Yamadera & Ginzan-Onsen – in the magical snow

Day 4: mystical and magical. Who needs Disney when you can board a train and escape to a magical world in reality? The scenery from the train window helps the transformation from urban to this snowy wonderland in the mountains. Yamadera has 1100 steps and they so graciously tell you how far you have gotten. The wind and snow were howling at us at the bottom, but determination helped us reach the top. Peaceful silence broken by screams - a traveler embarked with inadequate shoes/socks must have been in shock - out loud. Snow covered steps were a challenge ascending and descending in different ways, but we accomplished it and the beauty was just reward. After a pit-stop in Yamagata to break up some large bills, eat a snack and transfer connection, we headed to Ginzan-onsen. Felt commiseration with home in Providence getting hit by another snow storm as the giant flakes and wind swirled around us. Too cold to adventure much past the safe confines of buildings we found our goal - a small traditional public bath. Not the fancy kind in hotels, but for the commoner needing a very hot soak as respite from the cold outside. For 300 yen in the honor system box we took a quiet private dip before heading back to our sleeping quarters in urban Sendai. (original tumblr post 2015)

images from original post on tumblr in 2015.

Applying for a sabbatical is a long process. It requires documentation and a proposal which then goes to a committee for review and approval. I had more than a year to contemplate what activities I would do on this important excursion. I scoured the books to find unique places that would be worthwhile and created a navigational path which for the first two weeks using the rail pass took us from Tokyo north on the rail line. Some of the destinations are not immediately accessible by the same line that the Shinkansen runs so this meant figuring out the logistics of how to get to certain places, where to stay, and even just making a determination of what would actually be doable.

I had my itinerary firmly established when my friend long-time friend from college, Kristie, was able to coordinate her time to join me. I was super grateful for this companionship especially today as I don't think I would have ventured alone on this arduous task up very snowy steps in what felt like a blizzard. I may have been super stubborn and tried it, given up along the way, or if I had persisted all the way to the top I would have experienced this magic alone with only proof in photos of the passage. As mentioned in previous posts, this was my third trip to Japan as an adult with the two previous trips in larger groups. I had also studied for two semesters intensely on Japan and Korea in a professional development course, audited an Asian film studies class, and had spent 3 weeks at the East-West Center in Hawaii in their infusing institute which brought more enlightenment so to speak of the history, arts, culture, and more about this country. I had learned about Shinto, for example, but being in nature within these shrine complexes, it resonated so much more to me. Shinto is the indigenous religion of the country, while Buddhism was introduced by a gift from Korea in the 6th century although it took more time for it to be more commonly accepted and practiced.

YAMADERA (山寺, Mountain Temple)

The name Yamadera means "mountain temple" and was founded in 860 as a temple of the Tendai sect under the official name Risshakuji. "Yamadera is also known for a visit by the famous poet Basho, who composed one of his most enduring haiku there. During Basho's journey into northern Japan in the late 1600s he stopped at Yamadera and composed a short poem about the stillness and silence of the area. Nowadays, a statue of Basho and a rock inscription of his famous poem can be found in the lower area of the temple grounds." (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7940.html)

ah this silence sinking into the rocks voice of cicada – Basho, 1689

As I coordinated a journey that was about experience in place as a stranger, visitor, tourist along with that of examining the local, native and indigenous, this temple was high on the list as a previous destination for the wandering poet.

From the train station, you have a chance to walk through the small town until you get to the base of the Temple complex where there are structures and places to observe the Buddhist traditions of the place without going all the way up the mountain.

Go slow to observe nature. Near the Buddha is a large array of o-mikuji tied to the wire strips. "The o-mikuji predicts the person's chances of his or her hopes coming true, of finding a good match, or generally matters of health, fortune, life, etc. When the prediction is bad, it is a custom to fold up the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree or a wall of metal wires alongside other bad fortunes in the temple or shrine grounds." If you have a good fortune you can increase the luck by also leaving your paper behind. To get a fortune, pay 5 yen into the machine and receive one randomly. This site has a nice overview and explanation of all of the various fortunes with language translation.

Then we decided to venture up the trail to the top of the mountain temple. After finding the entrance, we noticed the snow storm picking up, but decided to forge ahead.

On a normal day, it is suggested that the route of 1100 steps would take someone 60 minutes. As you'll see by the photos, the steps were blocked in some places by snowdrift and we literally had to crawl up and over certain spots. Experiencing this place under such arduous yet beautiful conditions was poetic.

Stairs, stairs, and more stairs combined with snow, snow and more snow.

This is where we had to climb crawl over the snow pile.

Incredible vistas. This is nature at the extreme. The lines along the top ridge of the mountains are reminiscent of Japanese paintings with sumi ink, at least to me.

And to prove we were there and that it was cold, we did take selfies.

The scenery within the trees below was also really incredible and you would find small shrines in the rocks.Lots of place to stop and pause which is likely the reason there are so many steps. Eventually this temple transferred to a Zen Buddhist philosophy.

When we started up the route there were only a few people near us on the trail. By the time we were walking down, there were others making the ascent possibly due to the time of day. I truly believe that this experience in the snow, in the midst of the trees and the spirit of the place helped provide a shift for me personally in my own connection with nature and a life path journey. I remember this often so the pictures are definitely nostalgic and mnemonic.

The day isn't over though as we needed to ride the train back to Yamagata, then we were off to see the famous town Ginzan-onsen. It was super cold so finding shelter when possible was key including finding the coffee shop at the Yamagata station for a nice little break with the Daruma for the journey.

Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉, lit. "Silver Mountain Hot Spring")

This little resort town nestled in the mountains of Yamagata prefecture was originally a silver mining town, but now is primarily a spa escape. The traditional architecture of wooden siding Ryokans line the little creek or river that runs through the main section of town. A Ryokan is a traditional inn with tatami mats and public areas where visitors may wear yukata (an informal kimono typically worn before and after traditional onsen bath or retiring for the evening while socializing). The advent of Ryokan are found in traditional towns dating back to the 8th century.

Onsen is a hot spring and also references spas and inns with the traditional style of bath developed long before indoor plumbing was developed. A sento is a public bath that has the hot spring water. At a sento, you enter the private space based on gender paying a usage toll. In contrast, an onsen is usually private in a hotel, inn, or other type of spa facility.

When thinking about identity with place, tourist locations like this of course were of interest and it was pretty magical walking around in the snowstorm. We first went to a hotel for the onsen, but were turned away and directed to the public sento to immerse in the hot water as an antidote to the extreme cold outside.

And to prove how dramatic the winter can be in this area, we noticed the snow drifts and the remnants of the extremely efficient snow removal. Not being a fan of snow in an urban environment myself, I'm super amazed at how delightfully different and quaint it is in Japan to see the snow managed so effectively.

Before retiring for the evening at our hostel in Sendai, we of course had to partake in a hearty meal. Check out the next blog post for night and foodie images.

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