Jionji – 12 Heavenly Generals, Yamadera to Zao 慈恩寺から蔵王

Zao Okama

Day 53, October 2016,

It is a cold, cloudy, rainy morning with the sun trying to break through at times. Local people are delivering produce to the shops in michi no eki Nishikawa. There are also some chairs set out in the car park. As time passes, more and more people arrive, bringing chairs, to sit wrapped up in warm clothing. They are clearly saving places for some event though quite what is not obvious. We leave after breakfast but there is still no sign of whatever it is they are waiting for.

Jionji Temple  慈恩寺

We drive to Jionji temple in Sagae city. We saw photographs of the Buddhist Images in this temple in the Domon Ken Gallery at Sakata. Unfortunately, the main hall is covered in scaffolding and sheeting, as it is being re-thatched, but we can enter and are given an informative guided tour. The ceiling is covered with floating deities and a central dragon. The walls are covered in old pictures in a sad state of repair. The temple, apparently, does not have the cash for restoration. A number of these pictures are of horses and we learn that, this being a horse producing area, the temple was gifted an embarrassment of horses until they requested pictures rather than actual beasts. This saved a lot on feed.

The temple had many very old Buddhist statues, one of which was found inside another that was destroyed by fire. Yet another, that x-ray examinations showed, had teeth even though the mouth was closed in the usual enigmatic smile. This in itself is not particularly unusual, apparently, but this particular one had a gold tooth. Another statute had been opened, because it rattled, and was found to contain a large number of Buddhist sutras written in type A blood.

Goshuin - Jionji


*20 min. walk from Uzen Takamatsu St. on Aterazawa line

*15 min. by car from Sagae IC.

12 Heavenly Generals  十二神将

We move to a smaller hall – Yakushido that houses Yakushinyorai with 2 attendants. Yakushinyorai, or the Medicine Buddha, is the manifestation of healing. A guide gives me a personal explanation in English which I thought was very kind but D. tells me later we paid for it.

Behind this triptych, and in attendance, are the 12 heavenly generals we have come to see. These are smaller than we imagined but nonetheless impressive, beautiful works. No photos are allowed, so my Damon Ken ambitions remain unfulfilled. The generals also represent the 12 animals of the 12 year cycle.  Not that the generals are depicted as animals but as humans with very realistically carved, expressive features – with some animal tendencies. Only the rat has a crown. The guide says maybe they all had crowns originally but the others have been lost in the various fires and, he says, wars which are not usually mentioned in this context.

I had always been surprised at the number of temples destroyed by fire several times over. OK there are lots of candles and incense burning in wooden buildings with paper walls but even so I concluded that the monks must be a very careless bunch.

Yamadera (Risshakuji temple)  山寺(立石寺)



From Jionji, we drive on to Yamadera to be met by a scene totally different from that of our previous visit. That was in early winter a couple of years earlier. On that occasion, the place was magnificent. It was snowing heavily adding to the Temple the kind of magic only snow can bestow plus we were virtually the only visitors.

This time the bus tours have arrived by the score and we join a procession of visitors climbing to the upper buildings. The climb itself is not so difficult, even though we had climbed 1.7 km of steps the day before, and Yamadera is wonderful. Well worth a little effort even with the crowds. If you intend to visit, I would advise you do it in the winter, during a snowstorm, if possible.

One visitor did not manage the climb and had collapsed on the steps about 3/4 of the way up. An ambulance unit arrived with a stretcher to carry him down. This was not easy even with a team of about eight as the track is steep, narrow and winding in places.

Godaido in Yamadera

Godaido in Yamadera

*15 min. train from Yamagata St.

*15 min. by car from Yamagata north IC – R.48

Zao  蔵王

After Yamadera we push on to Miyagi prefecture and Zao. This means a long drive up the mountain but, unusually, you can drive almost to the top. At the top it is very cold and we can see the frost forming on the bushes the beginning of the ice trees famous in this area.

Torii at Zao Shrine

Torii at Zao Shrine

Zao Shrine

Zao Shrine













The view of the crater lake and the surrounding mountains is frequently completely obscured by the clouds. Whenever the gas lifts, we are rewarded with the ranges of mountains all around – a vast sumi-e painting. And far below, the late afternoon sun glinting on the windows and reflective surfaces of the distant city. It has been a sunny Sunday in Miyagi and the famous Zao has more than its share of visitors.

Goshuin - Zao shrine

Goshuin – Zao Daigongen

Down the mountain to michi no eki ‘Murata with a busy shop selling various kinds of potatoes and daikon. It has no onsen but we decide it will do for the night.

* Zao IC (Yamagata highway) – R.286 – Pref. R.167 – Nishi Zao Kougen line -Zao Echo line –      Zao High line (540 yen)


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