** Second post on tourism in the Sendai area. Chock full of pictures and interesting facts beyond the tourist pamphlets**
Second weekend out of Sendai, I took the train to Yamadera- an hour west by train into the mountains.
The weather, as usual, was grey and chilly, but I was thrilled with the thought of temples tucked into mountains. Mmm glorious.
Yamadera is a special town (perhaps one might say village) that sits at the confluence of several valleys, and one particular mountain (though perhaps one might say rocky hill) was deemed, by the monks of the Tendai Buddhist sect, to be the sacred passage between this life and the next.
A little background on the Tendai Buddhist. As various traditions of Buddhism were making their way east from India, in around 600 AD Buddhism crossed over into the traditionally Shinto land of Japan. There was certainly a fair share of competition between the Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, likely enhanced by the feudal lord system of the time, but each influenced the other in the end. Japanese Buddhism is unique in itself, honouring the Buddha Amida (briefly, the Lord of the afterlife, or infinite light). And Tendai Buddhism resulted from a sort of merger between Buddhism and Shintoism. It is often simplified that Shintoism is for this life, and Buddhism for after.
Knowing this is key to visiting Yamadera, without the knowledge that this Tendai site is a mix of Shinto and Buddhism, the scattering of the two styles of shrines and temples would lead you to belief that there were different real estate agents selling land here.
So what did the monks see in Yamadera? The answer to this can still be felt today.
The magnificent sculptures of nature demonstrated through secretive caves punctuated by patterns of erosion in the rocks. The amazing forest of cedar trees leading up the mountain quickly pulls you out of this world. The small peaks and lookout that bring your gaze up the various valleys in the surrounding area.
I still get shivers thinking about the feeling at the top lookout… but let’s start at the beginning.
The monks felt that this was a place to lead into the infinite light, the place on the other side, and established over 20 buildings here to seamlessly merge with nature for that passage. At the beginning of the over 1000 steps up to the top (though don’t be scared, the route is nicely spaced between many buildings and monuments to enjoy) is the main hall, the Konponchudo temple.
The typical place for the main objects of worship (i.e. any building named -chudo), here a flame from Mt. Hieizan, location of the head temple of Tendai Buddhism, has been burning since 860! Infinite light- ah, it all comes together.
At the entrance to the temple is a lovely laughing Buddha, Hotei. Not actually accurate for a buddha to worship, many people still come to rub parts of his body for healing, abundance and happiness.
Throughout the path, there are many devotional places. In the moment, I gazed at them thoughtfully, wondering about all the paper, cloth, wood, etc. Thus I did some research and figured it out a posteriori.
The path winds it’s way silently up through the Cedar trees and streams. Small statues, stone lanterns, and graves discretely find their place among the dried needles on the floor.
Walking out of the forest, I came upon the high temples, perched on the edges of the rock.
Some of the main buildings are still in use by the monks who live there. The building below, Kaizando, has a beautiful entrance protected by a Shinto dragon and is used for copying scriptures. It is the oldest building on the entire site so they say.
Another beautiful piece near the final hall is the Kanatoro, the metal lantern. About 2 metres high, it is full of great details with each section having its own meaning. So from the top…
The very top ball is the houju, the sacred gem, which expels evil and grants wishes. Nice start.
The next section holding the bells is an umbrella to protect the flame of the lantern.
Then of course comes the lantern housing itself, the hibukuro.
Supporting the hibukuro is a lotus flower, and here further protected by an amazing dragon.
And at the base, the kiso, often times only lotus petals,
but here it appears that children support the flame and various objects are shown, possibly for good luck.
There are many more buildings and stories to uncover, but this is all I share for now. The rest is left to discover…
Finally turning around, away from the mountain and the shadow of another world, I contemplated the snow lightly grazing the nearby mountains and reveled in the solitude and peace of life devoted to the mountain temple.