There are certain houses of worship that claim to be the site of a miracle or extraordinary phenomenon, inspiring awe in the faithful and cynical amusement in the unbelieving.
Naples Cathedral – known in Italy as Cattedrale di San Gennaro — has a vial of the dried-up blood of Saint Januarius , a 3rd-century Catholic martyr, which is said to liquefy twice a year, including on his feast day.
At Yamadera, a temple of Japan’s Tendai Buddhist sect in Yamagata prefecture, legend has it that a flame was brought all the way from Enryakuji in Kyoto, and has been burning there ever since – for nearly 1,200 years.
I went looking for that ritual flame when we visited Yamadera recently, on a bright and balmy autumn day.
It was there, apparently, in the Konponchudo main hall, where a sign proudly proclaimed its existence.
But the miracle flame was hidden behind latticed doors and not for public viewing, at least not on the day of our visit.
Still, that hardly detracted from the attraction of Yamadera, a collection of wooden temples clinging to the steep slopes of Mount Hoshuyama about an hour’s train ride from either Sendai or Yamagata.
Yamadera, which means mountain temple, is the popular name of Risshakuji, the northern outpost of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, which was founded in 860.
While the legend of the 1,200-year old flame is intriguing, the temple is better known as the site, which inspired Matsuo Basho, Japan’s beloved haiku poet, to compose one of his best-known poems when he visited the temple in 1689.
“Ah this silence / sinking into the rocks / voice of cicada.”
The haiku captures the stillness of nature and must have been an apt description of the area during Basho’s time.
Today, Yamadera is hardly a secluded or silent place, even though its wooden buildings are scattered along a trail of more than 1,000 steps from the Sanmon Gate at the foot of Hoshuyama to the Oku-no-in Hall at the highest point, which makes for a moderately demanding hike.
On holidays and weekends, Yamadera is teeming with tourists willing to climb the occasionally precarious steps to marvel at the temples perched on the edge of soaring cliffs and to enjoy the panoramic views of the valley below.
Fortunately, we visited on a weekday when the trail up the mountain was relatively uncrowded, the sky was clear, the air was fresh and the leaves were on display in their full autumn glory.
But Yamadera is not as difficult to climb to, even if conditions are less favorable. With different buildings interspersed along the trail and magnificent views to enjoy from scenic points along the way, there is ample opportunity to take a break from the ascent and rest your feet.
Yamadera is easily accessible from Sendai, which is also a good starting point to reach other scenic spots in the area, such as Houmeishijyuhattaki（鳳鳴四十八滝）, where the Hirose River tumbles down in a succession of 48 waterfalls.
Akiu Ootaki （秋保大滝）is a 6-meter wide waterfall where the Natorigawa River falls a length of 55 meters. There is an easy trail that winds its way above the river and leads to a deep pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
There are two famous onsen (hotspring) towns in the area, Sakunami and Akiu, but Akiu is by far the better place to stay as there are more high-grade onsen ryokan (inns) there.
Akiu Onsen is considered one of the top three hotsprings in Japan, along with Bessho Onsen and Nozawa Onsen in Nagano.
Saryo Soen (茶寮宗園) where we stayed, is a beautiful, traditional Japanese ryokan in Akiu Onsen with comfortable and spacious tatami rooms, an inside communal bath and rotenburo (outside bath) as well as a magnificent garden.
As with all high-quality traditional Japanese ryokan, a nakai-san (service staff) is assigned to each room and is responsible for everything from serving meals and booking a massage to laying out the futon at night.
Dinner, which is traditional kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) and incorporates elements of local Tohoku cuisine (abundant use of dark miso, generally saltier than Kyoto cuisine), is served in the room.
Breakfast, which is also Japanese-style with miso soup, rice, grilled fish, a hotpot and various other tidbits, is likewise served in the guest rooms.
While in Akiu Onsen check out Rairaikyo Gorge, a 20-meter deep canyon carved by the Natori River, which stretches about 1 kilometer and can be seen from a trail starting near the Nozoki Bridge.
Day One :
Tokyo→Sendai (Tohoku Shinkansen, 2 hours)
Sendai→Yamadera (JR Senzan Line, one hour)
Yamadera→Sakunami Onsen (JR Senzan Line, 20 minutes)→Yunohana (hotel bus, 10 minutes)
Yunohana→Ayashi (Yamagata bus, 20 minutes)
Ayashi→Akiu Ootaki (taxi, 30 minutes, about Y5,000)
Akiu Ootaki→ Akiu Onsen (car of a friendly fellow diner at soba shop, 20 minutes)
Akiu Onsen→Sendai (hotel bus, 30 minutes)
Renting a car may be easier than using public transportation, as we did, since trains and buses run infrequently and taxis are not readily available in the Yamadera, Sakunami, Akiu areas.
General Information :
Getting to Yamadera: From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Sendai Station (about 2 hours) and transfer to the JR Senzan Line, which connects Sendai and Yamagata stations. Yamadera Station is about an hour from Sendai and 20 minutes from Yamagata Station (also on the Tohoku Shinkansen.) There is only one JR Senzan train per hour.
Yamadera is about a five-minute walk north of Yamadera Station.
Yamadera website (in Japanese only)
There is a link from the above website to an English language website, Japan Guide, which has very useful information on how to get there and what to see.
Access to Houmeishijyuhattaki from Sendai : Take the bus to Sakunami Onsen from Sendai Station north exit bus terminal and get off at Sendai Highland Entrance (仙台ハイランド入り口). The entrance to Houmeishijyuhattaki is across the street behind a small wooden building, which looks like someone’s house.
Access to Akiu Ootaki from Sendai: Take bus no. 8 from Sendai Station west exit bus pool and get off at Akiu Ootaki bus stop (about 90 minutes). The bus runs twice a day only on Saturday, Sunday and national holidays.
Access to Rairaikyo gorge: Take the bus to Akiu Onsen from the Sendai Station west exit bus pool bus terminal 8 and get off at Nozoki-bashi (のぞき橋)
Address : Higashi 1, Kamado, Yumoto, Akiu-cho, Taihaku-ku, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture 982-0241
Tel : 0222-398-2311
Website : (In Japanese only)
Check-in 15:00 (last check-in 19:00)
Rates : From Y34,710/person, if there are four people staying in the same suite, including breakfast, dinner, consumption tax and hot spring bathing tax (different rates apply from Dec 31st to Jan 2nd). The rate is Y41,190 /person if only two people are staying in the suite.
There are two units, each with a twin bedroom, 12-mat Japanese room, bathroom, toilet and outside rotenburo starting at Y48,750/person, if there are 4 people staying in the same suite, including breakfast, dinner, consumption tax and hot spring bathing tax (different rates apply from Dec 31st to Jan 2nd). The rate is Y64,695/person if only two people are staying in the suite.
Access: From Sendai JR Station 30 minutes by car, 15 minutes from Sendai Minami Interchange and 20 minutes from Sendai Miyagi IC. There is a hotel bus from Sendai Station (reservations required)