Yamadera is literally translated as “Mountain Temple” in Japanese. Located in the northeast of Yamagata City, it is a Buddhist temple of the Tendai Sect. However, the official name of Yamadera is actually Risshakuji and this name is used on signage seen along the hiking trail. Yamadera was actually founded in 860 by Priest Jikaku Daishi, one of Japan’s most respected Buddhist priests in the early Heian Period, during the rule of Emperor Seiwa. In the late 1600s, the famous poet Basho visited Yamadera and composed a haiku (Japanese poetry) depicting the peace and tranquillity of this place.
Today, Yamadera is a designated national historical site and place of scenic beauty. It is also a favourite hiking venue in the Tohoku region with a challenging hiking route consisting of a steep 1,015-step stone path through the mountains.
Directions to Yamadera
Take the JR Senzan Line that connects to Yamagata City and Sendai, and alight at JR Yamadera Station.
This easy accessibility makes Yamadera a favourite visiting location for travellers who are travelling in both cities. If you have heavy luggage, you can store them easily at lockers located in JR Yamadera Station.
Lockers in JR Yamadera Station.
Just a side note, the station is managed by a fun-loving station master who speaks good English!
Right outside the station, you will see a huge signage with a map. It illustrates the sightseeing spots and the three hiking trails that you can take, which are:
- Visit the Risshakuji Temple Trail Course (estimated hiking duration: 130 minutes)
- Minenoura Trail Course (estimated hiking duration: 130 minutes)
- Bakuchiiwa Rock (Ice Hill) /trail Course (estimated hiking duration: 90 minutes)
I went for the Risshakuji Temple Trail Course, which covers 14 sightseeing spots along the way.
My Hiking Experience
It is an easy 10-minute walk to the base of the mountain. You will pass by shops and small eateries selling souvenirs and food. There is even a shop with a banner indicating their free service to store luggage. I presumed there must be a lot of hikers during peak seasons like spring and autumn, though there is absolutely no crowd during winter.
Finally, I reached the starting point of the Visit Risshakuji Temple Trail Course hike, where the counting of 1,015 steps begins.
The steep steps were manageable but conquering the slippery surface was challenging as there was a thin layer of ice. There are handrails for support so there it really helped a lot.
I reached the first sightseeing spot, Konponchudo Hall. This is also Yamadera’s main and oldest hall. Here they store Buddhist statues and a sacred flame that is said to have been burning for the past 1000 years since its foundation!
You can visit a memorial tower of Emperor Seiwa, which is also the oldest stone tower in the mountain, and admire the statue of Basho and his famous haiku within the temple grounds during your hike.
Omikuji are blessing lots that you could draw to predict your luck in areas of your life such as health, business, or marriage. You just need to drop the required amount into the collection boxes.
The Bell of Happiness. It is believed that you will be granted two wishes after ringing the bell.
The Sanmon Gate.
The Sanmon Gate is where the climb begins. The entrance fee is ￥300 for adults, ￥200 for high school students and ￥100 for elementary students above 4 years old.
Right after the Sanmon Gate is a small sheltered place with a little stall for souvenirs such as omamori (protection charms and amulets), incense sticks, pictorial books, and postcards. On top of that, there is a shelf of snow boots that are free for rental at one corner! I decided to rent the snow boots for a safe hike.
What followed after that were captivating winter forest views. There is always something magical about winter beauty. A coat of white snow could instantly transform the surroundings into an alluring wonderland. There were many Buddhist monuments along the way, and perhaps more were hidden under the snow.
As I ascended further, the steps became increasingly slippery and dangerous. I wished I have a bottle of sand or grit to sprinkle on the path or even a hiking pole. Eventually, I figured out a formula: Patience, perseverance and be focused. Small steps one at a time. I walked sideways and walked around the icy areas. I also followed the footprint marks left on the path. It was slow but steady.
Finally, I reached the Godaido Hall, an observation deck over a cliff at the highest point of Yamadera that offers that best view. It was so spectacular and rewarding that you will instantly forget the stress of the hike and pain from your aching feet. Indeed, enjoying the journey makes the results sweeter!
Unfortunately, I started my hike too late in the afternoon and had to descend early. I was concerned about reaching the foot of the mountain before dark as the day is short during winter. As such, I did not manage to stay longer or explore other sightseeing spots nearby such as the Daibutsuden Hall, which houses a large statue of Amida Buddha.
It was even more challenging and dangerous to descend as you could easily lose your footing. Again, I applied the same mental formula: Patience, perseverance and be focused. Small steps one at a time. During some parts of the descending, it is actually easier to have some fun and slide down the snowy path than to take the steps.
My last flight of steps to the foot of the mountain.
Tips for Winter Hike
- Plan and manage your time. Do expect a longer time for the hike since you have to be cautious and take small steps. The day is short during winter so I recommend starting your hike early.
- Be properly attired. Full winter wear with cap (protect from falling snow from trees), scarf and gloves (protect your hands from the icy cold handrails) are required. Appropriate footwear is especially important. You may want to add shoe grips or ice cleats to your shoes. Do rent their winter snow boots if required – it’s free.
- Consider hike-aiding equipment such as a hiking pole (with an ice pick), to maintain a steady foothold on the ground. I think it’s also a good idea to bring a small container of sand or grit to sprinkle on slippery surfaces along the hike. Do hold on to all available railings along the way.
- Do not carry heavy bags that will make you tired or lose your balance. You can store them in a locker at the JR Yamadera Station.
- There is no toilet along the hiking trail.
- Lastly but not least, the magic formula: Patience, perseverance and be focused. Small steps one at a time. Walk sideways or try to walk around the icy areas. Follow the footprint marks left on the path. Go slow but steady. Enjoy the process.
In conclusion, I have mixed feelings about a winter hike. Sceneries are no doubt beautiful and satisfying, but it is stressful and extremely dangerous especially for the elderly and young children, as I have seen other hiker fell and slipped along the way. As such, do ensure you are mentally and physically fit, well-attired, and equipped. As long as you are well-prepared, a winter hike to Yamadera will be an exciting journey.