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Tohoku | Yamagata Prefecture

Yamadera

Yamadera is a temple built into a mountain and has a series of staircases with over 1000 steps combined.

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Yamadera

Yamadera (山寺) is a temple built into the side of the mountains in Yamagata Prefecture. It was founded under the Tendai Sect by Jikaku Daishi also known as Ennin in 860. Under the Tendai Sect the official name of the temple is Risshakuji. The popular name Yamadera literally translates to mountain temple. Yamadera is a branch of Enryakuji in Otsu, which overlooks Kyoto. The temple is split between the upper and lower sections, which both require a small fee. In order to reach the upper Yamadera area you must climb 1,015 stone steps. The stone steps are meant to be a form of ascetic training through physical means where one will have a moment of clarity away from the desires of the world. Large cedar and beech trees surround the steps providing a scenic route of peace.

Depending on the travel season you will also hear the echoes of cicada in the forest. There are also small temples scattered around the path along with various statues and engravings. Statues of Matsuo Basho and his apprentice Sora are immortalized to remind us of the journey they made when exploring the deep north. One of Basho’s famous haiku was written about Yamadera which goes, “Ah this silence, sinking into the rocks, voice of cicada.” The original Japanese text is read as “shizukesa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe” (静けさや岩に しみ入る蝉の声). Near the top of the route is a massive rock formation called Mida Hora. It is shaped like Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light. Once you reach the grounds of Yamadera, the main building, Konponchudo Hall, is noted for being built out of beech wood, which is rare to use as building material.

It is said that inside the main temple is a flame that has never been extinguish since its founding. The ritual fires are said to have been brought from Enryakuji to Yamadera. Even though the temple was founded in 860, Konponchudo Hall was built in the 14th century by Shiba Kaneyori, the former lord of Yamagata Castle. In the early 16th century much of Yamadera was destroyed in the conflict between local clans. The buildings were later rebuilt by a monk named Enkai. During the Edo period the temple thrived as it possessed a sizable fief. The Kaisando Hall is known as the founder’s building, which means it is a structure dedicated to the founder of a temple. It is usually found in most Buddhist monastery and in the Yamadera Jikaku Daishi is displayed in the building. The structure is deemed an Important Cultural Building along with Nokyodo, which is next to Kaisando Hall. The Nokyodo was used as a place to copy sutra.