Japan 2014: Yamadera – the Mountain Temple

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.

Train

Local train to Yamadera

Trains from Yamagata to Yamadera run roughly once an hour, and by around 10am I was there, about to begin my pilgrimage.

Yamadera Station

Yamadera Station

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.

Yamadera

Local shop in Yamadera

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:

Yamadera

Freaky monk

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.

Ice cream girl

Sugegasa and ice cream

The entrance to the temple complex was obvious but unassuming, and here the steps began…

Yamadera

Entrance to Yamadera

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:

Yamadera map

Yamadera map

The first building I encountered was this colourfully decorated temple, Konponchudo (根本中堂).

Yamadera

Konponchudo (根本中堂)

Yamadera

A ‘nadebotoke’ (撫で仏) or ‘rubbing Buddha statue’

Nearby were some Jizo statues and shrines for lost children.

Yamadera

Onegai Jizo (お願い地蔵), or ‘asking for a favour’ Jizo

Yamadera

Jizo

Yamadera

Windmills for children

Yamadera

Toy cars

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.

Konyaku

Tama Konyaku

The next building I encountered was Hiei Shrine (日枝神社):

Yamadera

Hiei Shrine (日枝神社)

Not far from Hiei Shrine were some statues I was particularly keen to see:

Yamadera

Basho (left) and his companion Sora

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.

Yamadera

Nenbutsudo (念仏堂) – and a man in a suit?!

Yamadera

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.

Yamadera

Sanmon (山門)

From this point onwards the adventure really began.

Yamadera

Narrow road to the north…

As I climbed these small steps higher and higher I found all sorts of interesting things along the way. From tiny shrines…

Yamadera

Moss covered shrine

Containing terrifying statues…

Yamadera

Eek!

To hundreds of stone statues and carvings…

Yamadera

Faces everywhere…

Tall trees surrounded me, and there was hardly a sound apart from the gentle chatter of the occasional passing hiker.

Yamadera

“The hill consisted of massive boulders, one upon the other, out of which grew luxuriant pines and cypresses of great age, and the ancient earth and rocks were green with velvety moss.” – Basho, translated by Dorothy Britton

Pilgrim

Pilgrim’s path

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

Midahora (弥陀洞)

Yamadera

One Yen coins stuck into the rock

Yamadera

Abandoned bear and car

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.

Yamadera

Niomon Gate (仁王門)

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.

Yamadera

Senjafuda (千社札)

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:

Kokeshi for posting

Postable kokeshi dolls!

I didn’t buy one of those, but I did treat myself to a Basho kokeshi doll.

Basho kokeshi doll

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!

Yamadera

Okunoin (奥之院)

Yamadera

Buddhist statues, but no daibutsu

Yamadera

Daibutsuden (大仏殿)

Yamadera

Sneaky peek of the daibutsu (photos weren’t allowed, but I snapped this from a distance)

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.

Yamadera

View from Yamadera

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).

Yamadera

Nokyodo (納経堂) (right) and Kaisando (開山堂)

Yamadera

Nokyodo (納経堂)

Just a few steps more and I had reached Godaido (五大堂), an observation deck extending out over the cliff.

Yamadera

Godaido (五大堂)

I felt like I had reached the top of the world.

Yamadera

“In the profound tranquillity and beauty of the place, our hearts felt deeply purified.” – Basho, translated by Dorothy Britton

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.

Yamadera

So many souls

For the return journey down the mountain there was a slightly different route, and even more to see.

Yamadera

The path down

Yamadera

Statue of Luohan

Yamadera

Small garden

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.

Yamadera

Looking out across Yamadera town

Basho kokeshi

Basho kokeshi outside a restaurant

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!

Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum

Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum – closed, but you could still walk around the outside

Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum

Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum

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:

閑さや岩にしみ入蝉の声

shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

The stillness –
Shrilling into the rocks
The semi’s cry

(Basho, translated by Lesley Downer)

The photos above don’t even tell the half of it. If you’d like to see the full collection, click here. If you’d really like to see more – visit Yamadera!

4 thoughts on “Japan 2014: Yamadera – the Mountain Temple

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