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Why I Keep Going Back to Yamadera

My first visit to Yamadera temple was an abject failure. I came during the middle of winter on a day trip from Sendai, which was the first city I visited on one of my weekends off when I was living in Kyoto and studying Japanese.

Anyway, I arrived to the temple to find it closed—at the time, I assumed this was because of the fact that the steps leading up to it were covered in ice. I took some pictures from ground level and vowed to come back one day.

The good news? I made good on my promise to come back—many times. The bad news? I’d been wrong about the reason Yamadera had been inaccessible.

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Why is Yamadera Famous?

Whether you plan to travel from Tokyo to Yamadera or make the shorter journey from Sendai or Yamagata cities, it shouldn’t come as any surprise why this temple is famous. As its name suggests (yama means “mountain” in Japanese), the various buildings of Risshaku-ji (which is actual name of the mountain temple) are strewn across the side of a mountain.

Yamadera’s gorgeous geography allows visitors to enjoy it in two main ways. First, to admire it when their train arrives at the station, and when they make the short walk to the entrance to the trail. And secondly, once they’ve reached the top, from which views of the valley and mountains around the temple are nothing short of sacred, for lack of a better characterization.

What to Do at Yamadera

Admire it from the ground


Although you can’t get the full effect of a “mountain temple” without, well, climbing the mountain, you can see the entirely of Risshaku-ji from ground level. As a result, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to come all the way here and not take in views of it from below.

Take your time hiking


Part of the reason it’s so easy to do a day trip to Yamadera is that the trail just isn’t very long. I’ve personally completed it in as little as 15 minutes, although I’m a self-proclaimed hummingbird. Indeed, I’d recommend taking your time, regardless of your fitness level: Here, the journey really is the destination.

Explore all parts of Risshaku-ji temple


While most travelers make their way toward the viewpoint near the western edge of Risshaku-ji’s grounds, every part of the sprawling temple deserves a visit. This also includes the various torii and shrines near the base of the complex, which are just as integral to the whole as what you find up top.

Enjoy the view from the top


Speaking of the top, it’s not a Yamadera day trip if you don’t enjoy a sweeping panorama of the valley below. Doing so is a delight, whether that involves the bright colors of autumn, the thick snows of winter, the lush green of summer or cherry blossom billows in spring.

Go elsewhere in Yamagata


Yamagata is one of Japan’s most underrated prefectures, and is even somewhat overlooked within the Tohoku region. In winter, head up to Mt. Zao and see the snow monsters. If you come in early summer, meanwhile, visit Sagae city, where some of Japan’s only actual cherries grow; in late summer head west to coastal Sakata.

How to Get to Yamadera

Yamadera is extremely easy to access, in spite of seeming like it exists in another world. The first thing you need to do it travel to either Sendai or Yamagata stations. If you’re coming from Tokyo, you will want to ride the Shinkansen (ideally the super-fast Hayabusa) to Sendai. Whether from Sendai or Yamagata, you will want to ride the JR Senzan Line (which connects the two stations) to Yamadera Station.

Once you arrive at Yamadera, take moment to enjoy the view of the temple from the station platform. Then, set your GPS for Risshaku-ji, which will take you about 30 minutes. The trail is very easy, and can be done by anyone who is capable of taking small steps. TIP: Maximize your time at the stop by checking return train times—you’ll only need to start heading down about half an hour or so before the train departs.

Other FAQ About Visiting Yamadera

How long does it take to climb Yamadera?

Depending on your fitness, the actual trail that leads up to Risshaku-ji (aka Yamadera) takes about 15-20 minutes. It’s very easy and pretty short! However, you also need to factor in the 10-15 minutes it will take to walk from the station to the start of the trail head.

How long to spend at Yamadera?

While you could spend all day at Yamadera, I recommend either choosing the morning or the afternoon and just staying a couple of hours. There’s so much else to see in this part of Japan’s Tohoku region that I feel devoting an entire day to Yamadera would be wasteful.

Is Yamadera worth visiting?

Yamadera is absolutely worth visiting, assuming you have the time in your Japan itinerary. It can be done on a half-day trip from Sendai or Yamagata, or on a full-day trip Tokyo. It’s one of the most scenic and beautiful places in Japan, so coming here is a no brainer if you have at least a full day or so to play around with.

The Bottom Line

Taking a Yamadera day trip is easy, no matter where your journey begins. Just make sure not to arrive too early: The reason I couldn’t take my aforementioned winter hike was not because of winter weather, but because I got there about an hour before the trail opened (which is at 8 AM, FYI). Indeed, Risshaku-ji (the name of the actual temple) is open 365 days per year, regardless of what the weather is doing—you can come whenever you want. However, you can maximize your chances of awesome views and a great hiking experience if you hire me to plan your trip to Japan.


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