View over the mountain valleys from a rock outcropping at Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa at Minenoura, near Yamadera.


Walking Through Minenoura

Yamadera is one of the most popular sites to visit in Yamagata Prefecture. However, many people just visit the main temple hall, the konpon-chūdō, and nearby monuments just above the river.

Make sure to also visit Minenoura, a nearby area where Buddhist monks and Shugendō mountain ascetics meditated and trained for over a thousand years.

A trail leads through the forest, starting close to the main Risshaku-ji temple hall and ending at the Senjuin Kannon-dō temple. From there you can return along the road, or you could reverse your path along the trail.

Yamadera has a small Tourist Information office along the main road through town. Arrive by train, cross the river, and walk toward the konpon-chūdō, the main temple hall. You will pass the Tourist Information on your right. They may have a useful map.

Below is a picture of a map I found near the end of the trail. It shows the points I passed. They're shown and described below:

  • Yamadera cemetery.
  • The old approach leads up through the forest.
  • The ancient temple site.
  • Caves with gorintō grave memorial markers.
  • Shugendō training grounds.
  • Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa, a series of seven rock outcroppings, several of which have fantastic views over the valley to surrounding mountains.
  • The Tarumizu shrine complex.
  • Down the slope labeled Tarumizu Approach.
  • Senjuin Kannon-dō, a Buddhist temple that's one of a pilgrimage series of 33 significant temples.
Map of Minenoura and the hiking trail past caves, rock formations, and the Tarumizu ruins.

Yamadera Cemetery

I had already visited the Risshaku-ji temple complex, climbing the 1,000 stone steps up the mountain face. Now I had returned for a second day in Yamadera, taking the train from near where I was staying in Yamagata.

I crossed the bridge and passed the konpon-chūdō, the main temple hall of the Risshaku-ji temple complex. The town's cemetery is a short distance beyond that.

Yamadera town cemetery.
Yamadera town cemetery.

Walk through the cemetery. At the far end, turn downhill to the right, pass through the gate, and you're on the path.

Gate from the Yamadera town cemetery to the trail.

You soon pass a shed used for trail maintenance work. A poster warns you to watch out for bears. More on the woodland creatures anon.

Trail maintenance shed and a bear warning sign.
Initial section of the Minenoura trail.

The path leads uphill through the forest.

Initial section of the Minenoura trail.

Prehistoric Jōmon Settlement and 14th Century Temple Site

The clearing at N 38.315988°, E 140.441433° once held a major temple honoring Amitābha, known in Japanese as Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Former temple site.

There's a sign here with some pictures and explanations, entirely in Japanese as we should expect. I have only found a little information online.

An archaeological dig found parts of that temple's foundation plus some artifacts dating back to the 1300s CE.

Buried deeper and further back in time, they found pottery from the Jōmon cultural period of 10,000–300 BCE. The captions by the five pairs of pictures down the lower right side include the numbers 5,400, 4,200, 3,800, 2,200, and 1,100 from top to bottom, I assume those indicate years before the present. The red dot in the plan at upper left shows the viewpoint of the above picture, looking north across the site of the temple structure.

Pictures of the archeological dig.
Ancient Jomon of Japan
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The Jōmon people entered today's Japan around 25,000 years ago. This was during the Last Glacial Maximum, when sea levels were much lower and today's Japanese archipelago was attached to the Asian mainland. The Jōmon came from the north, initially settling today's Hokkaidō and moving south into Honshū by 20,000 years ago.

The Jōmon people are probably the ancestors of the Ainu, the indigenous people still found in small numbers in Hokkaidō and almost completely assimilated into Japanese society.

Almost all of today's population of Japan are descended from the Yamato people who crossed the sea from the Korean peninsula to northern Kyūshū in the first millennium BCE. They brought rice cultivation and an early Japonic language.

Yamadera was on the northern frontier of Japan when Emperor Seiwa sent the monk Ennin to establish the Risshaku-ji temple in 860 CE. From here north, Honshū was the home of the Emishi people, also descended from the Jōmon, while Hokkaidō was home to the Ainu.

Leaving the former temple site, the path passes a small shrine.

