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Fascinating scenic temples of Tohoku

Fascinating scenic temples of Tohoku

In recent times, Japan has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Not only do people from all over the world flock to the country, but even locals are travelling around Japan, venturing out of their home cities and prefectures, and venturing to those they haven’t been before. Their impetus for travel is diverse: most people travel to experience Japan’s food and four seasons, but there are those interested in the culture and history, and thus explore temples to know more about them.


Most people travel to Japan not just for food and hot springs, but also culture and history. (Image credit: Yasufumi Nishi / JNTO)


For this article, I will cover Tohoku’s magnificent temples. I am writing it with the Muslim readers in mind: from my personal experience, I notice that more of my Muslim friends are becoming open-minded, visiting Japan to understand more about the culture and visit their cultural sites. That brings a joy to my heart, as Tohoku is home to some amazing historical sites, including even a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Temples of Tohoku

Japan’s culture and history stretches back thousands of years ago. From as far as the Jomon Period (縄文時代 Jōmon-jidai) to the current Reiwa Period (令和時代 Reiwa-jidai) that began only on 1 May last year, the country has undergone major upheavals in culture and tradition. Buddhism play an important long history in the country, and throughout the different eras many Buddhist temples have emerged as a reflection of the people’s beliefs.


Temples in Japan. (Image credit: Kyoto Prefecture / JNTO)


Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. (Image credit: photoAC)


When it comes to temples in Japan, most people would think Kyoto or Nara. However, people need not go there just to see them; they’re basically anywhere in the country. The region of Tohoku (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) is no different, as the prefectures there also have their share of amazing historical architecture. Case in point: the awe-inspiring Yamadera in Yamagata!


Yamadera (山寺) in Yamagata Prefecture

Literally translated as "Mountain Shape", Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken) is known for the mountainous ranges that surround all the bordering prefectures, namely Niigata and Fukushima to the south, Miyagi to the east, and Akita to the north. It is famous for its pristine and spectacular natural sceneries.


Mount Gassan in Yamagata. (Image credit: Gassan.Nishikawa / JNTO)


During the Heian Period (平安時代 Heian-jidai), dating 794–1185, the region was under the rule of the Northern Fujiwara clan (奥州藤原氏 Ōshū Fujiwara-shi), and the founder of this family is Fujiwara no Kiyohara, the same person who built Chusonji Temple in Iwate. During the peak of the clan’s rule, their capital city was Hiraizumi (also in Iwate).


Yamagata's rural suburbs. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)


When in Yamagata, visitors must check out Yamadera (山寺), which literally means "Mountain Temple", and it is named after the temple of Risshaku-ji (立石寺). It was founded by Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師) during the Heian Period, and he was the chief priest of the Tendai sect of Enryaku-ji (延暦寺), a monastery at Mount Hiei in Ōtsu.


Yamadera in Yamagata Prefecture. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)


Yamadera stands out from other temples for several reasons. For one, it lays perched on top of a mountain, and visitors have to brave the thousand-step climb through the dense cedar tree forest in order to reach it. Not all visitors can climb all the steps, but those who did have claimed that the impressive view from the top is definitely worth the laborious climb!


Visitors must climb the thousand steps to reach Yamadera. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)


Panoramic view of the town below from atop Yamadera. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)


Visitors climbing up the steps will see unique structures along the mountain slopes, as well as appreciate the architecture of the main halls once reaching the top. The best part awaits at the top, where the halls there offer a spectacular view of the town below.


Altars towards the top of the mountain. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)


Yamadera was officially designated as a Historic Site (史跡 shiseki) and Place of Scenic Beauty (名勝 meishō). And here’s one interesting fact: the site is known for the sounds of cicadas crying—an iconic seasonal sound of summer—and thanks to that, Yamadera was also chosen as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan (日本の音風景100選 Nihon-no-oto-fūkei-hyaku-sen), a list compiled by the Ministry of the Environment to promote environmental conservation and combat noise pollution.


