On 25th October 2014, hubby and I visited Yamadera Temple located in Yamagata City of Yamagata prefecture. We went there by our car. The temple is located about 190 kilometers south-southeast of our home in Yurihonjo City and we had to drive for about 3 hours on an expressway and a national highway to reach the temple. We were surrounded by colorful autumn foliage all the way up to the temple. The expressway and the national highway were so scenic and beautiful due to the fabulous autumn colors all around. We stopped at a couple of parking areas along the way to click photos of the autumn foliage. Interestingly at the second parking area, located somewhere midway between Yurihonjo and Yamadera Temple, we saw a unique combination of several snow covered mountains along with a couple of autumn foliage covered mountains. It was a wonderful experience to see right in front of us the snow covered mountains named Yudonosan (marked as 1), Ubagatake (2), Gassan (3), Takahiyama (5), and Kuromoriyama (6) in the far background and the mountains named Yatsudateyama (4) and Fumiyozan (7) covered with glorious autumn foliage in the foreground. After enjoying the marvelous views, we continued on our way to Yamadera Temple and reached a car parking area near the temple. We parked our car and started walking along a street leading to the temple.
Autumn foliage along the national highway
Yet more colored foliage along the expressway
Autumn foliage covered mountains as viewed from the first parking area where we took rest
I am standing at the first parking area along with glorious autumn colors in the background
Autumn colors near the second parking area where we took rest
Snow covered Mounts Yudonosan (marked as 1), Ubagatake (2), and Gassan (3) in the far background and Mount Yatsudateyama (4) covered with autumn foliage in the foreground as viewed from the second parking area
Snow covered Mounts Takahiyama (5) and Kuromoriyama (6) in the far background and Mounts Yatsudateyama (4) and Fumiyozan (7) covered with autumn foliage in the foreground
Yamadera Temple is a scenic old Buddhist temple of Tendai sect located in the mountains about 12 kilometers northeast of Yamagata City in Yamagata prefecture. The official name of the temple is Hojusan Risshakuji and it is known to be one of the most amazing temples of Japan. The temple complex has a vast area which extends from the base of Mount Hoshuyama to all the way high up its steep mountainside. Various buildings of the temple are built into and on rock ledges of this mountain. The temple was founded during Heian period in the year 860 AD by Buddhist priest Jikaku Daishi in response to the imperial edict of Emperor Seiwa. Although Jikaku Daishi erected many temples throughout Tohoku region, he put particular effort into the construction of Risshakuji Temple to make it exceptional, and established a seminary in the temple premises. The temple developed into the major Heian period temple for rural Dewa province. During Kamakura period, the temple became the center of Tohoku Buddhist culture when more than 300 monks and 1000 devotees resided at the top and bottom of Mount Hoshuyama. During the feudal Ashikaga Muromachi period (1336-1573), the temple buildings and the mountain were destroyed and temporarily fell into decline. For example, during a war in the early 14th century this temple was destroyed by a fire but was rebuilt in 1356. In 1521, most of the buildings of the temple were again razed by a fire during yet another war but were restored in 1543. During Edo period, the temple again became a powerful institution and possessed a fief of 1420 Koku, and officially received about 213000 kilograms of rice yearly from the Shogunate. The temple once again prospered and became a center for religious culture. In 1689 the famous poet Matsuo Basho visited the temple and composed a short Haiku poem about the stillness and silence of the area. Presently the temple complex has an area of about 1155000 square meters consisting of cliffs and mountains with more than 40 temple buildings distributed throughout. The temple complex stretches high up into the rocky mountain with many small buildings scattered all over the mountain. In fact many buildings are precariously located along a dangerous cliff and some buildings are located right on the top of the cliff. So visitors have to climb a total of 1015 narrow steps starting from the foot of the mountain, and continue among huge trees in the mountain forest to reach the buildings located at the top. The temple has been designated as a place of scenic beauty and historic site.