Continuing past the temple site along the Minenoura trail.

Gorintō Caves

A gorintō is a five-level stone tower, a Japanese form of pagoda. It's a common design for a Buddhist grave marker or memorial. Caves along the trail just north of the Jōmon and temple site have held many gorintō, and some still do. Some of these gorintō have dates carved into them going back to the Kamakura period of 1185–1333.

Cave with multiple gorintō or five-ringed tower grave markers.

The segments of a gorintō represent the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. They are thought to form the body of the cosmic Buddha Mahāvairocana, our human bodies, and the physical world. The five elements plus wisdom make up the universe. They are typically marked with the Sanskrit Siddhaṃ script. From top to bottom they are:

Shape Represents Siddhaṃ Japanese
Jewel-shape Ether 𑖏 / kha kuurin
Hemisphere Air 𑖮 / ha fuurin
Pyramid Fire 𑖣 / fa karin
Sphere Water 𑖪 / va suirin
Cube Earth 𑖀 / a chirin

The top two elements, the hemisphere representing Air and the jewel-shape representing Ether or Space, are usually merged. Sometimes they aren't clearly distinguished from the top of the pyramid representing Fire.

Shugendō Training Ground

The trail leads upward to another open clearing. It is surrounded on three sides with rock faces, and a sign marks it as Shugenjo Site and Bishamonten Cliff.

This is thought to have been a training ground for the Shugendō faith, a blending of Buddhism, Shintō, and pre-Shintō beliefs. Shugendō involves ascetic practices carried out on mountains.

Sign at the Shugendō training ground.

The family passing me in the opposite direction indicated that there were wonderful things to see ahead. They were right.

Shugendō training ground.

This was where the Shugendō ascetics meditated, studied, and carried out esoteric practices.

Path continuing from the Shugendō training ground.

I'm using the Hindu terms for the rock shapes in an attempt to avoid Google's overly sensitive automated analysis, mislabelling, and banning.

I continued along the path, squeezing between those large stones seen above. Post-visit web research revealed that these are the Otoko-iwa or lingam rock on the right, the Onna-iwa or yoni rock on the left, and the Tainai-kuguri or birth canal opening between them.

The path continued climbing, lined with flowers in places.

Path continuing from the Shugendō training ground to Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa.

Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa

The path curved along a ridge line. This was Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa, named for being a series of seven stone outcroppings.

Seven, of course, the usual mystic number, like the number of days in the week and the number of hills in prominent cities. It all comes from the seven moving visible bodies in the sky — Sun, Moon, and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

The seven rocks are Yumihari-iwa, Tate-iwa, Saru-iwa, Kagami-iwa, Shio-iwa, Toride-iwa, and Ko-iwa. The local legend is that from the Tokorobu commune on the opposite side of the valley they look like the outer wall of a shiro or castle, hence "Shiro-iwa". It looks like a medieval castle or a hidden fortress.

This is your periodic reminder that George Lucas's original Star Wars movie was based on Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress and Lucas had wanted Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-wan Kenobi.

Hidden Fortress (Criterion Collection)
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Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
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Pondering the missed opportunities for vast cinematic improvements, I continued along the path. I came to one of the outcroppings with a clear view out across the valley. Wow, what a view!

View to the east from Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa.

Looking down to the east, you can see the road out of Yamadera town running away from the viewpoint. It ends just past that last group of buildings. You can also see the rail line. It continues through that left-most pass, entering the first of several long tunnels on its way to Sendai on the Pacific coast. The road on the other side of the valley, beyond the rail line and river and up the opposite slope, roughly follows the rail line until it enters a 5–6 km tunnel.

View to the east from Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa.
View to the east from Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa.
View to the east from Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa.

Continuing beyond the seven rock outcroppings, the path passed between some unusual rock formations.

Unusual rock next to the trail continuing from Shiro-iwa Nana-iwa to Tarumizu.


The path descended some as it led into the Tarumizu ruins.

The syncretic religion of Shugendō formed in Japan during the period 710–794, after Empress Genmei had established a capital at Heijō-kyō, today's Nara, and before Emperor Kammu moved the Imperial Court to Heian-kyō, today's Kyōto. It combines elements of the native Japanese Shintō, esoteric Buddhism as it was arriving from China, Taoism, and local shamanistic folk religions.

