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In my last blog piece about the wonders of Hakodate, the gateway city to Hokkaido, I recommended stopping-off in Sendai on the way there from Tokyo, and promised another blog with my reasons why. Well, I’m a man of my word, so here’s another blog (actually there will be two!) with reasons to stay in Sendai for not one, but two nights on the way from Tokyo to Hokkaido.
To tell the truth, neither of my two reasons for a two-night stay in Sendai are located in the city itself (and one is actually in neighbouring Yamagata Prefecture!), but Sendai is a perfect departure point for two very interesting day trips, and is a great place to base yourself for a couple of enjoyable evenings, with a multitude of great restaurants and bars.
If you’re travelling to Sendai from Tokyo, I recommend doing as my parents and I did, aiming for an early start from the capital, allowing you to fit in a trip to the first of my recommendations, Yamadera, on the same afternoon. It takes just an hour and a half to travel from Tokyo to Sendai by bullet train.
On arrival, I recommend dropping your bags at your hotel and then heading straight back out by train to the town of Yamadera, named after the very sight you’re there to see – a sprawling Buddhist temple complex nuzzled into the side of a small mountain. The journey by local line train takes one hour from Sendai. Yamadera station is such a contrast to the frenetic atmosphere of Tokyo station, you might find it hard to believe you were in such a buzzing metropolis just a couple of hours prior to arriving!
A short walk across the river from the station will take you into the tiny town of Yamadera. There are lots of lovely little family run restaurants lining the approach to the temple. I recommend stopping at one to fuel up with some lunch before hiking up the mountain.
Once you reach the top, there are some great views across the valley and down to the town below. Surveying the scenery, you can give yourself a pat on the back looking down across the route you’ve climbed.
Yamadera literally means ‘mountain temple’, although the official name of the temple is Risshaku-ji. The temple belongs to the Tendai school of Buddhism and was founded in the ninth century by a monk called Ennin, also known by his posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi (Buddhists like to keep things complicated!). The temple is a branch of Enryaku-ji, the monastery complex situated on Mount Hiei in my hometown of Kyoto, which you can read about in one of my previous blogs. Ennin was the 3rd abbot of that temple before founding Yamadera. After his death, there were internal lineage conflicts within the Tendai school, and things in Kyoto got a little messy! It’s said that there is a flame at Enryaku-ji that’s been kept burning ever since it was lit by Saicho (also known as Dengyo Daishi – I told you they like to keep it complicated!), the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan. There is also a lamp at Yamadera that was lit from the same flame, which has been burning for over a thousand years since the founding of the temple.
You’ll come first to the Konponchudo, the main hall of the temple, which contains an image of Yakushi Nyorai, the medicine Buddha. The hall is constructed using beech wood; quite unusual in Japan. From this point on you’ll need to pay an entrance fee (a modest 300yen) to access the path that leads to the upper area of the temple compound. The route is paved the whole way, but there are hundreds of steps on the way up, so this is where your previously consumed hearty lunch pays off.
It takes between 30 minutes and an hour to reach the top of the mountain. I highly recommend making the ascent at a relaxed pace to allow yourself time to enjoy the scenery on the way. It’s often said that the Buddha taught ‘It’s better to travel well than to arrive’. Although true in the case of Yamadera, I’m afraid this is one of the many quotes misattributed to the Buddha, and can be found in none of the texts making up the Buddhist canon.
In another dubiously attributable quotation, Isaac Newton stated that ‘what goes up, most come down’, and so after catching your breath and admiring the vistas, it’s time to start your descent. Going down is much easier than the route up, and you’ll find yourself back at the bottom of the mountain in half an hour or so. Before setting off back for Sendai, you may want to reward yourself with a well-deserved beverage break. We found this lovely little shop with a café attached:
It was a pretty scorching August day when we visited, and so we eschewed coffee in favour of some well chilled local Yamagata beers, served in these delightful little glasses:
Just an hour back on the train, and you’ll find yourself back in the (relative!) metropolis of Sendai. There are some great restaurants in the city, which is particularly famous for gyutan – grilled beef tongue. It’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have it somewhere on the menu! I particularly recommend trying it at a yaki-niku – do-it-yourself-barbeque – restaurant. With some more beers of course! You’ve earned it!
Stay tuned for part two of this blog piece, where I’ll be telling you about my other top-tip for a day-trip in the Sendai area. If you can’t wait for that, why not contact one of our expert travel consultants to start planning a trip including an overnight stop (or two!) in Sendai, and a trip out to Yamadera?