A visit to the temple complex of Risshaku-ji in Yamagata prefecture is a truly memorable experience. Popularly known as ‘Yamadera’ or ‘mountain temple’, as the name suggests, the cluster of around 40 sacred buildings are nestled into the mountains above a village of the same name. Yamadera was founded over a thousand years ago in 860 by a Zen priest from the Tendai sect, but reached its peak during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
The entrance to the temple complex is less than five minutes’ walk from Yamadera train station. Just head across the river and turn right. There are plenty of restaurants and shops to visit along the way. One Yamagata Prefecture speciality you are sure to spot is bubbling cauldrons of tama konnyaku – firm, jelly-like balls made from the root of the devil’s tongue plant – simmering in a soya sauce broth. These are served with a few dabs of karashi mustard and cost around 100 yen. At Yamadera they call them ‘chikara konnyaku’, or ‘power konnyaku’ as they are supposed to give you the energy you need to climb all of the 1,100 or so steps at Yamadera!
At the foot of the mountain Yamadera’s colourful main hall, Kompon Chudo, dates from 1356. It houses a flame brought here from Enryaku-ji near Kyoto (which is the centre of Tendai Buddhism) 1,100 years ago. It is said to have been burning ever since.
After visiting the hall the climb starts in earnest.
The highest temple Okuno-in is a popular spot for prayer and burning incense, and some of the best views can be found at Godai-do terrace, which clings to the edge of the cliff-face overlooking Yamadera village.
Yamadera is just under an hour by train from Sendai or 18 minutes from Yamagata City on the JR Senzan line, and the sweeping views of forested mountains and lush, green valleys along the journey are also spectacular.
By Celia Plender