Shugendō practitioners are ascetic hermits. They're called Yamabushi, a name referring to how they prostrate themselves on mountains.

Tarumizu comes into view.
Tarumizu comes into view.
Primitive & Medieval Japanese Texts
F. Victor Dickens, 1906

Yamabito is a term from Japanese folklore. It refers to a group of people who, according to folklore and a few modern-day academics, are cultural holdovers from the pre-Yamato Jōmon period from thousands of years ago.

Believers say that the yamabito were descendants of an early race of people who were forced up into the mountains as the Yamato people spread northeast through Honshū and largely settled in the lowlands.

Spirited Away
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Yamabito legends are said to be the origin of the concept of being "spirited away" as depicted in the 2001 Studio Ghibli movie, which is filled with Shintō imagery. The "spirited away" concept is known as kamikakushi or being "hidden by kami", the Shintō deities or spirits.

There was a harsh academic argument in the 1910s as to whether the yamabito actually existed. Regardless of whether the Yamabito ever existed or not, the Yamabushi ascetic hermits and their Shugendō faith definitely exist.

The Emperor returned to power with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Emperor was extremely pro-Shintō because Shintō teaches that the Emperor is directly descended from the gods. Buddhism and Shintō had become blended through the centuries. The program to re-separate them started in 1868, with Buddhism being suppressed when there was any conflict. Shugendō was suppressed even more heavily, especially during the 1912–1926 reign of Emperor Taishō.

The religious activity here had been continuing for over a millennium, but it came to an abrupt end in the early 20th century.

The relationship between Shintō and the Japanese state was terminated with the end of World War II. Freedom of religion was established, and Shugendō began rebuilding.

The stone in these bluffs contains pockets of sodium sulfate and sodium chloride which are dissolved by water. The result looks somewhat like bread.

Tarumizu comes into view.
Tarumizu comes into view.
A girl looks up at the caves in the cliff faces at Tarumizu.

The Furumine Shintō shrine is once again being maintained. I climbed up to that second torii which was freshly repainted in bright vermilion.

Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.

Both the newer and the lower, older torii had the Shintō shimenawa rice straw or hemp rope. Shimenawa, sometimes with shide or zig-zag paper streamers, are believed to repel evil spirits and protect a sacred space.

Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.

Once through the lower torii I could better see the upper one and the shrine.

Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.

The vermilion torii at Shintō shrines are like doorways and gates at Buddhist temples, Judaism's Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques — they mark passages into increasingly sacred space.

Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.

The kami Inari is associated with harvests, foxes, and general prosperity. Worship of Inari began in the 9th century CE.

Kitsune are foxes with paranormal abilities who serve as Inari guardian figures and messengers. Veneration of foxes goes back to the Jōmon period when fox teeth and jawbones were used to create necklaces.

Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.
Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.

The high-altitude mountaineer Ed Viesturs is the only American to have climbed all fourteen of the world's 8,000-foot mountains, and was the fifth person to do so without using supplemental oxygen. He is famous for having written, "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down in mandatory."

Be like Ed. Don't go up anything unless you're certain that you can safely descend. Going down is always harder than going up.

Looking down from Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.
Looking down from Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.

Back down on the main trail, you can see the Furumine Shrine to your left and another shrine to your right.

Furumine Shrine at Tarumizu.
Nearby small Shintō shrine and statue of Buddhist deity Fudō Myōō at Tarumizu.

The steps in the last picture above lead up to a vertical crevice turned into a joint Shintō and Buddhist shrine. This is where the founding priest Ennin is believed to have stayed while studying and meditating in the 9th century CE. When you get closer, you can see that there's a small statue of a Buddhist deity on a high ledge inside the crevice.

The Buddhist deity was originally known in Sanskrit as अचल or Acala, "The Immovable".

Or, as अचलनाथ or Acalanātha, "Immovable Lord".

Or, as आयचिलनाथ or Āryācalanātha, "Noble Immovable Lord".

