Happy August! My family and I are on our annual summer holiday in Japan, which we try to arrange so that it never falls with that OTHER summer holiday in Japan (Obon), a time of year that makes travel around the island nearly unbearable for a period of 3-7 days. This year, I had high hopes of heading north to Aomori prefecture to catch their famed Nebuta (or Neputa) festival but until we hammered out the schedule (not an easy feat with my husband’s job) and started to look at hotels, nearly everything in the prefecture (not just the city) was booked solid for the first week of August. I guess the Nebuta Festival is one of Tohoku’s three most famous festivals for a reason!
With short notice, we ended up booking a week (or nearly) in Sendai, a sizable on Japan’s northeastern coast and one that some of you may recognize as being hard hit by the tsunami of 2011. They also do a killer Tanabata Festival here in early August and luckily, hotel rooms were plentiful …
… just not on the night we arrived. Of course. So instead, we opted to spend our first two nights in Yamagata, the “capital” city of Yamagata prefecture, to the west of Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture). All I knew about Yamagata from my travel research was that it had a number of important mountain temples, Yamadera being one of them. And as Yamadera is only a 30 minute drive from downtown Yamagata, it was a no-brainer to begin our explorations of Tohoku there.
Yamadera is a temple complex that was founded in 860 by the renowned priest Jikaku Daishi (of the Tendai sect of Buddhism). At that time, Yamadera was on the edge of the unknown, at the far northern reaches of what was called Dewa Province. As Japan expanded, more and more pilgrims came to the temple, including the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashi. One of his most famous haiku, found in his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was composed while he sojourned at Yamadera in the 1600s.
Today, visitors are treated to the same challenge as those long-ago pilgrims … having to climb the 1000 steps to reach the top of the complex on the mountain’s peak. It truthfully wasn’t as bad as I expected and the hike was blessedly under the cover of trees, thus keeping at least some of the summer heat at bay. The very top temple, Okunoin, is rather anticlimactic. But the views from the viewing platform at Godai-do is absolutely worth the climb.
The small town at the base of the temple is served by local trains and buses from Yamagata. They can set you up with water for the climb and fill your stomach with hand-cut soba noodles on the way down.