The temple complex of Risshaku-ji, or YAMADERA (山寺) as it’s more popularly known, is one of Tōhoku’s most holy places. It was founded in 860 AD by a Zen priest of the Tendai sect and reached its peak in the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Today around forty temple buildings still stand scattered among the ancient cedars on a steep, rocky hillside. The temple lies close to Yamadera Station, which is on the JR Senzan line between Yamagata and Sendai.
From the station, cross the river and follow the road right, past shops selling walking sticks, snacks and souvenirs, to where you can see the temple roofs on the slopes of Hōju-san. Ignore the first two flights of steps to your left and take the third staircase up to the temple’s main hall, Kompon Chūdō. This impressive building, dating from 1356, shelters a flame brought from Enryaku-ji, the centre of Tendai Buddhism near Kyoto, 1100 years ago and which has supposedly been burning ever since – as you peer inside, it’s the hanging lantern on the left-hand side. Walking back west along the hillside, you pass a small shrine and a solemn statue of Bashō who, travelling before the days of coach parties, penned a characteristically pithy ode to Yamadera: “In the utter silence of a temple, a cicada’s voice alone penetrates the rocks.” He sits across from the modern Hihōkan, which houses a fine collection of temple treasures.
A few steps further on, San-mon marks the entrance to the mountain (daily 6am–6pm), from where over 1100 steps meander past moss-covered Jizō statues, lanterns and prayer wheels, and squeeze between looming rocks carved with prayers and pitted with caves. It takes about forty minutes to reach the highest temple, Okuno-in, where breathless pilgrims tie prayer papers around a mammoth lantern and light small bunches of incense sticks. Before setting off downhill, don’t miss the views over Yamadera from the terrace of Godai-dō, perched on the cliff-face just beyond the distinctive red Nōkyō-dō pavilion.
Yamadera village consists mainly of expensive ryokan and souvenir shops; some of the latter have steaming vats of konnyaku balls boiling outside which make for a good warming snack on a cold day. Trains run hourly to both Yamagata (¥230) and Sendai (¥820); however, if you need accommodation, Yamadera Pension (山寺ペンション) is the most attractive option. It’s in a half-timbered building right in front of the station, with a decent restaurant downstairs that specializes in handmade soba.