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Yamadera and Zao Onsen

A temple complex built into the mountains of Yamagata, and a mountain hot-spring


The drive to Yamadera, from my apartment in Nagai, took about 2 hours to complete (when factoring in breaks - a straight shot may have only taken an hour and a half). We had to first get to the city of Yamagata, which required going up, over, and then down a mountain between Nagai and Yamagata. It was a pleasant drive with lovely forest, river and mountain views the whole way along. Then the road flattened out and Yamagata city appeared before us. As usual, the city gave me the feeling of being someplace very old, and at the curious borderline between rundown and full of life. Compared to Nagai Yamagata was certainly a large, happening city. But one really got the sense of Japan's aging population and its megacity-immigration crisis when wandering through a city like Yamagata.


Twenty minutes later however and we'd crossed through the city and were on the road that led from Yamagata to Sendai - probably the Tohoku region's most healthy and happening city. It was along that road that Yamadera stood. The train passing between the two cities even had a stop just next door to the parking lot we eventually parked the car and got out to explore the village at the foot of the mountain. Typical of tourist spots in this part of Japan, which were further out in the countryside (whether they qualified as the Inaka or not, I'm not sure, but I'd venture yes), there was a small and somewhat bustling village connected to the site. This included a selection of gift shops, trinket stores, ice cream shops, and of course, cafes and restaurants. The village at the foot of Yamadera was a particularly nice one, by my reckoning, with a large river running through the center and food shops all around.



Yamadera village bridge over the river
Yamadera village, bridge

Main street of the Yamadera village
Main street of the Yamadera village

River of Yamadera village
River of Yamadera village

Ice-cream shop in Yamadera village
Ice-cream shop in Yamadera village


We pass through the village and walked along the road a little bit until we got to one of the stairways that led to the first part of the Yamadera complex, the series of temples at the base of the mountain. These temples stretched from east to west, and while I am not sure what the significance of all of them is, the one at the eastern-most point where we climbed the stairs was clearly a temple dedicated to children, fertility, and miscarriage. The temple in front of us had a large Buddha statue with children crawling all over it. This happy scene was belied by an altar to the left of the temple, where hundreds of tiny, palm sized Buddhas stood. A sign explained that each of these represented a miscarried child, and prayers for that unborn's soul.



Stairway to the first set of temples at Yamadera
Stairway to the first set of temples at Yamadera

One of the temples at the foot of Yamadera
One of the temples at the foot of Yamadera

Hanging area for good-luck and wish prayers, Buddhist temple at Yamadera, Japan
Hanging area for good-luck and wish prayers

Temple incense basin
Temple incense basin

Temple at the foot of Yamadera
Temple at the foot of Yamadera

Buddha of fertility and children
Buddha of...fertility, I'm guessing. Maybe children

Shrine for miscarried children (the little Buddhas)
Shrine for miscarried children (the little Buddhas)

One of the esoteric Mandalas of Shingon Buddhism, depicting cosmic Buddhas
One of the esoteric Mandalas of Shingon Buddhism, depicting cosmic Buddhas

Shingon temple altar
Shingon temple altar


There was a monk sitting inside the temple, looking somewhere between peaceful and bored, and when we realized he gave Gashuin stamp's my friend approached him for one. I took the opportunity to ask if it was a Pure Land temple and he responded that no, it was Shingon. The monk looked like he didn't want to discuss the matter further, however, so I let the conversation drop. I briefly walked inside the interior of the temple, which was covered in tatami mat floors and had ornate paintings and mandalas on the walls, before continuing west along the path to where I knew the entryway to the main Yamadera complex was.


Along the way we passed by another smaller temple, some statues dedicated to historical figures (perhaps a poet? I'm not sure), the mausoleum of an emperor who'd requested to be buried at Yamadera, a wheel which represented the life cycle, and then finally a gate leading to a set of stairs which meandered up into the mountains. These were the "1001" stone steps of Yamadera, at the top of which was the famous temple complex. From experience, I knew the walk would only take about 20 minutes - it wasn't as bad as one might guess, after hearing the number "1001".


