Yamadera (山寺) is a mountaintop temple complex in the countryside northeast of Yamagata City. The temple, whose official name is Risshaku-ji, was designated both a National Place of Scenic Beauty and a National Historic Site.
The temple complex of Yamadera was founded by priest Jikaku Daishi (Ennin) over 1150 years ago in 860 as an outpost of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. The temple is considered a branch of Enryaku-ji, a large temple on Mt Hiei in the northeastern part of Kyoto. Yamadera is particularly noted for having a sacred flame from Enryaku-ji that has allegedly remained lit for over a millennium. Although many of the original temple buildings were destroyed in the conflicts of the 1500s, the complex was rebuilt and remained an active religious community.
While many travelers journey to Yamadera every year, one of the most noted visitors was the poet Matsuo Basho, who stopped here in the late 1600s as part of his explorations of northern Japan. He composed one of his most well-known haiku here and a statue of the writer, inscribed with the famous verse, sits in the lower grounds of the complex.
Among the most famous of Yamadera’s numerous buildings is the Godaido, a small covered viewing platform that was built as a place for meditation. Today, it offers some of the site’s most impressive vistas, with sweeping views down into the valley and over the forested hills. The Konpen Chudo, or the temple’s main hall, is another popular stop, particularly for pilgrims. Many make offerings of burning incense here to pray for continued safe journeys.
Reaching the higher temple buildings themselves requires a climb of nearly 1000 steps. The trail climbs through a mossy forest and the path is flanked by numerous stone lanterns. Visitors should prepare for a variety of weather; it’s advisable to bring plenty of water in the hot summer months and wear non-slip shoes on wet days.
There is plenty to occupy visitors at the base of the temple as well. A bustling street of shops and restaurants caters to travelers, offering everything from hand-carved kokeshi dolls to the local soba and pickled cherries (Yamagata is known for the red fruits).
Yamadera is served by its own self-named train station, which is located on the JR Senzan line that connects Yamagata City and Sendai.