Japanese Buddhism simplifies this by using the name Fudō Myōō, the Immovable Wisdom King. He's a wrathful deity and protector of the Dharma, a remover of obstacles and destroyer of evil.

You can see the small statue of Fudō Myōō on a ledge about half-way up the crevice. It stands about knee-high, and is easier to spot just above the green mossy area in the second picture. The brass rattles and hanging ropes at the base are Shintō additions, used to awaken the kami or deity.

Small Shintō shrine, and behind it, statue of Buddhist deity Fudō Myōō, the Immovable Wisdom King, at Tarumizu.
Small Shintō shrine, and behind it, statue of Buddhist deity Fudō Myōō, the Immovable Wisdom King, at Tarumizu.

You can see green moss sustained by water dripping down through the crevice past the statue. Both lay people and ordained monks following Yamabushi mountain ascetic traditions of Shugendō would often take small statues of Fudō Myōō into the mountains for devotions. They would often place these statues near waterfalls or in caves. This location provided a combination of the traditional settings.

The origins of Minenoura as a religious center go back at least to Ennin's founding of Risshaku-ji in the 9th century CE. It may have already been a center for meditation and other practices when Ennin arrived, that may have been why he selected the location. Minenoura was active until the early 20th century, when the Meiji Restoration had led to state-linked Shintō and the cult of the Emperor. This area was suddenly and completely shut down.

I continued along the path, down the hill toward Senjuin Kannon-dō, the Buddhist temple by the road and rail line.

Continuing down the path from Tarumizu toward Senjuin Kannon-do Temple.
Continuing down the path from Tarumizu toward Senjuin Kannon-do Temple.

I saw a sign along the path, facing toward people coming up the slope and entering the area. I turned to see what it was about. It warned of possibly dangerous animals in the area. I had seen signs about monkeys and bears at the other end of the trail, just past the cemetery. But wait, there's more!

An estimated 10,000 Japanese black bears or Ursus thibetanus japonicus, a subspecies of the Asian black bear, live in Japan. They're not nearly as large as the Kamchatka brown bears found to the north on that peninsula and some islands, which in turn are far more mellow than the East Siberian brown bears. But still, don't mess with the local bears.

The Japanese boar lives throughout all of Japan other than Hokkaido in the far north and the Ryūkyū Islands that stretch from south of Kyūshū to Taiwan. It's a prominent figure in Japanese folklore, famed for being fearless and reckless. "As reckless as a wild pig" is a common Japanese metaphor.

The sika deer was once common throughout eastern Asia, from northern Vietnam north through the Russian Far east. Now it's rarely spotted in much of its historic range, except for Japan where it has become overabundant. The Japanese wolf was the main predator of the sika deer. The wolf became extinct and the deer population exploded.

How dangerous could deer be? They're bold to the point of belligerence. They swarm part of the city of Nara, where they're revered as messengers of the Shintō deities. Signs warn you not to bow to them, as they interpret that as an invitation to a head-butting contest.

There are plenty of hazardous animals to watch for, and this sign doesn't even mention the monkeys.

The Japanese macaque is sometimes referred to as the "snow monkey", largely because of tourism promotions showing them in hot springs surrounded by snow. They are relatively cold-tolerant, some of them live in areas snow-covered for months each winter. No other non-human primates live as far from the equator. However, they aren't native to Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands. Even purported "snow monkeys" have their limits.

Continuing down the path from Tarumizu toward Senjuin Kannon-do Temple.

The Japanese wolf or Canis lupus hodophilax was the last surviving wild member of the Pleistocene wolf lineage. Its skeletal remains have been found at Jōmon settlements, the earliest human settlements in Japan, and it probably followed the same overland route south into today's Japan during the last ice age.

Princess Mononoke
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The Japanese wolf was always portrayed favorably, as a divine messenger who also protected crops from deer and swine. Many shrines deify the wolf, invoking it to ward off evil and misfortunes. Wolves feature in Princess Mononoke, Wolf Children, and other popular anime.

