1000 Steps to Yamadera’s Mountain Temple – Episode 15

We woke a little nervous early on this Saturday morning. We had one day left to take our day trip to Yamadera from Sendai. If we couldn’t make it out today we would miss our chance on this vacation. The previous day’s high winds had cancelled all the trains running between Sendai and Yamagata, the train line on which Yamadera sits.

Episode 15: https://youtu.be/Rj1xFSIsPAE

I crawled out of bed, and apprehensively stumbled over to the windows. I drew the drapes and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight in front of me. A beautiful day, blue skies dotted with big white fluffy clouds, and most importantly the wind appeared to be calm. It was a bit though to tell from the 36th floor, but all indications pointed to a perfect day to explore Yamadera.

We didn’t waste time. We got ready as quickly as we could and headed down to breakfast. Getting started as early as possible today would be key to making it out to Yamadera hopefully before the hoards. As it was the weekend, we expected Yamadera to be a busy place, especially on this gorgeous day.

We were on a mission to make the 8:15 am train from Sendai station. The trip was just shy of an hour, and we hoped this would give us a head start on the day’s rush.

The train ride provides some beautiful scenery. The change in landscape is quite noticeable going from the city of Sendai into the mountainous area of Mt. Daito.

We were excited pulling into the cute little station of Yamadera, right at the foot of the mountain temple complex. Looking up from the platform you can see buildings poking through the trees and the view builds your anticipation of what’s to come.

There is a small little town between the station and the entrance of the ascent up to the temple complex. It’s very easy to navigate, just follow the monk cutout signs that point you in the correct direction. It’s very easy, and recommend, to take a slow pace along the way. There are many shops and restaurants to see, perfect to grab a bite and souvenir. Our plan was to do the climb and then have lunch on our way back to the station. For the most part that is what we did, except for a quick ice cream on the way to the entrance. We couldn’t resist.

There are a few pathways that take you up to the complex along the way to the main one. Keep following the monk signs paying attention to the distance left. There is one entrance with a monk sign right beside, pointing such that you would think to start there. But if you look at the distance remaining you’ll notice there is still a bit more to go. If you go up one of the earlier paths you’ll miss the breathtaking view of the main hall, Konponchudo, at the top of the stone steps of the main entrance. (If that description was hard to follow, watch the accompanying episode. I think we do a good job showing where to begin your ascent.)

Konponchudo Hall is a beautiful structure and is the temple’s oldest building. It houses the eternal flame, which has been burning since the founding of this temple. Interestingly, the flame was brought from Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, and when that temple unfortunately burnt to the ground, and after it’s reconstruction, it’s eternal flame was relit from the flame in Yamadera. There is also a wooden carving of Buddha, and it’s customary to rub his belly which is believed to bring good luck.

Following the route past Konponchudo you will come to the main gate into the complex. At this point you have to pay ¥300 to continue up to see the rest. It was here that we were lucky to catch a quick glimpse of 3 monkeys. Fortunately we had enough time to get the camera recording and capture them.

I stated to feel the magic of this place. The main ascent begins here, and it takes you up the mountain side along a pathway through the forest. It is not dense, mainly large cedar trees. It’s a peaceful experience. The path is also lined most of the way up with stone lanterns, the odd little shrine, and what looked like tombstones.

After a short hike you’ll make your way to Niomon Gate which marks the start of the upper temple area of the complex. This is one of the temples newer structures, built in the 19th century, it houses two Nio. Nio are protectors of Buddha, and come in a pair, Agyo and Ungyo. Pretty much every gate in Japan will have fearsome looking statues of these two, their job to protect the grounds from evil.

The sights start to come at a quicker pace once past the gate. An easily identifiable building is the little red structure perched on the cliff. This is Nokyodo and was used for copying sutra. That statement doesn’t have the same impact through pictures as it does when standing beside Nokyodo and realizing just how small it is. I can’t imagine cramming myself in there and then having to write for hours.

Beside Nokyodo is Kaisando Hall which is dedicated to the temple’s founder, Jikaku Daishi. To the right of Kaisando Hall is a stairway which will take you up to Godaido Hall. This is the observation deck of the complex, and the building easiest to see from down below. The view back down over the little town and train station is beautiful. Definitely a great place for photos.