Yamadera. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)


Most visitors to Yamadera will be making their trip via train at the JR Yamadera Station. As they reach the station, they can also make a short detour to the nearby Fuga no Kuni (風雅の国), a complex that includes the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum (山寺芭蕉記念館 Yamadera-Bashō-Kinenkan) that focuses on Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉), a well-known haiku poet who penned a famous poem in 1689 as well as created many writings and paintings. He wrote the timeless haiku below that perfectly captures the image of being inside the silent Risshaku-ji and hearing only the cicadas’ cries:


静けさや 岩にしみ入る 蝉の声 (shizukesaya / iwa ni shimi iru / semi no koe)

(trans. “Ah this stillness / as a voices of the cicadas / seep into the rocks.”)


Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum at Fuga no Kuni. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)


Chusonji Temple (中尊寺) & Motsuji Temple (毛越寺) in Iwate Prefecture

Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken) is Japan’s second largest prefecture (after Hokkaido) and Tohoku’s largest. Bordering prefectures Aomori to the north, Akita to the west, and Miyagi to the south, Iwate is known for its spectacular scenery throughout the year, especially in spring and autumn.


Iwate during spring and autumn. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)


Iwate is also known for its profound history. As a result, the prefecture is home to amazing historical structures, so much that it’s recognised as one of the hearts of Japan’s history and culture on the eastern side.


Iwate is a cultural epicentre in Japan. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)


There are numerous temples in Iwate, but one outshines the rest: the outstanding Chusonji Temple (中尊寺 Chūson-ji), a Buddhist temple located in the southern side of the prefecture. Founded in the 9th century, the temple plays a significant role in the country’s feudal history and has been designated Special Historic Site (特別史跡 Tokubetsu-shiseki) by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 1979. The pride of Chusonji Temple is the Konjikido (金色堂), a grand hall that is totally covered in gold leaf, just like the world-famous Kinkakuji in Kyoto!


Chusonji Temple is a prominent Buddhist temple in Iwate. (Image credit: elminium / CC BY 2.0)


Konjikido at Chusonji Temple. (Image credit: 中尊寺事務局)
NOTE: the reuse and / or reproduction of this image is strictly prohibited.


Chusonji Temple carries a weighty significance in its history. It was built in commemoration to those perished in the Former Nine Years War (前九年の役 Zenkunen-no-Eki) and the Latter Three Years’ War (後三年合戦 Gosannen-Kassen). Fujiwara no Kiyohara (藤原清衡), a samurai during the Heian Period who constructed the temple, and with the help of his descendants, the temple was built and preserved to this day.


Chusonji Temple is the only UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in Tohoku. (Image credit: skyseeker / CC BY 2.0)


Although it was designated as a historical site as early as the late seventies, in 2011 it gained much more recognition when it became as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a part of the “Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi”. In fact, it’s the only cultural heritage site in Tohoku recognised by UNESCO!


Chusonji Temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. (Image credit: Herry Lawford / CC BY 2.0)


Indeed, as a whole Chusonji Temple is recognised in tandem with Hiraizumi, a town in the Nishiiwai District (西磐井郡 Nishiiwai-gun) of Iwate, designated for its collection of historical sites that date back to the 11–12th century. The sites are recognised for their significance, representing Pure Land Buddhism (浄土仏教 Jōdo-bukkyō) evident from its temples, gardens, and archaeological sites.


Hiraizumi town. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)


Another temple to check out is Motsuji Temple (毛越寺 Mōtsū-ji), carrying as much historical significance as Chusonji Temple. It was also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 and also one of the Special Places of Scene Beauty (特別名勝 Tokubetsu-meishō) by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The best part about this temple? A tranquil Jōdo (Pure Land Buddhist) garden surrounding the temple, carefully preserved to this day and is visually stunning during autumn!


Jōdo garden surrounding Motsuji Temple. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)


The garden during autumn. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)


Many people visit Hiraizumi to witness the historical temples and sites, but there’s one momentous event that visitors shouldn’t miss. Visitors should check out the Winding Stream Festival (曲水の宴 Gokusui-no-En), an annual historical event held every May. It’s a traditional poetry ceremony originating from the Heian Period, and it is conducted in many places throughout Japan. However, many claim that the one at the garden surrounding Motsuji Temple is the most surreal!


