Japan is famous for its natural beauty, but even in the abundance of attractive spots there comes one place that is mesmerizing above all others, making you fall in love with this country all over again. For me, Yamadera Temple is such a place. Located in Yamagata Prefecture, this mountaintop temple complex offers some of the most magnificent scenery in northern Japan.
Getting to the top of the temple is an adventure on its own. After getting off at Yamadera Station, stairs with 1000 stone steps await you on the slope of Mt. Hoshu. The ascension takes you through a luscious forest, dotted with small shrines and buddha statues, until you finally reach Yamadera (which literally means "mountain temple"), officially known as Risshakuji.
Yamadera is worth visiting during every season. That said, Yamadera in autumn is truly a sight to behold. The cedar trees become even more mystical as they don various tones of yellow and red, allowing you to immerse yourself in a sea of color as you climb the stairs one by one. Once you reach the top, the mountainous landscape of Yamagata is laid under you like a canvas full of enchanting colors.
I cannot even imagine the views from there when the mountains are covered in snow. A sea of pure-white as far as the eye can see would be the unforgettable view of Yamadera winter.
By now, you might be wondering if the stair-climbing is hard. Well, the climb takes around 30 minutes, so it is definitely doable by beginner hikers. More importantly, you can fuel yourself with some incredible sustenance along the way: the amazing local food of Yamadera.
There are some local shops and restaurants in Yamadera which you can visit before or after your climb, and you will notice that almost every store in this cute town serves the same street food: konnyaku.
A special Yamagata food, konnyaku is made from the konjac plant, which is a root vegetable grown in South Asia. Its texture is almost jelly-like and it doesn’t carry much flavor (or calories!). In Yamadera, konnyaku is made into a round shape, cooked in dashi, and served on a skewer with some mustard. The homemade dashi imparts a hearty flavor to these sizzling balls of jelly, making konnyaku the perfect pre-climb snack. And at only 100 yen per skewer!
After you descend the 1000 steps from the top, you will probably need something more filling than konnyaku. Thankfully, there are restaurants serving delicious Yamagata food along the way.
I headed to Oyasumidokoro Taimenseki (お休処 対面石) for some replenishment. A very cozy restaurant, it almost felt like visiting a traditional Japanese household. You can enjoy the scenery of the river, with the occasional red train passing by, making the view even more romantic.
Tired and craving food to replace the calories lost during the climb, I ordered the set meal, costing 1500 yen ($14). The quality and the quantity of the set menu was simply incredible and what I exactly needed after the climb. Not only it was a filling meal, but the set menu allowed me to try some of the local Yamagata food.
First, let’s start with imoni stew, a must-have specialty when visiting the Yamadera Temple. The stew’s name is a combination of imo (potato) and niku (meat), so it follows that beef and potatoes are the two main components of this stew. Along with these two, an abundance of mountain vegetables is served in a mouthwatering dashi broth.
Combined with the cozy setting, this dish was simply heartwarming. The whole experience felt like I was dining in a mountain inn during the Edo period. More than a simple dish, this was a glimpse of old Japan, woven with feeling and tradition.
There was more to the meal, however. Another unforgettable dish was the rice, full of roasted chestnuts which were in season, giving another reason to visit Yamadera in autumn. The sweet and slightly tart chestnuts were the perfect addition to the top-notch rice.
Next was the soba. Yamagata’s soba is famous in Japan, and at this restaurant, there are various ways to try it. In the set meal, soba was served cold to dip in the traditional soba sauce. After the soba was done, the leftover soba cooking water (called sobayu), was added to the sauce to make a delicious soup-like drink in the traditional way.
Finally, juicy slices of persimmon and apple acted as a palate-freshening dessert.
In the setting of Yamadera Temple, this simple local meal turned into an unforgettably wholesome experience for me. You can perhaps find similar dishes in Tokyo, but the experience requires you to travel to Yamadera. If you do, I can guarantee you won't regret it.
From Tokyo, the easiest way is to get the Shinkansen bound for Sendai. In Sendai, you can change to the Yamagata-bound train and get off at JR Yamadera Station. The journey takes a bit more than three hours. Don’t forget to check the JR East Pass deal before you plan your trip!
Want to hike with mountain monks or forage for local vegetables deep in the forest of Mt. Gassan? Browse food experiences in Yamagata and book your own adventure!