Yamadera, which literally translates to “Mountain Temple”, is a small, but breathtaking site nestled in Yamagata prefecture and, if you don’t mind climbing a few (hundred) steps, is well worth a day trip.
What to SEE:
Glimpsed from afar, you can see the many temples dotting the mountain behind the sleepy town of Yamadera, but the view from the bottom is nothing when compared to the one at the top. Moving quickly, the mountain’s thousand plus steps could probably be scaled in half an hour, but with so many sites on the climb up, you’ll most likely want to take your time getting there. Ryushaku-ji Temple (“Standing Stones”) is the most famous of the temples, where a sacred flame has been burning for thousands of years, and draws its name from the many wind-carved rock sculptures lining the path up the mountain. There are also a variety of traditional rituals you can take part in, such as lighting incense for the gods, banging a gong (for the gods?) and purifying yourself with water—all staples of any good Japanese temple going experience. Other than temples, the mountain is littered with interesting sights, from Buddhist sculptures to oversized pine trees, towering rock sculptures and serene gardens, painstakingly maintained by those that live and work on the mountain. And the view from the very top is spectacular, giving you a look at the quiet town below, nestled in a bowl of mountains.
What to BUY:
There are a number of shops selling very traditional temple fare, from beads to all sorts of good luck charms and fortunes. Around the mountain you can find boxes with small charms for only a small donation (working only on the good old honor system).
Yamagata is also known for their wood crafts and a variety of these, from masks to dolls, can be found around town. And of course you can find your staple omiyage that no self-respecting Japanese tourist spot would be without.
What to EAT:
Yamagata is known for its delicious cold soba and variety of cherry products. Trying cherry sake is a must and the cherry ice cream is great, too. Freshly made soba can be found around every corner and is a must. The difference between really good, fresh soba and all the rest is pretty big, and the soba in Yamagata is famous for a reason. Best I’ve had in Japan.
Many of the shops also sell tama-kon, which are balls of konnyaku on a stick (a chewy gelatinous substance made from ground konjak roots) cooked in soy sauce, and supposedly are very good for you. Japanese tourists eat them hoping to receive a burst of stamina to help them reach the top of the mountain.
How to get there:
Yamadera can be reached by taking a train on the JR Senzan line from Sendai station for just under an hour, and from Yamadera station the mountain entrance is about a 10 minute walk through town.
I’ll leave you with a famous Japanese haiku about Yamdera:
shizukesa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe
Silence, and penetrating into the rocks — the cry of the cicada
— Matsuo Bashō