The Winding Stream Festival. (Image credit: Iwate Prefecture / JNTO)


A clip of the Winding Stream Festival near Motsuji Temple. (Video credit: iwatabien)


Zuiganji Temple (瑞巌寺) in Miyagi Prefecture

Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken), whose name translates as "Shrine Castle", lies in the central area of Tohoku, with Iwate and Akita in the north, Yamagata in the west, and Fukushima to the south. The prefecture is known for its eclectic mix of beautiful sceneries, delicious foods, and wonderful hot springs, much like the other prefectures in the region.


Miyagi Prefecture's hot springs and delicious foods. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


Its capital city Sendai (仙台市 Sendai-shi), nicknamed the "City of Trees" (杜の都 mori-no-miyako), is also the most populous in Tohoku. Sendai is well-known for several things: home to Japan’s largest summer festival, the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り Sendai-tanabata matsuri); the Pageant of Starlight (光のページェント Hikari-no-pējento) during winter, and even the zelkova trees that line the street of Jōzenji (定禅寺通 Jōzenji-dōri) and Aoba (青葉通 Aoba-dōri).


The capital city of Sendai is the most populous in Tohoku, and is famous for events such as Sendai Tanabata Festival in the summer and Pageant of Starlight in the winter (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


Among the many things that Miyagi is famous for, there is one thing many people might not be aware of. It is also home to a historical temple known as Zuiganji Temple (瑞巌寺). It is located in the idyllic port town of Matsushima (松島町 Matsushima-machi), and it has a long and related history with the other temples in this article.


Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima. (Image credit: JNTO)


Zuiganji Temple is a Rinzai Zen (臨済禅) Buddhist temple that belongs to a branch of Myōshin-ji (妙心寺 Myōshin-ji), the head temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Kyoto. It was founded in 828 during the Heian Period, by none other than Jikaku Daishi, the same Buddhist priest behind Yamadera; and patronised by the Northern Fujiwara clan, the same one who ruled Yamagata in ancient times.


Zuiganji Temple was founded by Jikaku Daishi, the same Buddhist priest behind Yamadera in Yamagata. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


The temple was originally part of the Tendai sect, but during the Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代 Kamakura-jidai), dating 1185–1333, the temple was converted to Zen. In the Edo Period (江戸時代 Edo-jidai), dating 1603–1868, the temple was rebuilt by Lord Date Masamune (伊達政宗), and his clan supported it until the Meiji Restoration (明治維新 Meiji-isshin). One trivia about the temple: Matsuo Bashō, the same haiku poet who contributed writings and poems while at Yamadera, also wrote a tribute to the golden walls inside the temple.


The temple's golden halls. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


The temple also has some rock caves in the area, and these caves were used for memorial services and as a place to house the ashes of the deceased. They were built during the Kamakura Period and was in use until the Edo Period.


Remnants of Zuiganji Temple’s past in the complex. (Image credit: Yoshihide Urushihara)


As one of Tohoku’s most famous Zen temples, Zuiganji Temple is a 5-minute walk from JR Matsushimakaigan Station, the most common gateway for visitors coming to the area. However, people visiting the temple are in for a bonus treat: Matsushima is also home to the famous Matsushima Bay (松島湾 Matsushima-wan), which is coveted as one of Japan’s Three Scenic Views (日本三景 Nihon-sankei) alongside Miyajima in Hiroshima and Amanohashidate in Kyoto. In fact, this is one of the main reasons people from all over the world flock to the sleepy town of Matsushima, and visitors can enjoy both the historical and natural side of the town in a single trip!


Matsushima Bay near Zuiganji Temple. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


Matsushima Bay during sunset. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


As more people flock to Tohoku (and Japan as a whole), they become more emotionally vested in learning more about the destinations. They gradually become more interested in learning about the role of Buddhism and Shintoism as religions in the past and present, as well as the influences that the feudal system had back then.


