Yamadera

Yamadera

Yamagata City, Yamagata

yamadera

Yamadera is the collective name given to the thirty temples creviced into the ancient slopes of Mt. Hoju. Properly known as Risshaku-ji,  Yamadera is located just a one-hour train ride out of Yamagata City. This esoteric complex has been the source of inspiration since its founding over 1,000 years ago, commanding the ink wells of some of Japan’s greatest writers, artists, and poets as the infamous Matsuo Basho.

History of Yamadera

Konpochudo Hall
Konpochudo Hall is the oldest beechwood structure in Japan and houses a 1,300 year old eternal flame

Yamadera was founded by legendary Buddhist priest Ennin (also known as Jikaku Daishi) in the year 860 as he traversed Tohoku, bringing a new wave of Tendai Buddhism from abroad. Ennin studied Buddhism in China for nine years between 838 and 847; however, when Emperor Wuzong took the throne in 840, it triggered the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of 842-846, resulting in Enin’s deportation back to Japan in 847.

Upon returning to Japan, his resolve to spread and galvanize the Tendai sect of Buddhism had never been stronger, and so upon being named “Great Monk” by Emperor Seiwa in 847, he set out across the Tohoku region to erect temples and spread the message of the Buddha. Along his journey, today, he’s accredited with having established 331 temples in the Tohoku region, such as Akutsu Hachiman Shrine in Takahata.

Yamadera was founded in 860 as a branch of Enryau-Ji temple, the central temple of the Tendai sect, located on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto. Upon its completion, an eternal flame was brought from Enraku-Ji in Kyoto and housed in Konponchudo hall, the oldest structure made of beechwood in Japan.

The flame has been continuously burning now for over one thousand years, and in an odd twist of fate, when the original flame in Kyoto was extinguished in 1571 during the raids of Oda Nobunaga, it was restored using the embers of the eternal flame at Yamadera.

Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho
This statue of Matsuo Basho sits at the mounatin base of Yamadera

Perhaps the other great historical figure to leave their mark on the great mountain temple of Yamadera is non-other than larger-than-life Edo poet Matsuo Basho. Poet, writer, traveler, and wordsmith-extraordinaire, Basho traveled up and down the Tohoku region during the late 1600s, culminating his experiences into the book titled “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

Matsuo Basho was actually never supposed to visit Yamadera and had intended to continue towards Tsuruoka after staying in Obanazawa for several days. However, when urged to visit by their former host, Matsu Basho retraced his steps, adding seventeen miles to his journey just so he could see what splendors the mountain temples held.

Matsu Basho arrived in Yamadera on a sunny summer afternoon and stayed at a lodge at the foot of the mountain. The following day, he scrambled to the top of the sacred mountain and was met with an unexpected reward, tranquil silence. So moved by the serenity of the mountains, he sat down and wrote one of his most famous haiku poems:

Ah, the silence

sinking into the rocks

the voice of the cicada

閑かさや

岩にしみ入る

蝉の声

When you visit Yamadera today, make sure to make an additional stop at the Matsu Basho Museum at the base of the mountain to learn more about the life, works, and legacy of perhaps Japan’s greatest poet. Admission is ¥300 each for the Basho Memorial Museum, Basho Birth House, and the Minomushi-an, or ¥750 for entry to all three.

Climbing Yamadera

There are many ways and paths to traverse the mountain temples, each twist infused with history and tradition

The climb from the base to the peak of Yamadera will make you work for the reward at the end of the trail, but will it be worth it by all means. To get to the top, you first must climb the 1,000 stone stairs through the ancient cedar forest. The path is fringed with stone lanterns, trickling streams, small shrines, and Buddhist statues, and there is a ¥300 entrance fee made payable at the foot of the mountain.

 

Depending on your pace, the journey to the top should take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour and there is plenty of places to stop and rest along your journey. 

Midahora Rock
If the coin you leave stays, its good luck! Falls however, you better count your blessings!

As you climb, such distinct features of the mountain as the Midahora Rock, which is shaped like the Amida Buddha’s head, will come into view. Under the stone steelies inscribed with ancient wisdom, visitors will balance coins on the porous cliff face as an offering and hope of currying some good luck and fortune.

 

Just past the Midahora Rock, visitors will pass through the Niomon Gate, which is what is said to keep demons out of the holy monastery. The gate was constructed out of Zelkovia in 1848, and large statues of the god Nio stand at either side to fight off any unwanted guests.

nio Gate
The nio deity enshrined inside protects the temples from evil spirits and demons

From here, the path splits off into various directions leading to different temples. Proceeding forwards, Okunoin is the highest of the temples and houses a massive golden statue of the Amida Budda. 

The iconic Nokyodo delicately perched upon the mountain crown next to Kaisando Hall is perhaps a scene nearly synonymous with the mountain temple itself and tells a different story each time you visit it. However, what makes Yamadera really worth the visit is the viewing platform Godaido. From the platform, the views sprawl all the way over the Tachiya River, across the valley, and all the way to the surrounding mountains. 

 

The view has been known to bring even the most hardened souls to tears with its unparalleled beauty and inspired hearts for generations.

Yamadera

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