Yamadera is a famous tourist destination spot in Yamagata prefecture. It is well-known due to its uniqueness: a complex of temples perches on top of a mountain with hundreds of stone steps. I have been to this place twice before, but when I was told by my friend Steven that you could actually go there via hiking and not simply just walk from the station, I was intrigued and embarked on a trip with him to see for myself. In actuality I could not really call it hiking but more akin to trailing as no steep elevation change was involved in the trip, but here how the story goes. Note: trip information is at the end of this article.
On a rainy Sunday morning we got on a train to Yamadera and alighted one station before Yamadera in Omoshiroyama-kogen (面白山高原). A funny name, because it literally means ‘interesting mountain plateau’. We were a bit disappointed initially because the weather forecast said sunny with cloudy possibilities, but that Sunday morning rain was pouring in Sendai.
However amazingly, when we stepped into the station’s platform in Omoshiroyama-kogen there was no rain. Instead it was just a slight overcast. We were overjoyed. One interesting thing about this station, is that there is no ticket gate, so it is not possible to use your IC card to tap out there. You just need to explain the situation to the station attendant later, no big deal.
Aside from us there were several Japanese getting ready for their hike with complete set of gears. So much different since we just wore normal casual clothing. I looked around trying to find out more information about the hiking trail, which conveniently written on several information boards so it was not that hard to find a way. Plenty of hiking trails originate from here. There was one particular trail along the river leading to Yamadera, so we took that one.
This trail lead us to cross the bridge on the above photo, down to the river trail about 30 meters below the bridge. There was a small path lined with logs to provide stepping spots and wooden planks above scaffolding jutting out from the cliff. Only mere minutes into the trail and we found one large waterfall in plain sight. The sound of the water splashing against the rocks was really like music to me. The trail in front of the waterfall was narrow and precarious, but I could not help to think that it was really well made; sometimes it is molded out of concrete and has rope guard for safety.
Along the trail there were several spots where we had to cross the river to get to the opposite riverbank. These were some sort-of arch wooden bridges ensuring safe passage to the other side and I was genuinely impressed by their existence. Yamagata city government sure has quite spent efforts in creating and maintaining the hiking trails around the area.
Further along the river there were points where we had to slowly tread and lean our backs against the cliff because the path was so narrow it could barely fit a normal-sized adult. When I gazed onto the river I was impressed by the clarity of the water as I could see the bottom just fine. I felt like dipping my feet onto that cold water.
After passing a slippery, needle-like passage we came into the view of the second waterfall. It was unreachable and well-hidden behind the bushes, but its trickling water streamed into the river gently across the trail. We spent some time playing with the cold water here and carried on.
Behind the protruding large cliff not so far from the second waterfall we could hear another waterfall ahead. The third waterfall was the best in my opinion because it was located on a small clearing and the base was easy to access. It was not a big waterfall that you could stand beneath it and pretend that you are on some kind of make-believe meditation slash kung-fu training, but it was a beautiful one indeed.
The trail ended when we had to pass through a square tunnel and arrived in the edge of the forest where there were plenty of cut logs lying around. We spent almost 2 hours for a trail that was supposedly manageable in 1 hour time because we stopped here and there to admire the nature (that, and I really took my sweet time taking the pictures =D ).
Although the trail has ended, we were nowhere near Yamadera yet. As shown on the station map earlier, the trail does not actually extend all the way to Yamadera but instead only goes as far as one-third of the distance between Omoshiroyama-kogen and Yamadera. We followed the small road cutting through the forest near the trail exit to reach the temple complex, which took us around one and half hours. The road is rarely used as we passed by only a handful of cars on the way to civilization.
In Yamadera we first stopped to fill our stomach for lunch then decided to go climbing the stone steps for the mountainside temple. As I said before I have been to Yamadera twice before but they were as part of big group trips where I did not have ample time to explore freely. This time I made sure I went into all the nooks and crannies.
The best part was, when we finally reached the mountain peak where the main temple resides, the clouds have moved and the weather was sunny. The valley seen from the observation deck was the greenest sight I have ever since, very much different from the time I went during autumn season. I guess I would have to try going to Yamadera again on winter and spring just to complete the four-season journey.
This concludes my writing about ‘hiking’ in Yamadera. Due to my affinity to nature and hiking, in the future if I have the opportunity I would write more posts about hiking in Japan. So stay tuned!
From JR Sendai station take JR Senzan line to Yamagata and alight in Omoshiroyama-kogen. One way trip costs ¥760. Once you got to the station there were several hiking trails. Follow the one that leads towards Yamadera.