Shortly after a warm welcome into 2018, JR Vacation reached a new milestone! We embarked on our first winter hike at Yamadera! It was an exhilarating experience, as well as one of the most memorable highlights of our recent Tohoku winter trip.
A little background about Yamadera:
Located northeast of Yamagata City, Yamadera (literally translated as “Mountain Temple” in Japanese) is a Buddhist temple under the Tendai Sect. Do note that the official name of Yamadera is actually “Risshakuji” and this official name is used in signages that you see during your hike. Yamadera was founded thousands years ago in 860 by Priest Jikaku Daishi. Priest Jikaku Daishi was one of Japan’s most respected Buddhist priests during the early Heian Period, ruled by Emperor Seiwa. In the late 1600s, famous poet Basho visited Yamadera and composed a haiku (Japanese poetry) depicting on the peace and tranquility of his surroundings.
Today, Yamadera is a designated national historic site and place of scenic beauty. It is also a favorite hiking venue in the Tohoku region with a challenging hiking route consisting of steep 1,015-step stonepath through the mountains.
To reach Yamadera, just take the JR Senzan Line that connects to Yamagata City and Sendai, and alight at JR Yamadera Station. In fact, this easy accessibility makes Yamadera a favorite visiting option for travelers who are travelling within both cities. Fear not, if you have heavy luggage. You can store them easily at lockers located in JR Yamadera Station.
A majestic view of a mountainous hike to Yamadera lies before you from the moment you alight on the train platform.
Lockers located at JR Yamadera Station. Just a side note: the station is managed by a fun-loving Station Master who visited Singapore 5 times and speaks great English!
Right outside the station, you will see a huge signage with the sightseeing information map. It depicts the sightseeing spots and three hiking courses that you can undertake.
- Visiting Risshakuji Temple Course (estimated hiking time: 130 minutes)
- Minenoura Course (estimated hiking time: 130 minutes)
- Bakuchiiwa Rock (Ice Hil) Course (estimated hiking time: 90 minutes).
We decided to select the Risshakuji Temple Course, which covers 14 sightseeing spots along the way.
It is an easy 10 minutes walk to the base of the mountain. We passed by shops and small eateries selling souvenirs and food. We even saw a shop with a banner indicating their free service to store luggage. We presumed there must be a lot of hikers during peak seasons like spring and autumn, though there is absolutely no crowd during winter.
View of the Tachiyagawa river that has frozen in the cold winter.
Finally, we reached the commencement point of the “Visiting Risshakuji Temple Course” hike – where the counting of 1,015 steps begins.
The steepness of steps was manageable but conquering the slippery surface was challenging as the melting snow froze and formed a thin layer of ice. So, somehow you will feel as if you were walking on ice. It helps that there are handrails available for additional support.
We reached the first sightseeing spot – Konponchudo Hall. This is also Yamadera’s main Temple and oldest hall. The hall stores Buddhist statues and a sacred flame that is said to have been burning for the past 1000 years since its foundation!
You can visit a memorial tower of Emperor Seiwa (the tower is also the oldest stone tower in the mountain) and admire the statue of Basho and his famous haiku within the temple grounds during your hike.
“Omikuji” – blessing lots that you can draw to predict your luck in various areas such as health, business, marriage etc or auspicious decorative items for your home. Just drop the required amount into the collection boxes.
The Bell of Happiness. It is believed that you will be granted 2 wishes after ringing the bell.
The Sanmon Gate – where the ascending begins. Entrance fees apply: 300 yen for adults, 200 yen for high school students and 100 yen for elementary students above 4 years old. I was actually a little confused if the 1,015 steps starts from here or earlier? Whatever. Just proceed.
Right after the Sanmon Gate is a small sheltered place with a little stall of souvenirs such as omamori (protective charms/amulets), incense sticks and pictorial book and postcards. Another corner lies a shelf of snow boots that are free for rental! Thoroughly impressed with such nice consideration. We decided to rent the snow boots for safer hike ahead and for a peace of mind.
What followed were trails of captivating winter forest views. There is always something magical about winter beauty. Just a coat of white snow instantly transforms the surroundings into an alluring wonderland. There were many Buddhist monuments along the way; perhaps more were hidden under the snow.
As we ascended further, the steps became increasingly slippery and dangerous. I wish I have a bottle of sand or grit that I can sprinkle on the path or a hiking pole! Eventually, we figured the formula: Be patient. Persevere and stay focused. Small tiny steps at a time. Walk sideways or try to walk around the icy areas. Follow previous footprint marks left on the path. Go slow but steady. Stay mindful. Enjoy the peaceful cold air in winter forest. Enjoy the process.
Despite the winter cold, we were also feeling warmer along the way due to the intense exercise.
Finally, we reached Godaido Hall – the observation deck over a cliff that offers that best highest viewing point! The views were so spectacular and rewarding that you will instantly forget the hiking stress and pain from aching feet! Indeed, enjoying the process makes the results sweeter!
After a short rest, we decided to start our descend. We commenced our hike too late in the afternoon and were concerned to reach the foot of the mountain before dark as the day is short during winter. It’s a pity that we could not stay longer or explore other sightseeing spots nearby such as the Daibutsuden Hall which houses a large statue of Amida Buddha.
We felt it was even more challenging and dangerous to descend as you could stumble down the steps once you lose your footing. Again, we had to apply our own mental formula: Be patient. Persevere and stay focused. Small tiny steps at a time. Walk sideways or try to walk around the icy areas. Follow previous footprint marks left on the path. Go slow but steady. Stay mindful. Enjoy the peaceful cold air in winter forest. Enjoy the process.
During some parts of the descend, it is actually easier to have some fun and slide down the snowy path than to take the steps.
The last flight of descending steps to the foot of the mountain!
Finally, we reached the mountain base! We did it! Yeah!!!
In conclusion, we have mixed feelings about a winter hike. It is with no doubt absolutely beautiful and satisfying, it is also stressful and extremely dangerous especially for the elderly and young ones. We have witnessed falls and slips by other hikers along the way. (Thank god, we did not suffer from any!) As such, do ensure you are mentally and physically fit, as well as well-attired and equipped. As long as you are well-prepared, a winter hike to Yamadera will bring you on an exciting journey that is rewarded with exceptional stunning sceneries and gorgeous photos.
JR Vacation recommends:
- Plan and manage your time. During winter, do expect to take more time for the hike since you have to be extra cautious and can only afford tiny steps slowly. The day is short during winter. We recommend to start your hike early.
- Be properly attired. Full winter wear complete with cap (protect from falling snow from trees), scarf and gloves (protect your hands from the icy cold handrails) are required. Appropriate footwear is especially important. You may want to add shoe grips or ice cleats to your shoes. Do rent their winter snow boots if required – it’s free.
- Consider hike-aiding equipment such as using a hiking pole (with ice pick) to maintain a steady foothold on the ground. I think it’s also a great idea to bring a small container of sand or grit to sprinkle on slippery surfaces along the hike. Do hold on to all available railings along the way.
- Do not carry heavy bags that will tire you out or make you lose your balance. You can store them in the lockers at JR Yamadera station.
- Just for your information, there is no toilet along the hiking path.
- Finally, follow JR Vacation’s formula: Be patient. Persevere and stay focused. Small tiny steps at a time. Walk sideways or try to walk around the icy areas. Follow previous footprint marks left on the path. Go slow but steady. Stay mindful. Enjoy the peaceful cold air in winter forest. Enjoy the process.
Biding farewell to Yamadera with a beautiful sunset.