Staying in Sendai certainly has its advantages – find yourself with a free afternoon and you can easily jump on a train out of the city and be standing at the foot of one of Japan’s most beautiful mountain temples in less than one hour (not to mention the picturesque scenery of Tohoku’s countryside and myriad of hot-spring towns along the journey).
Determined to make the most of the fleeting cherry-blossom season, we decided to chase the flowers to the higher altitude of Yamadera (literally, ‘Mountain Temple’) in Yamagata Prefecture.
Whilst the last petals were being blown off sakura trees in Sendai City, we were lucky to find the cherry blossoms in full bloom as we alighted the train and looked up at our destination atop Mt. Hojusan in front of us.
Beautiful in every season, Yamadera is a popular destination for both local and international tourists alike; particularly in Autumn when the entire mountainside becomes a brilliant canvas of red and gold.
However, we can attest that early spring is also a great time to visit! The crisp spring air creates a very comfortable climate for hiking up the 1000+ stairs to the main temple grounds, and the view of the village below surrounded by soft pink and white cherry blossoms is simply breathtaking.
True, it is not a leisurely stroll!
However, the route to the top itself offers plenty of beautiful forest scenery, mystical monuments and an eerie yet fascinating atmosphere to keep your mind busy while your legs do all the work.
At this time of year, you can almost hear the forest waking up after the long, bleak winter. Among the fresh green foliage we were lucky to spot two kinds of local wildlife…
It is said that some monks of the temple lost their lives practicing ascetic training by climbing these dangerous rock-faces with no protection…I guess this guy is well on his way to enlightenment. A rare site, we certainly felt blessed to watch him enjoy his late-lunch.
About 40 minutes later – we made it!!
Once you reach the top of the stairs, you will find yourself within the temple grounds of Risshakuji Temple. Founded in 860 by Jigaku Daishi, the temple belongs to the Tendai Sect of Japanese Buddhism. It is considered to be a branch of Kyoto’s Enryaku-ji, the centre of Tendai Buddhism in Japan.
It is a sprawling complex of various beautiful temple halls and buildings (including the ‘Konpon-Chudo’ Main Hall located below the main stairs to the top) but the goal for most visitors is to reach the ‘Godaido’ platform at the very top of the mountain, offering some pretty amazing views of the village below.
Legs literally shaking as we descended the stairs back down to the village, we rewarded ourselves with some local sugar-replenishment in the form of ‘Tama-kon’ or ‘Tama-konyaku’, a healthy snack of Konyaku starch boiled in soy (tastier than it sounds!), and huge parfait to put everything back in balance.
There are trains back to Sendai/Yamagata roughly once an hour, so it’s best to check the train times first before killing any time by wandering the quaint streets of shops, cafes and soba-noodle restaurants (also highly recommended as one of the local specialties of Yamagata prefecture).
Useful site for checking train times of services all over Japan: hyperdia
Yamadera is the perfect little piece of paradise at your doorstep! Easily accessible and manageable as a day-trip or even a half-day trip en route to your next destination in Tohoku.
Take the JR Senzan line from Sendai Station to Yamadera Station (840 yen, around 50 mins).
Tip for tourists:
Luckily for international tourists, the return trip to Yamadera from Sendai Station on the JR Senzan line is actually covered by the ‘Sendai Area Pass’ – a new and convenient way to travel within and around Sendai and avoid unnecessary cost. Pay just 1300 yen for the pass, giving you full access of Sendai subway lines (including Sendai Airport Access Line) and tourist bus, as well as your return fare to destinations like Yamadera, Shiroishi (Fox Village) and Matsushima.
For more Sendai Area Pass info, click here.
Take the JR Senzan line from Yamagata Station to Yamadera Station (240 yen, around 20 mins).