Here in Japan there is a holiday that is basically several holidays all rolled into one week called, “Golden Week.” Golden week happens in early May is basically a four day weekend that sort of resembles Labor Day. This is also the one of the busiest travel weekends in the whole year because nearly everyone has the day off.
As teachers we definitely had the day off. At the suggestion of a fellow teacher, Chris, we decided we were going to go a place called Yamadera on Sunday of Golden Week. Chris lives in a very rural area so he came down to Iwanuma the night before and crashed on our couch so we could get an early start to the day.
Chris arrived in the afternoon on Saturday and since we hadn’t really taken the time to see the two main tourist attractions in Iwanuma we all struck out for a late afternoon stroll to check out Takekoma Shrine and the famous Futaki Pine. Iwanuma has a pretty depressed tourism industry so these places are mostly empty. The shrine is one of the oldest in Japan and according to the 2009 (pre-tsunami) tourist brochure receives 1.6 million visitors a year. However the hotels in Iwanuma I think would tell otherwise nowadays as they all look very run down from the outside.
Takekoma shrine itself is a beautiful place and far more impressive than most of the shrines that Shana and I have visited. It has a very large entrance gate and well kept grounds. There is a neat little pond in the middle of the shrine which the tea garden in Golden Gate Park would be reminiscent of. In fact before I got to Japan I sort of imagined everything in Japan sort of looked like that.
We walked through the shrine and then headed back to the apartment despite my insistence that there was another tourist attraction in Iwanuma. This attraction is a tree made famous by Matsuo Bashō. There are tons of places around Iwanuma with the kanji characters that represent this most famous of trees in Iwanuma. I knew it was around the shrine but didn’t have my map with me because it is impossible to get lost in Iwanuma. We gave up the search and headed back. As we walked back the way we came I noticed a funny looking tree across the street and there it was. The Futaki Pine (二木). Its basically on the sidewalk of the local freeway that goes through town and there isn’t much around it but it was definitely the “Forked Pine”
For dinner we went out to our local restaurant called Jon Bran. Its decorated like an Irish Pub and has a fusion of Japanese and Italian food and is open until 27:00. The food while expensive is excellent and they have a gigantic cocktail list. They also have cheap sake which is what I primarily indulge in. Chris also helped us out because he is half Japanese and he speaks Japanese fluently. With Chris’ help we figured out what a bunch of the stuff on the menu is.
Yamadera (山寺)is in the Yamagata prefecture and is about one hour by standard JR train from Sendai’s main train station. It is yet another place that has become famous because of the shrines and some visits by the esteemed poet Matsuo Bashō. Yamadera is nestled in a little valley along a river and is completely surrounded by steep hills and mountains. A very picturesque place indeed. The main reason a person would visit Yamadera is to visit the shrines that are built up the hill above the pine forest canopy. With it being Golden Week there were massive lines at the train station and when we got to Yamadera for food and for entrance to the shrine. There is a shrine up the first set of 50 or so steps that has a separate line. You can purchase two types of tickets to climb Yamadera. There is a 500yen ticket to rub a fat Buddah’s belly and wait in a colossal line. There is a 300yen ticket just to climb the steps and visit all the shrines at the top of the mountain. Of course the signs are all in Japanese and even Chris had a hard time understanding which line we were supposed to stand in. My advice, just do the 300yen ticket and you can skip the main line and head straight for the hill climb.
If Yamadera had not been so busy it would have been a very taxing climb but because of the sheer volume of people the steps became a stop and go affair. This was rather nice because it allowed for some rest periods while making the steep ascent. There are 1000 steps to get to the top of the Yamadera shrine complex but I didn’t count so you’ll just have to take their word for it. There are helpful little signs that let you know how many steps you have left as you get near to the top.
The other interesting thing about the climb is that a different levels of the hill there are several shines where you can stop have a breather, buy some souvenirs and pray all in the same spot. Each shrine on the way up had its own little gift shop attached to it. Maybe people were simply taking advantage of the bench spaces to rest from the climb. In my opinion, and I have now climbed a fair amount of things with stairs including the Statue of Liberty, St. Peter’s, Sacre Coeur, and the Acropolis, and despite the volume of steps, Yamadera was one of the easier climbs I’ve made. There are actually three separate hikes to do in Yamadera and we only chose the shrine complex. Maybe we’ll head back and do the other two when we have spare Saturday or Sunday.
There is a covered viewing area at the top of the hill where I was able to get some fantastic shots of the valley and surrounding mountains of Yamadera. It’s hard not to stop at every level and take pictures because it really is just a very beautiful place. My recommendation would be to wait till you get to the top though because there are now power lines that will end up in many of your photos if you don’t wait till the very top to snap pictures of the valley.
After some breath taking with the wonderful view from the top of Yamadera (see what I did there, we caught our breath with a breath taking view, you see… breath taking…) we started the descent to grab some lunch and catch the next train back to Sendai. Every restaurant had a line out the door. Yamadera is very famous for its soba. Soba is buckwheat noodles that are typically served cold. We found a soba restaurant where they said there was a 30 min wait but when we got upstairs there were seats available so we sat down and someone came by to take our order. We ordered a massive plate of cold soba, a beef bowl with rice and a hamburger steak with rice. We then proceeded to wait about an hour and a half before our food showed up. The group remained calm however through the irony of being sat almost immediately and then still waiting and excruciatingly long time to be fed. The soba was excellent but I will not be returning to that restaurant. Ever.
In fact it took so long to get our food that we missed our train by about 5 minutes which was super frustrating because the trains only come once an hour in Yamadera. Chris made a great point that ice cream makes everything better so we bought our train tickets and then headed back to the town to get some ice cream and watch a street performer with a trained monkey. The monkey bowed like a Japanese person. It was adorable.
We caught the next train and after an hour of standing managed to make the transfer by about one minute to catch the next train to Iwanuma. A very successful trip indeed filled with immaculate views, excellent food (even if I had to wait) and ice cream. Tip of the hat to Chris for the excellent suggestion to visit Yamadera.