It was on July 13, 1689, during his Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Road to the Deep North”) journey to the northern provinces, that Basho made his way to the Risshakuji mountain temple also commonly known as Yamadera. He arrived in the afternoon of this July day, when the safflower plants grown widely throughout the Yamagata plain were in full bloom. In his Oku no Hosomichi travel narrative, completed five years later, Basho writes about Risshakuji with language normally used to describe rocky Chinese mountainsides, and includes the following haiku: shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe (such stillness– / the cries of the cicadas / sink into the rocks [translation: Donald Keene]).
Risshakuji Temple was not one of the famous places that traditionally appeared in poems of old, and Basho originally had no plans to visit, but he chose to do so on the recommendation of the residents of Obanazawa, where he was staying. Risshakuji Temple is said to have been established in 860 by Ennin (posthumously known as Jikaku Daishi), the third zasu (head priest) of the Tendai Buddhist sect. The steep mountain face features striking rocky formations with many small caves and openings, and buildings of the Risshakuji temple complex are scattered throughout the mountainside. Visitors walk up 1015 steps to reach the summit, enjoying the many Buddhist stone statues and magai-hi, large rocks and stone faces carved with posthumous names of the deceased and Buddhist images, which can be viewed from the path.
Yamadera has not gone unnoticed by the French “Michelin Green Guide Japan,” which recognizes it with a two-star “recommended” rating. For the people of Yamagata, Yamadera has special significance as a place where the spirits of the departed are believed to gather, and it is believed by some that the cicada in Basho’s Yamadera haiku is used to symbolize the souls of the deceased. Today, the appeal of Matsuo Basho and his haiku remain as strong as ever, drawing many tourists and visitors to the Yamadera area.