Away from the hustle and bustle of the two major cities it lies between, Yamagata and Sendai, Yamadera offers a spiritually refreshing experience to visitors. Although located in the midst of dense forest and mountainous country, it is easily accessible by train, and the base of the site is just a 5-minute walk from the station.
Fuel up with fresh soba noodles
En route from the station you will pass numerous shops selling local souvenirs and quick bites to eat. For lunch there is essentially only one dish – the local specialty, soba (buckwheat noodles). Each restaurant is a soba restaurant, so you may be fine to visit any of the options and see what particular style they have to offer. After a tip from a local, we visited Takifudou. If coming from the station, after crossing the red bridge over the river, it’s a short walk in the opposite direction to the entrance to Yamadera. We tried the soba and tempura set, “tenzaru”, featuring luxurious fresh noodles and a delicate tempura set of seasonal vegetables and prawns. Depending on when you arrive, you may prefer to fill up for some much-needed energy before setting off for the mountain, or reward yourself after the climb and descent, as there are no further places to eat once you pass the toll gate and start the climb.
Rise above the mountaintops
Ascending the 1000 stone steps, you can leave your earthly troubles and desires behind you at ground level, and simply enjoy the journey. The ascent wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the latest video games, indeed it’s hard to believe such a treasure really exists. This other-worldly feel is exaggerated by the numerous stone lanterns and statues you will pass on your way, surrounded by the towering beech trees. Depending on the season, the forest may be completely calm, or filled with the lively sounds of insects. The famous poet Matsuo Basho, who visited in the late 1600s, wrote the following haiku about his time there, “Silence, and penetrating into the rocks — the cry of the cicada”. Indeed, visitors can see a statue of Matsuo Basho and a rock inscribed with this poem at the base of the mountain at the lower temple complex. As you approach the upper levels, the dense forest finally gives away, and you are rewarded for your climbing efforts with a fantastic view of the valley below. If you progress along the mountainside you will eventually reach a wooden hut overhanging the steps below. This is the highest accessible point and offers a panoramic view. If you head back down slightly and venture further back into the mountain, there are more temples to be found, and you may catch a glimpse of a huge, golden Buddha statue sitting inside one of the temples.
Experience the ways of the Tendai Sect
There are many activities you can try relating to priestly activities, such as making a small offering and praying at the temples, copying sutras by hand on paper (found inside one of the temples at the base, simply take off your shoes and head inside). At the upper complex you can also find a unique method of praying, by rotating a large set of beads. On the climb up to the top of the mountain, you will pass a cliff wall glittering with the silver shine of one yen coins – it is more difficult than it looks to throw or place your coin on the cliff edge and having it stay there,! All in all, after a day spent wandering and walking at Yamadera, you might feel physically exhausted in the best sense – the refreshment of having been outside in nature, and having had a feast for the stomach, senses and soul.
Take the JR Senzan Line from Sendai station to Yamadera station (50min) or from Yamagata station (20min)