We paid our entry fee and then began our ascent. The stairs passed through the heart of a lush forest, and every few meters along the way was some carved stone, or Buddha statue, or stone lantern, or some other lovingly arranged centerpiece to catch the eye. The temple was, in the typical Japanese style, built into nature. It was hard to tell where the temple ended and nature began, as there was no clear and distinct boundary between the two. Moss patches covered the Buddhas. little creaks ran along the steps. Some of the carvings were built into the mountain itself. Probably, if asked, a local monk would have confirmed that the entire mountain and forest were considered sacred themselves. One certainly got that impression, at least.



stairway of Yamadera
stairway of Yamadera

Gravestones along the stairway of Yamadera
Gravestones along the stairway of Yamadera

More of the stairway of Yamadera
More of the stairway of Yamadera

Small altar along the stairway
Small altar along the stairway

Minor shrine along the stairway of Yamadera, Japan
Minor shrine along the stairway

Downward view of the stairway at Yamadera, Japan
Downward view of the stairway

Stone lanterns with candle in a glass bottle, Yamadera, Japan
Stone lanterns with candle in a glass bottle

Buddha statue at Yamadera
Buddha statue

 Faded Buddha at Yamadera
Smaller, more faded Buddha statue

Yamadera, Japan
Not honestly sure what this was

ceremonial wooden planks at Yamadera, Japan
These wooden planks confused me even more

Monetary offering at Yamadera, Japan
There were monetary offerings just sitting around the stairway. Forbidden pizza money...


The stairs climbed up and up, and around, swarms of visitors accompanied us along the climb. Most were Japanese, though, there was a healthy representation of foreigners as well. The site was apparently attractive to a diverse demographic of visitors. After a while, we came to the first structure - a massive wooden gate housing the thunder and lightning Kami on its two sides, within its walls. We passed through the austere looking gate. On the other side, the temple complex came into view clearly, at least half a dozen structures. Only a few steps remained between us and them.



Wooden gate at the entryway to the temple complex of Yamadera
Wooden gate at the entryway to the temple complex

Temple guardians Yamadera
Guardians above the gate

thunder and lightning kami, Yamadera
The thunder (or lightning?) kami


The furthest temple, built closest to the cliff's edge, was a small red structure set strikingly against the background of the mountains, plain and forest. This was the most photographed part of the temple, and naturally, I took my chance to snap a few photos as well. Near to it was a small temple building and above it, a lookout point which we could come back to after exploring the compound. Across from it, build into the mountain's side, were a series of caves and smaller wooden structures with no clear path to them - clearly, these had once functioned as meditation spots and ascetic retreats. But today, they seemed abandoned, and the paths that led to them were blocked off. So for now, we turned deeper into the mountain to explore the buildings along the back of the compound.


The temples here were a very interesting flavor. It was difficult to place their character. Some of them look like ancient, ceremonial buildings nobody had lived in in centuries. Others however looked almost like a village home, with slippers outfront and a small vegetable garden in the back. One of the temples had a gift shop and rest stop out front, where you could buy water and talismans. The complex seemed to be doing everything at once - acting as a home, a religious site, and a tourist site.




ascetic retreat caves and wooden shack Yamadera
meditation caves and wooden shack

View of the temples with mountains in the background Yamadera, Japan
View of the temples with mountains in the background

Minor temple entrance Yamadera
Minor temple entrance. This one felt like a home

beads at temple complex, Yamdera
I think these beads represent the life-cycle, each bead being a year of one's life

Gift shop at Yamadera
Gift shop at the temples

Prayer beads, Yamadera
Prayer beads made of different type of wood

Cave dwellings (monk retreats) at Yamadera
Another photo of the cave-dwellings


At the back of the compound was a temple with some of the most striking features, including a massive steel bell with intricately carved dragons and other creatures running along its base. There are also appeared to be a cemetary in the back, near the altar for worship. We paid our respects then rested for a bit, simply enjoying the spiritual atmosphere. When we'd drunk our fill, we wandered slowly back towards the temples near the front of the mountain. Turning right near the famous red structure, we made the short climb of a few steps toward the lookout pount. Below it, I noticed a patch of rock with many holes in it. It seemed people had got into the habit of tossing monetary offerings (coins) into these holes. Somewhat amused by the idea, I tossed a few coins in as well then climbed the rest of the way to the wooden lookout.


Here, you could see the entire valley below in full, as well as the surrounding mountains. It was a striking view. I wondered how it must have looked like in the different seasons - probably in autumn, summer, and winter, the views were all very different. Probably I would't be able to see the complex in all its seasons. But, my imagination did a good job filling in the blanks for me.