While walking towards the entrance of Yamadera Risshakuji Temple, we followed a street located adjacent to the mountain. This street is surrounded on either side with several shops selling walking sticks, snacks, and souvenirs. While walking, to our left we saw a wooden monument with ‘Oku no Hosomichi Risshakuji’ inscribed on it. We ignored the first two flights of staircases to our left and after about 5 minutes of walking we reached the third staircase. We climbed about 40 stone steps of this staircase and reached the front of the Main Hall of the temple located near the base of the mountain.
I am standing next to a wooden monument with ‘Oku no Hosomichi Risshakuji’ inscribed on it
I am standing next to a stone monument located near the base of the third staircase that leads to the Main Hall of the temple
Hubby climbing up the steps
The Main Hall of Yamadera Risshakuji Temple complex is a large building known as Konpon Chudo. The temple complex starts with this Main Hall and is located at the base of the mountain. Konpon Chudo has been designated as an important cultural property. The original building was built during Heian period in the year 860 when the temple was founded by Jikaku Daishi. Over history, the temple Main Hall building was destroyed and rebuilt several times. During a war in the early 14th century the Main Hall was destroyed by a fire but was reconstructed in 1356 by Shiba Kaneyori, the first lord of Yamagata Castle. The present Konpon Chudo building exists from that time and is a Muromachi period structure. It is a one story wooden building constructed in Irimoya Zukuri architectural style with a hip-gabled roof and Goken Shimen structure. Goken Shimen structure means the building is Goken (about 9.09 meters) in east-west direction by Niken (about 3.64 meters) in north-south direction, and surrounded by eaves in all directions. About 60% of the building is made out of beech wood, which is rare as a building material. The hall is considered to be the oldest beech wood structure in Japan. The style and format of Tendai sect Buddhist seminary building is very well preserved in the hall structure. The principal image enshrined inside the hall is a hidden seated wooden statue of Yakushi Nyorai said to have been hand carved by Jikaku Daishi himself. This main statue is flanked by standing statues of attendants Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu as well as twelve heavenly warrior generals Juunishi Ten. Statues of Monju Bosatsu and Bishamonten are also enshrined inside the hall. Also inside this hall a sacred flame is stored that is said to have been perpetually burning since Yamadera Temple was founded. This flame had been started from the flame that was carried to Enryakuji Temple from China in the year 788 AD by the priest Dengyo Daishi Saicho. It should be mentioned that Enryakuji Temple (check details in the blog posts here and here) located on Mount Hiei in Otsu City is the head temple of Tendai sect, to which Yamadera Temple belongs. Even after 1155 years the flame still shines as ‘Fumetsu no Hoto’ or the ‘undying light of Buddhism’ inside Yamadera Temple. Interestingly, this flame was brought back in reverse to Enryakuji Temple on Mount Hiei to light anew the flame of the temple that was reconstructed after being set on fire by the order of Oda Nobunaga.
On reaching the front of Konpon Chudo Main Hall of the temple, we saw two beautiful stone lanterns on either side of the paved pathway that leads to the entrance of the hall. The wooden hall looked so elegant and beautiful, and we took several photos of the building from various positions and angles. After walking along the paved pathway for a few meters, we saw Temizuya water fountain to our right side. Temizuya is used for ritual purification before praying at the hall. At the fountain, we used a bamboo scooper to take some water and poured it over our hands and purified ourselves. Just in front of the hall we saw a large cauldron of burning incense, smoke from which is believed to bestow good health. I lit a bunch of incense sticks to the already fuming stock and with my hands wafted the incense fumes over hubby’s body as well as mine. I hope that we will stay healthy for a long time. After walking past the cauldron we saw yet another pair of stone lanterns on either side of the pathway. On reaching the entrance of the hall, I noted that intricate patterns are carved on the front as well as the ceiling of the wooden building. We climbed a few wooden steps and reached the front verandah of the hall. A big wooden statue of Hotei is placed on the top of an offertory box located on the verandah near the entrance of the hall. Hotei is the deity of abundance and happiness and it is said that our wish will come true by touching the statue while making a wish. I offered money into the offertory box and touched the entire surface of the statue and prayed. Inside the hall, we saw two extremely beautiful Mandalas hanging from the front wall of the hall. It should be mentioned here that the principal statue of Yakushi Nyorai enshrined inside the hall is hidden and no one is allowed to see it. Yakushi Nyorai and other statues described in the previous paragraph are kept under padlock in the hall. However, these hidden statues are displayed to the public every 50 years, and were last displayed in 2013. Although the praying area of the hall was open, visitors were not allowed to enter inside the hall. So we prayed from outside standing on the verandah of the hall.
