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May 27, 2014 - Road Trip: Yamadera, Yamagata
The last of 4 parts, finishing up with the main goal of the entire trip, Yamadera in Yamagata.
Yamadera (literally "mountain temple") is actually named Risshaku-ji, and was founded in 860AD by Ennin as a branch temple of Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto. It enshrines Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha Bhaisajyaguru) as the principal deity of the main temple, among others.
There are several parking areas around the temple. We chose the first we came to because of its many cherry trees, but there are closer ones if you keep driving through the town.
I can't remember how much parking was, but it usually isn't more than 500 yen. From the parking lot it is about a 10 minute leisurely walk to the main entrance and temple.
There are plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants in the area to grab a snack, meal, or souvenir. We waited until coming down to buy anything other than some drinks for the climb.
Yamadera is one temple with a series of what I would consider smaller ones all the way up. I think you can get calligraphy at every one of them, but that is a bit too much for me, so I just got calligraphy at the very bottom and very top temples.
Before you climb, grab a Chikara Konnyaku, said to give you power ("chikara"). I find this funny, because konnyaku is a food that has the least amount of anything in it. A guy died a few years ago from an all-konnyaku diet of malnutrition! I've learned to just go with these things. We bought some, and enjoyed!
Basho, a famous haiku poet, is said to have enjoyed Yamadera often, and composed several haiku in the area. One of his most famous is:
(Shizukasaya - Iwa ni Shimiiru - Semi no Koe)
There are several translations of this. The basic one is "Silence - permeating the rocks - the cry of cicadas." Indeed, the sound of cicadas at Yamadera is considered one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan. If you're interested in learning more about his haiku, I found this site to be a great read: http://haikutopics.blogspot.jp/2006/04/silence.html Summer is when you can hear the cicadas; maybe I'll go back then for their sound! For the most part though, all I heard while climbing was my own labored breathing!
And for those interested in Basho, close to the temple is the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum. We didn't go, but maybe another time. I have no idea who the other guy is.
The stairs up to the top aren't particularly steep in most places, but there are a lot of them! If you are reasonably in shape (I'm not), you'll probably be out of breath at the top; I was dying, but there are plenty of benches to rest, and things to see at each temple to break it up a bit.
In late spring/rainy season, this area is rife with hydrangea (ajisai). In sumer, the deep green of the mountains and call of the cicadas lulls you into a trance. In fall, the fall colors (kouyou) of the mountains give stunning contrast. In winter, a sprinkling of snow gives it a solitary look and peaceful feel.
As usual, I don't go at any of these times, because I have poor planning skills. Sure the cherries are nice, but there aren't many at the top, and things are still brown from winter. Ahh well, I figure it gives me an excuse to go back at a nicer time.
You'd think looking through my posts that I am a huge ice cream lover.... I'm not, actually, but it is such a great way to try local flavors! Yamagata is famous for cherries, and its many cherry trees (not the sakura we normally think of, they are much bigger) were visible all the way up to the temple. Also, Yamagata is famous for "La France", or Western-style pears. They're named that way to distinguish them from nashi, Japanese pears, which I would say is a mix between the taste of a pear and texture of an apple. Although I love nashi, it was nice to eat a pear and pear-flavored drinks too!