We're only a few minutes into our climb up one of Yamagata Prefecture's holy mountains, Mount Hojusan, and already our pace has slowed considerably. Our destination is Risshakuji Temple, more colloquially known as Yamadera (literally: "mountain temple"), a far-north outpost of Tendai Buddhism since 860. To reach the promised vistas from the mountain's peak, however, requires tackling a series of staircases totaling more than 1,000 steps.

I keep a cadence in my head as we ascend: "37, 38, 39, 40 ..." The branches of the evergreens above us should provide some respite from the sun, but Tohoku is abnormally warm this year and waves of heat roll through the forest. My husband shifts the backpack supporting our young daughter to a better position, yet his efforts do nothing to stop the sweat from dripping down.

My silent count continues: "82, 83, 84, 85 ..." There's still a long way to go.