Risshaku-ji

Top choice in Northern Honshū (Tōhoku)

The 'Temple of Standing Stones', more commonly known as Yamadera, rests atop a rock-hewn staircase weathered over the centuries by unrelenting elements. At the foot of the mountain, guarded by a small lantern, is the sacred flame, Konpon-chūdō (根本中堂; ¥200), said to have been transported from Kyoto many centuries ago.

The San-mon (山門) gate marks the start of the climb – some 1000 steps that take you past carvings so mossy and worn they appear to be part of the landscape. It's a steep ascent – a sort of walking meditation – but one that makes the views from the top, of the surrounding mountains and bucolic countryside below, that much more spectacular. During the summer months, the electric whir of cicadas is almost overpowering.

Past the Nio-mon (仁王門), through which only those with pure souls may enter (be honest now!), the path splits, heading right to the Oku-no-in (奥の院; Inner Sanctuary) and left to the Godaidō (五大堂). The latter, an 18th-century pavilion perched on the cliffside, has the most arresting views.

For a better shot at a measure of the meditative bliss that so inspired Bashō, visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It's possible to visit Yamadera during winter, though if you arrive just after a snowfall, the paths may not yet be shovelled.