Yamadera, literally "Mountain Temple", is a one-horse town named after its distinguishing feature, the temple of Ryūshaku-ji (立石寺) - also pronounced Risshakuji. Matsuo Basho stopped by here on the Narrow Road to the Deep North and penned the following famed haiku poem:
The meaning of this will be instantly apparent should you visit the temple (or most anywhere in Japan) during the late summer, when the cicadas' shrilling does sometimes get intense enough to sound like it is drilling through rock!
By train, Yamadera is 20 minutes from Yamagata on the JR Senzan line, which connects all the way to Sendai. There are two options to reach Yamadera from Tokyo. One way is to take the Yamagata Shinkansen to Yamagata and take the Senzan Line from there; this will cost you ¥11,000 and take 3 1/2 to 4 hours. The other way is to take a Tohoku Shinkansen train to Sendai and change to the Senzan Line; this costs ¥11,230 and will take between 3 and 4 1/2 hours. The length of travel is dependent on connection times between the Senzan Line and the respective Shinkansen line that you choose.
By car, Yamadera is about 20 minutes NE of Yamagata Station at the junction of Highway 19 and Highway 62. There is a large parking lot near Yamadera Station, as well as smaller parking lots closer to the temple complex. Parking costs ¥300-500.
The entrance to the temple is 10 minutes from the station on foot, across a bridge over the Tachiyagawa river painted the traditional bright red. There's still a lot of climbing left to do to get around the temple complex itself though! The climb up steep stone stairs through the deep forest to the top-most view point is about 30-60 minutes from the bottom, depending on how fast you want to take it and how often you stop to rest or take in the scenic views.
If you visit during the winter months, the little town is eerily beautiful and completely covered in snow. Local shopkeepers will rent out goloshes and sell heat packs to keep you warm on the uphill climb. There are few visitors then but the climb is worth it on a clear day when the view across the valley is breathtaking. Allow at least 2-3 hours for your climb up and back.
Take your time walking around the lovely Fuga-no-Kuni grounds. The gardens change daily with the seasons, and there are plenty of benches in both sunny and shady spots to relax and take in the views.
If you still have energy left for walking, there is another hike up behind Fuga-no-Kuni to "Ice Hill" and the path from the parking lot there is pretty easy to find and follow.
Because Yamadera is essentially a working temple, you will run into vendors selling religious goods since many of those climbing here are on a religious pilgrimage. Buddhist prayer beads, luck charms, the delicate hand-painted candles which are a specialty of the region and the like are sold at several points during the climb to the top. You'll see vending machines as well for drinks and snacks.
The omiyage souvenir shop at Fuga-no-Kuni on the Basho Memorial Museum side is no more expensive than others, but sells an exceptionally well chosen assortment of Yamagata crafts from naturally dyed silks to wooden toys, to iron and pottery pieces, most of which they source directly from the local craftspeople who make them. It is worth taking a look even if you are not planning to buy, just to get an idea of what is available in the best local craft items.
All around the mountain you will encounter people selling the ubiquitous tama-kon. These balls of konnyaku (a firmly chewy gelatin like substance made from ground konjak 'devil's tongue' roots) are cooked in soy sauce and served on a stick. Cheap and guilt free (no calories, no fat!) tourists can frequently be seen munching these simple delicacies, which are touted to give you the stamina to make it to the top. Beware of the mustard: it is considerably hotter than western varieties.
Yamagata is known as soba (buckwheat noodles) country and the area around Yamadera is no exception. The street connecting the temple and JR train station are lined with family owned soba shops that serve freshly-made soba, whose taste and springy texture cannot be compared to the pale, limp soba served in quick noodle shops in the big cities outside of Yamagata. If you can get your noodles with a side of sansai local mountain wild vegetables, don't pass up the chance for these seasonal delicacies.
While there are about 5-10 small restaurants in the town, in winter there are only about 2 open - the Pension near the station and a sobaya further on. Food at the Pension is great and welcome after the climb to the top.
After climbing up the other side of the river valley to the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum you can get your strength back with a jolt of caffeine from the foamy whipped matcha green tea served in a peaceful and beautiful tea room - without having to sit through the formality of a tea ceremony. Served by women in informal style kimono, the big bowl of tea you pick up and drink with both hands (like a French cafe au lait bowl) comes with a sugary traditional tea sweet chosen for the season. If you get a ticket for tea along with your entrance ticket to the Museum you'll get a ¥50 discount; otherwise it is ¥500. Service ends at 3:30 - just about the time you might really be ready for matcha's truly restorative powers, so make sure you get there in time.
Splash some water down the unusual "water harp" echoing cistern outside the tea room before you go in or after. If you don't notice it right away, ask the tea servers to show you.