Looking for a day hike with views that will take your breath away? Yamadera (literally ‘Mountain Temple’ 山寺) is a stunning set of small temples founded nearly 1200 years ago built into a mountain-side, at the top of a tripping thousand step trail lined with giant cedar trees, glowing candles and miniature altars. A stark contrast to Japanese city life, this small hike will leave you feeling refreshed and inspired!
Only a twenty minute train-ride from Yamagata City on the JR Senzan Line, this is a beautiful and scenic area laden with poetry, history and religion.
On the train from Yamagata, we took a seat on a rickety little train that felt like it was winding us back through time as we rolled through fields and farms and into a valley enveloped by the classic jagged and pointed mountaintops you see in Japanese paintings. Once at Yamadera station, there were no automated ticket barriers like the bustling city-centers of Japan – instead, an elderly man politely collected our ticket and wished us a good day.
In front of us loomed Houshuu Mountain, atop which Yamadera charmingly clings. A short walk over a bridge and through a little village led us to the base of the mountain, where a small charge of 300 yen started us on our hike through the Ghibli-esque forest to the temples and wooden viewing platforms.
We soon understood why monks so many years ago chose this place! Here, the creaking of the cedars year-round and the screeching of the summertime cicadas nestled into the holey rock faces inspired the famous 17th century poet Basho to write: ‘Ah this silence / Sinking into the rocks / Voice of Cicada’.
Along the way, we also saw trees glinting in the sun – their bark filled with 1 yen coins left by other visitors. Add one yourself if you go, if you have a coin to spare! It is also good luck to spin the wheels on the wooden planks propped up against some of the buildings and trees as you walk past. See if you can also spot the naturally formed giant buddha shape in a boulder that is also revered by the Tendai monks!
Once at the top, the view of the surrounding mountains, the small temples balanced precariously on the cliff tops, and the storybook-like train tracks snaking through the valley below made the thousand steps you took all the more worthwhile! Although the panorama extends the whole way up the mountain, a wooden viewing hut built at the very top has the best view and plenty of amazing photo opportunities.
On our way down, we looked out for a section of the path only 14cm across. This is where the Tendai monks pointedly put their feet on their way up towards the temples. There is a little sign next to it, but only in Japanese: stepping in their footsteps is also meant to bring you good fortune – every little helps!
Make sure to take lots of photos while you are up there – Yamadera’s views are truly next to none!
Some extra tips!
Make sure you bring some water with you, especially if it is a warm day – the hike is beautiful but steep! There are vending machines along the way but the first is not until about halfway up.
The train from Yama-dera station leaves only once an hour, so make sure you plan your hike accordingly!
There are small places to grab a bite to eat at the base of the mountain, but nothing at the top, so don’t start the trek on an empty stomach!
Although this hike is beautiful year-round, particularly good seasons are autumn (for the dramatic and vibrant colours of the leaves) and summer (when the forest is brilliant green and and the cicadas are singing in full force – one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan”!) Keep in mind, though, that these seasons are likely to be more crowded.
Price: 300 yen
Nearest station: Yama-dera station
|Address||〒999-3301 Yamagata Prefecture, Yamagata, Yamadera, ４４５６−１|
|Access||[map]〒999-3301 Yamagata Prefecture, Yamagata, Yamadera, ４４５６−１[/map]|
|Price Range||300 yen|