Rabies appeared among dogs in Japan in the mid 1730s, and rapidly spread throughout the country. The disease reached wolves and turned some into vicious man-killers, leading to large-scale wolf hunts. After the Meiji Restoration opened Japan to western traders, fatal canine distemper virus spread from western dogs to the dogs and wolves of Japan.

Extended survival of Pleistocene Siberian wolves into the early 20th century on the island of Honshū,
Cell, 2021

New government policies established after the Meiji Restoration led to the wolves being completely exterminated. The last known Japanese wolf was captured and killed in Nara Prefecture in January 1905. Occasional sightings of what are claimed to be remnant wolves are still reported, but for the most part they're thought to be mistaken. See the December 2020 article in Cell for details.

The Japan Wolf Organization [English version here] hopes to re-introduce wolves to Japan. Wolves could curb the overabundance of deer and boars. And, one would hope, get those nasty monkeys under control.

Senjuin Kannon-dō Temple

I continued down the slope, unmolested by wildlife. The trail came out of the forest at Senjuin Kannon-dō and an attached cemetery. The –dō means that this is a Buddhist temple.

Senjuin Kannon-dō and its cemetery.
The Lotus Sutra
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The Mahāyāna bodhisattva अवलोकितेश्वर or Avalokiteśvara is known in China as Guānyīn and in Japan as Kannon. The Lotus Sutra states that Kannon appears in 33 different manifestations to alleviate the suffering of all living beings.

And so, Senjuin Kannon-dō is a temple which enshrines an image of Senjuin Kannon, the thousand-armed form of Kannon. This temple is the second stop on a local pilgrimage route visiting 33 temples, one per manifestation of Kannon.

The trail continued off to the left in the above view, passing some homes to end at the road that leads east from Yamadera. That took me down to the rail line.

The rail line continues east past Senjuin Kannon-dō toward Sendai.
Crossing the rail line near Senjuin Kannon-dō.

This crossing is 47.387 kilometers west along the line from Sendai. From here it's about another 10 km east to the Ōu Main Line, then 5 km along that to Yamagata Station.

Where I live in the U.S., rural crossings usually have nothing more than an unlighted X-shaped sign. No lights, no automatic barrier, no reflective warning markers on the gates or overhead cables. And certainly no emergency button to press in case of trouble. Freedom! (at frequently fatal levels)

Crossing the rail line near Senjuin Kannon-dō.

Look both ways and cross the rail line, then walk along the road for a short distance. There's a wide spot where a few cars can be parked, and a concrete torii over stairs leading up to the temple grounds.

Approaching Senjuin Kannon-dō through a torii.
Crossing the rail line near Senjuin Kannon-dō.

Again, look both ways before walking across the track. Then continue up the second flight of steps to the temple.

Senjuin Kannon-dō.

Ofuda or paper talisman strips of various colors are tacked up inside. Pilgrims write prayers on these strips and hang them at the temples along the way. The colors indicate how many times the pilgrim has completed the circuit.

Senjuin Kannon-dō.
Senjuin Kannon-dō.

It was a fairly short walk along the road from that temple to Yamadera Station. A bright blue snowplow locomotive unit is ready for the heavy winter snow. It has three clear view screens, a spinning glass disks within the front wind screen. They're commonly used on ships and locomotives. They were developed in the 1910s but never caught on in road vehicle designs. Too bad, they can work much better than back-and-forth rubber-bladed wipers.

Snow plow at Yamadera Station.

Buddhist temple and Shintō shrine at Suga waterfall at the base of Mount Haguro.
Next stage of the trip:❯
To Mount Haguro, a Shugendō holy site with 2,446 stone steps up the mountain through the forest, staying in a traditional ryokan and visiting temples at the base

Other topics in Japan:

Prehistoric Yamato
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Fodors Japan
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Tōhoku region, northern Honshū — Nikkō, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Mount Bandai, Yamadera, Mount Haguro, Aomori
Kansai region, central Honshū — Kyōto, Nara, Kōya-san, Ise, and Ōsaka
Inland Sea — Takamatsu, Naoshima and the art islands, Hiroshima
Kyūshū — Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Sakurajima, Oita, Mount Aso
Kantō region — Tōkyō and nearby
Background and Logistics

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