I am standing next to a stone lantern located along a pathway in front of Konpon Chudo Main Hall of the temple
Another stone lantern located on the other side of the pathway
Hubby standing in front of Konpon Chudo Main Hall
The Main Hall as viewed from the front south side
Yet another view of the hall along with a large cauldron of burning incense (left foreground)
The hall as viewed from the southwest
I am washing my hands at Temizuya water fountain
I am lighting a bunch of incense sticks in the cauldron of burning incense
Burning incense sticks and fumes
Another pair of stone lanterns located on either side of the pathway in front of the hall
Front view of the Main Hall
Hubby and the Main Hall
Intricate patterns carved on the front and the ceiling of the wooden hall
I am standing next to the wooden statue of Hotei placed on the top of an offertory box located on the verandah near the entrance of the hall
I am praying in front of the statue of Hotei
View inside the Main Hall
A Mandala hanging from the front wall inside the hall
Another Mandala hanging from the wall
Next we started walking towards the west along the paved pathway on the hillside of the mountain near the base itself. After walking for about 20 meters or so, we saw a stone pagoda located to our right side towards north. It is the memorial tower of Emperor Seiwa and is located adjacent to Konpon Chudo Hall. It is the oldest stone pagoda in this mountain temple complex. As discussed earlier, Yamadera Risshakuji Temple was founded by Jikaku Daishi in 860 in response to the imperial edict of Emperor Seiwa. Thereafter the temple and the surrounding towns prospered very much. So after the demise of Emperor Seiwa in 880, this memorial tower was erected and a grand memorial service was held every morning and evening during Obon festival.
Emperor Seiwa Memorial Tower
We continued walking towards the west along the paved pathway near the base of the mountain and saw a stone Torii Gate. We walked past the gate and after walking for another 10 meters or so we saw a shrine named Hie Jinja located to our right side towards the north. It is a branch shrine of Hie Taisha located in Otsu City of Shiga prefecture. Hie Jinja Shrine is a small wooden building that was founded by Jikaku Daishi in 860. A deity named Oyamakui no Kami is enshrined inside. It is a deity of mountain and water, Jinushigami, cultivation and increasing production, and safe childbirth. This deity is also considered to be the guardian deity for Shaka Triad, Yakushi Triad, and Amida Triad located in various buildings of Risshakuji Temple complex. During the Edo period, the deity was regarded as the personal deity of Tokugawa family, and since the Meiji period, it has been regarded as the guardian deity of the imperial palace. Also the shrine was called Sanno Gongen during the Edo period while it was called Sonsha during the Meiji period. Yamadera Sanno festival is held at this shrine on May 17th annually. Near this shrine building, we saw a huge stone statue of a Kokeshi doll over a burial mound. It is called Kokeshi Zuka and was erected in 1968. Here memorial services are held for past Kokeshi makers, their tools, lumbar, trees, discarded or damaged Kokeshi, and for members of the general public.
Stone Torii Gate
Hie Jinja Shrine
We walked along the paved pathway for a few more steps and saw statues of the famous poet Matsuo Basho and his companion disciple Kawai Sora located to our left side towards the south. In the summer of 1689, Matsuo Basho and his companion visited Yamadera Temple and composed a beautiful Haiku poem about the stillness and silence of the area. The poem can be translated as follows.
seeps into the rocks
the cries of the cicadas
This Haiku is one of the most famous poems in Oku no Hosomichi. In fact, we saw a stone inscription of the poem next to the statue of Basho.