Visiting temples in the region is a good way to learn more about Tohoku’s past, and it’s encouraging to see that more people, regardless of their own personal and religious beliefs, are becoming more open-minded to learn more about other cultures. I’m also always interested to know more about Tohoku’s past, and implore others to explore when they plan their next trip to the region. So why not try temple hopping next time round; Tohoku’s past is just as fascinating as the present!


More details on travelling around Tohoku

Tohoku is located in the northeast region of Japan, just under the region of Hokkaido in the north. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) to travel to prefectures in Tohoku such as Iwate, Yamagata, and Miyagi.


Yamadera: this temple is located northeast of Yamagata City in Yamagata Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train to JR Sendai Station (JR仙台駅 Sendai-eki), and then change to the JR Senzan Line (JR仙山線 Senzan-sen) bound for Yamagata and alight at JR Yamadera Station (JR山寺駅 Yamadera-eki). Alternatively, visitors coming from JR Yamagata Station (JR山形駅 Yamagata-eki) can also take the JR Senzan Line to JR Yamadera Station. Visitors can walk to the temple for 5 minutes north of the station, and the Fuga no Kuni complex is about a 5-minute walk southeast of the station.


It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes from Tokyo to Sendai, and costs ¥11,210 with seat reservation per adult. The train ride from Sendai Station to Yamadera takes about an hour and costs ¥860 per adult. The train ride from Yamagata to Yamadera takes 20 minutes, and cost ¥240 per adult.


Yamadera’s main temple is open from 8am to 5pm throughout the year, and the entrance fee is ¥300 per adult. For the treasure house, it is open from 8:30am to 5pm throughout the year except from December to late April (closed during this period), and the fee is ¥200 per adult. For the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum, it is open from 9am to 4:30pm throughout the year except for New Year’s Day period (29 December to 3 January), and the entrance fee is ¥400 per adult.


Chusonji Temple / Motsuji Temple: these temples are located at Hiraizumi, in the southern side of Iwate Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅 Ichinoseki-eki), and then change to the JR Tohoku Line (JR東北線 Tōhoku-sen) bound for Morioka and alight at JR Hiraizumi Station (JR平泉駅 Hiraizumi-eki). From JR Hiraizumi Station, visitors can take a 5-minute bus ride on a regular bus or a 10-minute bus ride on the Hiraizumi Loop Bus to Chusonji Temple. For Motsuji Temple, visitors can either take a 3-minute bus ride on the Hiraizumi Loop Bus or simply walk from the station for 10 minutes.


It takes about 2 hours from Tokyo to Ichinoseki, and costs ¥13,280 with seat reservation per adult. The train ride from Ichinoseki to Hiraizumi takes less than 10 minutes and costs ¥200 per adult.


Chusonji Temple is open from 8am to 5pm throughout the year except between 4 November to February, where it is open until 4:30pm. Last entry is 10 minutes before closing time, and the entrance fee is ¥800 per adult to the temple’s Konjikido Hall. For Motsuji Temple, it is open from 8am to 5pm throughout the year except between 5 November to 4 March, where it is open until 4:30pm. The entrance fee is ¥800 per adult.


Zuiganji Temple: this temple is located at Matsushima, south of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to JR Sendai Station, and then change to the JR Senseki Line (JR仙石線 Senseki-sen) bound for Ishinomaki and alight at JR Matsushimakaigan Station (JR松島海岸駅 Matsushimakaigan-eki). Visitors can walk to the temple for 5–10 minutes from the station.


It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes from Tokyo to Sendai, and costs ¥11,210 with seat reservation per adult. The train ride from Sendai to Matsushima-Kaigan takes about 40 minutes, and costs ¥420 per adult.


The temple is open from 8am to 5pm throughout the year except during winter, when it will be closed 30–90 minutes earlier. The entrance fee is ¥700 per adult. For Matsushima Bay, the cruise departs from Matsushima Pier which is a few minutes’ walk from JR Matsushima-Kaigan Station. The service starts from 9am to 4pm throughout the year, and the cruise costs ¥1,500 per adult.

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the Tohoku Shinkansen and JR lines mentioned above, and make seat reservations all for free!)


JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)


The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.


The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)


Header image credit: Yamagata Prefecture


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