Temple buildings Yamadera
Temple buildings at the back of the complex

steel lantern Yamadera
The steel lantern with intricate carvings

Dragon carved in steel, Yamadera
Steel dragon carving. Notice the monkeys below, holding up the pillar?

graves Yamadera
Grave sites, I believe

temple, Yamadera
larger view of the temple



Little stone piles with coins scattered around them, Yamadera
Little stone piles with coins scattered around them

View from Yamadera
View from the lookout point

After that, there was not much left to do but take a few pictures and make the descent downwards again. As one of my friends later observed (complained), Japanese temples never really felt like a place you could sit at length, hang out, and meditate or engage in prayer. They were usually places to come, clap a few times, bow, and then leave. Or at least, that was the dimension of the temples that was opened up to us foreigners and visitors. To poke our heads around a bit and enjoy the atmosphere. But, not to really be invited deep into the temple practice or its community. At the top of the mountain, I did not even see a single monk or priest - just odd hits here and there that they might exist.



Yamadera mountain temple complex
A wide-angle view of the complex

Yamadera and mountain views
A last photo of the red building and mountains

Yamadera temples
The first structure at the entry/exit


The climb down always went quicker than the climb up. It was a pleasant experience nonetheless. I saw a sign saying to beware of monkeys - luckily, none accosted us. Afer a few minutes we were back down mountain and out the front gate. It had been a short visit, but, all of us were happy. It was a very pleasant experience, and a beautiful temple compound. There wasn't anything to complain about.


There was a small restaurant built just over the river that I'd learned about the last time I was there, so, we decided to go there for lunch. The owner made a lovely selection of traditional soba dishes, soups, and fire-roasted mochi sets. We all had the tempura soba and ordered a few different types of mochi to try - the miso and the walnut mochis. The table we got was right up against the glass looking into the river, and made for an extremely peaceful and tranquil atmosphere. We enjoyed a few drinks, opened the window to let nature in, and when the food came, had a wonderful meal.



Yamadera soba shop
A view of the restaurant, from a distance


After that, we wandered a bit further into the village to visit a cafe that we could see on google maps. To my surprise, it turned out to be an exceptionally good one. The owner was a young Japanese man with tattoos and a beanie - he gave full hipster vibes, and as we were ordering, a number of other Japanese youths pulled their motorcycles into the nearby lot and wandered in for some coffee as well. It was a farcry from the usual, grandma and grandpa-filled Jazz bars I'd come to associate with Yamagata. Outside, there was some benches overlooking the river where we could sit and drink our coffees. In the river below, some more locals were fly flishing in full wetsuits, wading knee-deep into the water. It was really a perfect spring day, I mused to myself as I watched everyone around me going about their business and enjoyed the sound of the rushing water.



Small Buddha statue and stuffed animal, Yamadera, Japan
The sweetest Buddha


It was time to go home, it seemed. But, there was one more stop I wanted my friends to see before we finished. So we took a detour and, after another forty minutes driving, wandered to Zao Onsen - a famous Onsen and Ski resort in the mountains between Yamagata and Nanyo. Getting there was a bit of a tricky, winding mountain road drive. But once at the top, it was all worth it. There awaited us another of these little, Japanese-style rural tourist villages with a selection of cafes, restaurants, and gift shops. But, the whole town was also filled to the brim with spas and spa-hotels (called Ryokan). There was also several river running through the town that were all hot-spring water. One could see the steam rising from them, and smell the rotten-egg like smell of sulfur in the air. These were real hot springs - not artificial ones like in most of the country.


To my immense dissappointment, however, the main hot spring that Zao was famous for was closed that day for renovations. We could only park in the parking lot and wander over the bridge to see the hot springs from above. The two main stone baths, place strategically right next to the running river so that one felt like you were really "in" the river as you bathed, were completely drained and empty. We clearly would not have the chance to bathe in the normally turquoise waters that evening.


As a consolation prize, I deposited my friends at another one of the many nearby hot springs (this one had the colored water but was not set next to the river. So, half of the experience, at least). I myself wandered back into town, got a cup of tea from a cafe I liked there, then let my foot rest in one of the dozen or so free foot-baths that sprinkled the landscape of the town. Here, the water was just deep enough to bathe your feet in, and little wooden benches made it easy to sit as you took a little dip with your toes.


There was more to see at Zao onsen in winter, when the snow was thick. One could take the cable car ropeway up the mountain to see the Snow Monsters - trees so thickly blanketed in snow, they looked like some sort of snow demons. Or, one could enjoy one of the many ski slopes in the area. Zao Onsen was one of the countries most famous onsen, and in winter, there were buses that ran direct to the onsen all the way from Tokyo, so that city dwellers looking to refresh in nature could make the journey to Zao for the weekend. W e were there in spring, however, and spring wasn't Zao's season. So, when my friends finished with their baths an hour later, I turned around and picked them up. Together, we made the long drive home - only stopping briefly, along the way, to enjoy some conveyor belt sushi in the small town of Nanyo.



End.

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