Following the Yamagata Mountain Pilgrimage of One of Japan’s Greatest Poets

  • SPOT
  • The Mountain Temple has long been synonymous with haiku master Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉) and his immortal travel log, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道; The Narrow Road into the Deep North). Its very name evokes feelings of mystery and tranquility. Situated in the Yamagata (山形) region of the beautiful Tohoku (東北), Yamadera (山寺), meaning “mountain temple”, is everything you could hope for in a temple – peaceful, spiritual, mountainous, and eerie.


    yamadera history

    Author’s photo

    Yamadera’s formal name is the Risshakuji Temple (立石寺). Built in the 9th century and said to trace the footsteps of monk Ennin Tendaizashu (天台座主 円仁), the temple complex was instigated by the Buddhist priest Jikaku Daishi (慈覚大師) in response to an edict by the Heian (平安) Emperor Seiwa (清和天皇). It soon became a place of holy mediation with more than 300 monks living there. Feudal war led to its decline in the 14th century, but after peace was restored under Tokugawa (徳川), the temple again became a cultural force.

    The temple is currently one of the most important heritage sites in Japan. There are still more than 40 buildings scattered throughout the area, some on the lower levels and others near the mountain tops, all linked by a 1015 stone footpath lined with ancient carvings and Buddha statues.

    Matsuo Basho

    Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s most famous Edo (江戸) poets, visited here in 1689 and wrote about it in his travel log, Oku no Hosomichi. Oku no Hosomichi highlights the epic journey he and his assistant Sora (曾良) made walking through Tohoku. Basho walked a distance of 2400km in 150 days, wearing only traditional clothing, with little to no “technological” help. A truly amazing effort, made more so by the fact that Basho was, at that stage, not a young man.

    Basho was so inspired by Yamadera that he wrote several haikus, including his most famous, “Shizukasa ya iwa ni shimiiru, semi no koe”. There have been a few interpretations of the overall meaning of this verse, but it translates roughly to “Silence, penetrating into rocks, the cry of the cicada”.

    I felt the same wonder when I visited Yamadera, and wrote this small verse:

    On this mountain,
    I pause to watch,
    Seasons changing.

    Some historians have said that Basho was both a poet and a spy with military training, hence he had the fitness to undertake such a journey. They argue that he was given free passage by Tokugawa to check on Date, the Feudal Lord of Sendai (仙台), and others in the north regions.

    The Walk

    yamadera walk

    Author’s photo

    Accessing Yamadera is easy from Yamagata City or Sendai. A rapid express links the two cities together. From Yamadera Station (山寺駅), you cross a small bridge and are immediately greeted by Yamadera Mountain and a series of streets with a variety of food and gifts for sale, including sake. The Tachiyagawa (立谷川) runs through the town and is an amazing place to explore and take photographs.

    The first site on the Yamadera trail is the Konpon Chudo Temple (根本中堂) and its gardens. Originally built in Heian times, it was destroyed in the 14th century. The current structure was built in 1356, and about 60% of the building is made from beech wood. The inner sanctum houses many cultural carvings as well as a sacred flame that has been alight since Yamadera’s inception. The most interesting sight is the big wooden Hotei (布袋; the god of abundance and happiness) that welcomes you near the offertory box.

    Following the pathway towards the legendary 1015 stone steps, you pass the memorial pagoda of Emperor Seiwa and well as statues of Basho and Sora. A huge sanmon gate (山門) signifies the entrance into the mountain. Past this point, you enter some of the most natural and spiritual stretches. Lined with Buddha carvings and ancient cedar, each step up the mountain is said to erode desire, leaving you pure when with reach the summit.

    While the path can be steep, the cedar forest has its own natural air-conditioning system that cools you down. There are also several “rest” areas, with views of the forest as well as lesser shrines where you can pause for prayer and reflection. On my way up, I passed many people in hiking gear. However, Basho did not need such equipment, and I was brave enough to do the same, walking the entire trial in hakama (袴; a traditional Japanese robe).

    The trail’s halfway point is marked by a niomon gate (仁王門), with wonderful carvings, mountain views, and two large guardians protecting the temple from evil spirits. Past this point, the path diverges, leading to several sub-temples. There were originally 12 such places, but now there are only four. Each temple has its own deity, good luck charms and goshuin stamp (御朱印).

    You can spend hours looking around the various structures. Again, I felt compelled to put pen to paper and wrote:

    Where the two winds meet,
    I see a temple,
    Above the clouds.

    The Nokyo-do is one of the oldest buildings in Yamadera and is the burial site of Jikaku Daishi, the founder of Yamadera. Both the Nokyo and Godai-do (五大堂) command wonderful views of the mountain and the village below, and are the images commonly seen in Yamadera advertising.

    Reaching the Summit


    Author’s photo

    The final temple in the complex is the Okunoin (奥之院), said to house the spirit of the mountain and the golden Amida Narimasu.

    Yet Yamadera is not just poems and mountain stillness. It is also a feature of manga, thanks to the film March of Lion (三月のライオン), based on the series March Comes in Like a Lion. The film, about a teenage shogi (将棋; Japanese chess-like game) player, features Yamadera’s 1015 stone path, Gyokei Kinenden (行啓記念殿), which was originally built as a lodging of Emperor Taisho (大正天皇), and the Okunoin.

    Yamadera truly is an amazing blend of forest and temple. With its ancient history, stone steps, and Buddha statues, it is a place for meditation, reflection, and wonder. The mountain air and cedar reminds you of a Japan long forgotten. A true pilgrimage, you can experience how Basho felt walking its pathways, and understand why he wrote those famous words:

    Penetrating into rocks,
    The cry of the cicada.”

    Yamadera website

    *Featured Image: Author’s photo

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