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.
Under the guise of examining some of the mountain’s cliff carvings, we catch our breath and mop our brows. A pair of businessmen from America’s Midwest stop to exchange a few pleasantries with us, but the heat has sapped our strength and our conversational skills seem to suffer as a result. I feel fortunate to have the clear skies of summer but can’t help wishing we were tackling this mountain under a blanket of snow instead.
The chant keeps going — “315, 316 … or was that 318?” — until I finally throw in the towel on the step count.
The sound of cicadas, so present a few hundred meters below, has begun to fade. It’s replaced by the loud beating of our hearts as we slowly climb higher.
Our 3-year-old daughter thinks this is an exciting adventure, but my husband and I simply put our heads down and plod on, passing through Niomon Gate and tackling the last few sets of stairs.
It turns out to be a total of 1,015 stairs to the Okunoin (main hall) of Risshakuji Temple at the apex of the hill. (I’d long stopped counting, but a sign written in Japanese clued me in.) Despite being the principal building of the temple complex, there are no views from here. Instead, we backtrack slightly and follow the cement path to the mountain’s edge before climbing a few additional steps up to Godaido Hall. From the hall’s wooden porch, we have sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, cloaked in thick summer greenery.
The platform is bustling with breathless tourists, all dripping sweat from the significant climb, but still trying to look attractive as they pose for obligatory family photos. We strike up a conversation with a couple from Fukushima, soliciting their advice for additional destinations during our vacation. They enthusiastically talk up both local sights and their own prefecture. Despite their glowing reviews, I secretly wonder if I will ever think of their home region as anything but a buzzword for nuclear disaster.
We retrace our steps to the bottom of the mountain, the descent going significantly faster than the initial climb. At the bottom, we duck into Mitoya, one of the many soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurants that line the tiny main street of Yamadera City. Intrigued by a picture on the restaurant’s wall, we all order dashi soba — a local specialty. Our portions of noodles come piled high with summer vegetables such as eggplant, cucumber and okra. We top it off with soba-flour dumplings, stuffed with pickled vegetables and finish the meal with cold barley tea.
Appetites assuaged, we head back to our rental car. While my husband tracks down a parking attendant, I am drawn to an octogenarian sitting in the front window of his tiny shop. He’s occupied with a piece of wood he is spinning on his lathe, so I wander through the display of kokeshi, Tohoku’s traditional wooden dolls, while he finishes up his project.
As it turns out, 85-year-old Kazuo Ishiyama has been crafting kokeshi on that same lathe — or one just like it — for nearly 70 years. As World War II drew to a close in 1945, the teenage Ishiyama noted a dearth of leisure objects among his friends and neighbors and began using his woodworking skills to produce toys and kokeshi for local children.
Hand-turned lathes may have long been replaced by electric ones, but Ishiyama still turns out traditional-style kokeshi — known as zao takayu — just like he did when he first started. These aren’t the vivid, gussied-up dolls on display in airport kiosks and gift shops around the nation. Old-fashioned kokeshi aren’t much more than an oversized head attached to a long, cylindrical body, and embellished with designs in muted colors such as black and red. The common designs are safflowers and chrysanthemums, though Ishiyama points out a few dolls where he utilized a rape blossom motif in a bright yellow.
I peruse the shelves — stocked with Ishiyama’s handiwork selling at ridiculously reasonable prices — and select a mid-size kokeshi as a souvenir of our trip. I ask Ishiyama how to tell the doll’s gender, but the reply is obscured by his soft voice and regional accent. From what I gather, my doll can be whatever gender I decide — an answer I am more than willing to accept. I leave, grateful to have such a beautiful product from a master craftsman.
The GPS in our rental car claims it is only 37 km to Ginzan Onsen, a tiny hot-spring town deep in the mountains north of Yamadera. What it neglects to mention is that the route will take us on roads that should, by all accounts, be marked as “one-way.” It also fails to mention that it’s best to travel these hairpin curves on an empty stomach. Despite the low mileage, we spend nearly one hour twisting our way through the interior of Yamagata, enjoying the views from the drive along a mountain ridge. Despite the devastation that occurred during the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on the opposite side of Tohoku in 2011, this corner of Japan’s northeast feels remarkably untouched; unmarked by disaster and untrammeled by visitors.
The road eventually leads us back down to the plains and we zip by farmers hawking local watermelons and baskets of peaches from their little stands. Finally, we arrive at Ginzan Onsen and park our car just outside the center of town, as required — it’s pedestrian only — before making our way down the hill to the village.
On the surface, Ginzan Onsen feels like a town in a time warp. The historic bathhouses that front the town’s canal date mostly from the Showa Era (1926-89), and even the bridges and lampposts have a faded, 1920s’ feel about them.
But Ginzan Onsen’s history goes deeper than that, stretching back 500 years to the discovery of a silver mine just outside the town, which gave Ginzan Onsen its name — ginzan means “silver mine.” In the early Edo Period (1603-1868), more than 20,000 people toiled away underground in the Nobesawa silver mine. But a collapse in 1689 forced the mine to close down and the area fell into obscurity for several centuries. Today, however, visitors can guide themselves through the dimly lit shafts. After the short, humid walk out to the mine, we revel in the subterranean coolness. With no silver to be seen and no information at the site itself, there’s not much to hold our attention and yet we linger, loathe to return to the heat outside.
Back in town, we brave the boiling foot bath and sip local watermelon sodas to counteract overheating.
Tomorrow, we will head east to Miyagi Prefecture, where the reality of life in a post-tsunami world will be all too evident. For now, though, we soak in the sulfur springs of Yamagata, content in this quiet corner of Tohoku.
Getting there: Yamadera Station is a 20-minute train ride from JR Yamagata Station on the Senzan Line. The 1,015 steps leading to Risshakuji Temple are a short walk from Yamadera Station. Ginzan Onsen is a 35-minute bus ride from Oishida Station, which is four stops north of Yamagata Station.