which is an ‘Important Cultural Building’, and Kaisando (開山堂).
Just a few steps more and I had reached Godaido (五大堂), an observation deck extending out over the cliff.
I felt like I had reached the top of the world.
Godaido was filled with senjafuda, omikuji (おみくじ) fortune strips and even graffiti. I know this might sound a bit deep, but you could almost feel the souls of all the people who had passed through the hall.
For the return journey down the mountain there was a slightly different route, and even more to see.
To be honest, I could have stayed in the temple complex all day. There was just so much to see and it was so interesting, but I decided to see what else the town had to offer. Common themes in the town were Basho and kokeshi, which was enough to keep me happy.
I wandered over to the Basho Memorial Museum, but unfortunately it is closed on Mondays so there wasn’t a huge amount to see. This was a little disappointing, but my schedule was quite tight so I didn’t really have any chance to go back. I’ll have to visit again!
I eventually dragged myself away and back to Yamagata City, somewhat reluctantly. For a lot of people Yamadera might only be a place to visit for a morning or an afternoon, but with my interest in Basho and having recently read Lesley Downer’s On the Narrow Road to the Deep North I was captivated by the temple in the mountains. Although it was not quite yet the season for cicada (or ‘semi’ in Japanese), as I departed my mind was full of the haiku Basho wrote when he visited Yamadera:
shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe
The stillness –
Shrilling into the rocks
The semi’s cry
(Basho, translated by Lesley Downer)