Upon hearing I would have to climb 1,015 steps to reach the summit of Yamadera Risshakuji Temple in Japan, my immediate reaction was admittedly pathetic.
I inspected the temple complex’s on-site map closer, trying to locate the entrance to the funicular. A futile exercise. There was no funicular. Yamadera Risshakuji Temple, located on Mount Hoju-san in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture, isn’t about travel shortcuts. And thankfully so.
I would have missed out on one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire Japan journey.
Yamadera: 1,015 steps to one of Japan's most beautiful temples
Though its official name is Risshakuji, locals refer to it simply as Yamadera – which means “mountain temple.” The temple complex, founded in AD 860 to oversee the northern Tohoku region’s Tendai Buddhism sect, is actually made up of more than a dozen various sites of religious importance, such as shrines, gates and monuments.
That includes the Konpon-chudo Hall, which is said to house a Buddhist flame that’s been burning continuously for more than 1,000 years. The Hiho-kan (treasure hall), built in 1144, is where Yamadera’s most precious Buddhist artifacts are held.
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Tackling the 1,015 steps
Climbing the 1,015-step staircase that winds its way up Mount Hoju-san to the temple’s main hall – Okunoin – is intended to be a meditative experience.
Someone obviously didn’t tell that to the half a dozen or so packs of middle school students I encountered on the trail during my visit.
Many cried out in exaggerated agony as they gripped the staircase railing, while the athletes of the group charged ahead, stoically looking forward as they took the stairs two at a time. But this was not a race to the top. Camaraderie was on full display. Descending hikers offered nods of encouragement to those of us making the ascent, many saying “konnichiwa” as they passed.
Sympathetic gazes were cast upon a sweat-drenched father making the climb while carrying his toddler daughter, who sat in a carrier on his back. Fortunately, stopping is encouraged.
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Whether it’s a stone sculpture in front of a cliff wall that’s embedded with thousands of one-yen coins or a burst of fiery red leaves hanging just perfectly over a shrine, there are plenty of plausible excuses to pause and catch your breath. And when you finally do reach the summit, the payoff is instant. Interestingly it’s not the Okunoin main hall that’s the biggest draw.
Before you even reach Okunoin you’ll pass what are likely the two most photographed buildings at Yamadera: Kaisando Hall and the small red Nokyodo building, which tower over the valley below.
A nearby path takes visitors to the wooden observation platform, Godaido, which gives incredible views of the surrounding Yamagata countryside.
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Yamadera Station is about a 40-minute train ride from Tohoku’s biggest city, Sendai, in neighboring Miyagi prefecture.
For those traveling from Tokyo, the Shinkansen train from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station takes just over 2.5 hours. Yamadera Station is a 20-minute train ride from there. The temple’s entrance is about a 10-minute walk from the station. Multiple signs direct the way.
It’s worth spending some time in Yamadera town before hopping back on the train. The main street is lined with noodle restaurants serving the local specialty, dashi soba, and souvenir shops.