Statue of Matsuo Basho (left), a stone inscription of the Haiku poem (center), and statue of Kawai Sora (right)
I am standing next to the statue of Matsuo Basho
I am standing next to the statue of Kawai Sora
We continued walking along the pathway for another 20 meters or so, and saw a building named Jogyo Nembutsu Do Hall located to our right side towards the north. The hall is a wooden Dojo building and has copper roofing with Hogyo Zukuri architectural style. Jikaku Daishi received training of Nembutsu Zanmai meditation during his pilgrimage to Chikurinji Temple located on Mount Wutai Shan in China. After returning to Japan, he mastered and practiced Nembutsu Zanmai in this Dojo Hall. The principal god enshrined inside this hall is a statue of coroneted Amida Nyorai believed to have been made by Jikaku Daishi himself. Tokugawa Shogun family memorial tablets are also enshrined inside. Inside the hall, just at the entrance area there is a statue of Jikaku Daishi in Zazen pose. Initially this hall building was located to the east of Konpon Chudo Main Hall but in 1691 it was rebuilt at the present location to the west of the Main Hall.
Jogyo Nembutsu Do Hall
Statue of Jikaku Daishi in Zazen pose located at the entrance area inside the hall
Statue of coroneted Amida Nyorai inside the hall
Shoro Belfry is located adjacent to (west of) Jogyo Nembutsu Do Hall. The bell inside the belfry is called ‘Joya no Kane’ which means a temple bell that rings out the old year by ringing it 108 times on New Year’s Eve. The bell is also called ‘Shofuku no Kane’ or the bell of bringing happiness. The belfry building is wooden and has copper roofing with Irimoya Zukuri architectural style. The present bell is 1.8 meters high and about 70 centimeters in diameter, and was cast during the latter part of Edo period by the 66th head priest named Yuden of Risshakuji Temple.
At this point, we finished viewing most of the important buildings and structures located near the base of the mountain. Adjacent to Shoro Belfry towards the west, we saw a huge gate named Sanmon. It is an elegant gate that was erected during the latter part of Kamakura period. It is a wooden gate with a thatched roof and gabled Kirizuma Zukuri architectural style. This type of gate is called Yakuimon. Kanji characters of ‘Kaihoku Reikutsu’ are inscribed on the top front of the gate. Near the entrance area of the gate, there is a ticket counter where we purchased tickets worth 300 Yen per person as admission fee to enter inside the gate and continued our walk along the pathway. It should be mentioned that from the entrance area of Yamadera Temple complex, we had slowly and steadily climbed about 215 stone steps along the paved pathway and reached Sanmon Gate. Sanmon Gate is located at the beginning of a trail that leads up the mountainside to the upper area of the temple grounds. The trail is called Sando and visitors have to hike up this trail that leads to a building named Okunoin located at the top of the mountain. The trail has about 800 stone steps and the ascent may take about 40-60 minutes. There are several small temple buildings, stone statues, and Buddhist structures scattered all over the mountain on the way to the top.
Hubby standing in front of a map of the temple complex located near Sanmon Gate
I am standing in front of Sanmon Gate
‘Kaihoku Reikutsu’ inscribed on the top front of the gate
We walked past Sanmon Gate and started our ascent along the trail. We saw many stone lanterns, small statues, and Buddhist structures in the surrounding forest along the way. Soon afterwards we saw a small wooden building named Uba Do Hall located to our right side along the trail. The principal statue enshrined inside the hall is a stone statue of Datsueba. According to Japanese Buddhist folklore, Datsueba is a female demon who lives on the bank of Sanzu River, which lies between this world and the next. She strips the dead people of their clothes as they pass into the next life. In the olden times, pilgrims cleaned their body and soul with the water trickling from between the nearby rocks and wore a new Kimono before continuing the climb up the trail. The discarded Kimono was dedicated to the statue of Datsueba. According to the Jodo sect of Buddhism, below this Uba Do Hall building point is considered hell, and above this point is paradise. So it is said that the earthly desires blocking us from enlightenment begin to fade away with each step we take up the stone stairs on the trail up the mountainside.
I am walking along the trail up the mountainside
Many stone lanterns and Buddhist structures along the trail
Uba Do Hall
Hubby walking up the steps along the trail
A small stone statue along the trail
Enlarged view of the stone statue
The stone steps make a winding path along the trail. We continued walking up the steps and saw many other interesting structures and buildings about which I will write in the next post.