Training at Yamagata’s Yama-dera Temple: 1,000 Step Climb to Rid Your Earthly Desires!
“Ah, tranquility! Penetrating the very rock, a cicada’s voice”
This is one of the many masterpieces left by Basho Matsuo (translation by Helen Craig McCullough), a representative haiku poet from around the 17th century Japan.
In late November, I visited Risshakuji Temple in Yamagata Prefecture, which is commonly referred to as “Yamadera (Mountain Temple)” and said to be the place where Basho created this famous poem. Here I will introduce to you about this temple in the mountain where you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of colored leaves.
The temple is said to have been founded by En’nin, the famous priest of the Tendai sect Buddhism, who received an imperial order from the 56th Emperor Seiwa in the 9th century (early Heian Period). In his book of travel literature, “The Narrow Road to the Interior (Okuno Hosomichi),” Basho says that he visited the temple during his trip.
I climbed the first stairway at the bottom of the mountain and came out onto the platform where there was Konponchudo Hall. The hall was reconstructed in 1356. About 60 percent of the construction material used for this hall is beech wood and the building is registered as a nationally important cultural property as Japan’s oldest beech wood building.
The area around here was scattered with deity statues for the spirits of aborted or miscarried children (mizuko jizo statues). Many of them were decorated with cloth carp streamers (koinobori) and pinwheels. There was something sad about the calm expressions of those statues.
I started out from the platform here onto the 1,000 step stairway and headed for Okunoin Hall, at which the temple approach terminates. As mentioned on the guide panel here, it is believed that you can renounce your earthly desires and approach the complete spiritual enlightenment of Buddhism by every step you climb up along the stairway.
But if you actually give it a try, you will soon realize how steep and hard the stairway is to climb. “It’s very tough!” “my legs hurt…” “I need a rest…” these were what came through my mind by each step I climbed and I felt like I was rather going opposite of any spiritual enlightenment. I guess I need just a bit more of spiritual training.
I saw even young males taking a break on the way along the steep stairway. But there is no need to rush. Let’s enjoy climbing up slowly while admiring the surrounding beautiful scenery.
Again around here, I saw many tombs and mizuko jizo statues along the way to the top. Many of the locals here believe that all the dead souls gather at the temple and seek for their spiritual anchor in the temple. It could well be the proof of the piety of such local believers that I could find no litter at all around the mountain.
Climbing 1,000 steps from the platform, I finally reached Okunoin Hall at the end of the sloped temple approach.
I could enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery with colored leaves from there. Surrounded by rich nature, you can come here anytime throughout the year and enjoy the scenic beauty of each season.
I visited the temple at dusk on a weekday when the stillness hung in the air as the night closed in. As I relaxed my breathing and listened carefully to the sounds of birds and rustling leaves, I could sense a truly soul soothing calmness grow gradually inside me.
The scenery you can enjoy here amidst the stillness after climbing up the 1,000 step stairway is exceptionally moving. The temple site becomes quite crowded with tourists on holidays, so it is recommended to visit here on a weekday.
Risshakuji Temple allows you to have a special spiritual training to renounce your earthly desires as well as enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery. Whenever you happen to be in Yamagata, consider a visit to the temple in the mountain!
Access: Take JR Senzan Line from Yamagata Station and get off at Yamadera Station (after about 20 Minute Ride). The temple is reachable in a 6 minute walk from the station. The number of train service is relatively limited, so it is recommended to check in advance. MAP
The admission to Okunoin Hall costs 300 yen for adults, 200 yen for children of elementary school age and 100 yen for infants aged 4 and older.
The area around the temple is spotted with souvenir shops and restaurants serving boiled taro (imoni), the specialty cuisine of Yamagata, so you can enjoy strolling around even after you come down from the mountain.