Heading back down, past Kaisando Hall, you’ll come to more steps to the last area to visit, the Okunoin area. Here you’ll find Daibutsuden Hall which houses a statue of Amida Buddha. Normally doors are open and you are able to view the statue from outside, but it was closed at the time of our visit. Turning around and looking from the direction you came will reveal a great view back down over the complex. At this point you have climbed the 1000 stone steps of Yamadera and reached it’s spiritual heart.

From here we headed back down, following the same path. Heading down was faster, as we weren’t stopping to take in the sights as we did on the way up. Also, hunger was starting to set in. Our ice creams had been burnt off on the way up.

We had a specific place in mind for lunch. It was recommended to us by one of the concierge at the hotel. Enzou, a cute little soba noodle shop where they make their own soba from scratch daily. It was the best soba in Yamadera by his assessment, and while we didn’t sample all the soba restaurants to corroborate, it was very good. We ordered soba sets which included soba noodles in a warm broth, accompanied with tempura. It really hit the spot after all that climbing. I should point out that soba is a specialty of Yamagate prefecture.

Full and satisfied we walked back the short few steps to the train station. Conveniently Enzou is pretty much right out front of the station. It was a quiet trip back, we were both feeling a little sleepy. In fact, someone (yes, it was Nicole) managed to nap pretty much the whole trip home. The ability to sleep anywhere is her super power.

We had a bit of time before we would have to hunt out dinner, so we decided to spend a few hours exploring Sendai station and the adjoining shopping centres. Christmas was in full effect and it was really nice to start to get into the spirit. There is such a wealth of shops and restaurants at the Station. It was hard to pass up on some of the food, in particular a place making fresh gyoza was so tempting!

I had my fill of window shopping so I left Nicole to continue her exploring while I headed back to the hotel. I had intended to go to the lounge and relax, but as I walked into our room I realized just how much our stuff had exploded. Seeing as we were leaving Sendai the following morning, I took some time to get everything sorted. I always prefer to be all packed the night before so I can relax the following morning.

Eventually Nicole returned and we were eager to head out for dinner. Maybe eager is a strong word for my willingness to head out, I was really tired by this point. But it was our last night in Sendai, and another Lawson in-room dinner wasn’t all that appealing.

We headed out to Kokubuncho Street in search of food. It was the place to be, Tohoku’s biggest entertainment district. We had a place in mind, we scouted it the day before. Unfortunately it was packed and we would have to come up with a plan b, which wasn’t all that difficult. We found a little place which did skewers cooked over charcoal, and as luck would have it, they had a spot available. Luck ran out quickly when I realized my wallet and cash was in my other jacket. Doh!! Determined to eat real food, we made the round trip back to the hotel as quickly as we could, and eventually we were sitting down, beer in hand, and a constant supply of skewered meats delivered to our table. We had a good variety, our favourites were the grilled beef tongue, a Sendai specialty, and cheese cubes wrapped in fatty pork. It was a spectacular meal!

This day was an awesome adventure, and one of our favourite days on the trip. The Yamadera temple complex is a peaceful and beautiful place to visit, a must if you are ever in the area. And dinner, minus the wallet mishap, was excellent; great food and a fun lively environment.


There were several locations featured in this episode

  • Yamadera Station – A cute little station with a single open platform from which you can see the temple complex up on the mountain side.
  • Ice Cream Shop – A soba restaurant which also had a wide variety of soft serve ice cream flavours.
  • Main Complex Entrance – This is the main entrance into the temple complex, and the one we suggest starting at.
  • Konponchudo – The magnificent main hall of the temple complex. Don’t forget to rub the Buddha for good luck! The rest of the route is easy and straightforward to follow from this point.
  • Enzou – The excellent soba restaurant where we had lunch. The meal did not disappoint and we would recommend it.
  • Sendai Train Station – The kind of station you would expect to find in a big city, lots of platforms and lots of shops and restaurants to explore.
  • Kokubuncho Street – The largest entertainment district in the Tohoku region. This is where we found the restaurant for dinner, and unfortunately we cannot locate the exact location. But make your way to this point and the options are endless!

Thanks for watching/reading!

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