Ninna-ji, a sprawling temple complex in northwestern Kyoto a walkable distance from nearby Ryōan-ji and Kinkaku-ji, is the head temple of the Omuro school, part of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Founded in 888 and designated as a World Heritage Site in 1994, the temple grounds are home to a special breed of cherry trees called omuro sakura, fascinating architecture, beautiful gardens, and an interesting hiking course. Because of its long history as a temple receiving imperial patronage, Ninna-ji possesses many National Treasures and several Important Cultural Properties, and in addition to more traditional Buddhist worship halls also has the Goten, constructed in a lavish residential style worthy of the name “Omuro Palace” that shows how emperors of old would have lived.
The temple grounds are home to a special breed of cherry trees called omuro sakura, fascinating architecture, beautiful gardens and an interesting hiking course.
When visitors arrive at Ninna-ji they are greeted first by a giant wooden gate called the Niōmon, or the “Two Kings Gate”. The gate is 18.6m (61.4ft) tall and has a distinctive irimoya (hip and gable) roof, built in the wayō style that originated in the Nara period (710 - 794). It is one of the three great temple entrance gates in Kyoto, and is named for the two Kongōrikishi statues, one on each side of the gate’s entrance. Misshaku Kongō on the right and Naraen Kongō on the left are armed, fierce guardians of Buddhism that also symbolize the birth and death of all things.
The brightly colored Chūmon (Middle Gate) stands between the Niōmon and the main hall of worship, the Kondō Hall. This gate was built during the reconstruction of the temple in the early 17th century, and it is said to be a prime example of Edo Period architecture. On the left and right sides of the gate you can find Deva King Guardians standing watch.
Five Story Pagoda
Ninna-ji’s 36.18m (118.7 ft) pagoda was completed at the end of the Kanei Era in 1624, and towers over its surroundings, visible from most anywhere in the complex. Inside the first story the walls and posts are colorfully painted, and five Buddhist divinities are enshrined within. The general public is usually prohibited from entering the pagoda and it is only occasionally that officials are allowed to go up, but it still makes an amazing sight from the outside. Despite its towering height, the clever engineering of the pagoda’s construction with a central pillar, as well as the flexibility of the wood make it resistant to damage by earthquakes.
Flowers in full bloom
the paths of Omuro
bustling with people
Ninna-ji Temple is home to some very special sakura (cherry blossom) trees. Not only do these omuro sakura bloom much later than your average sakura, but they are also much shorter in height. The cherry trees usually start blooming in March in Kyoto, but the rare omuro sakura often come into full bloom in mid-April. These late blooming sakura only grow to around two meters in height, so walking through the trees ends up feeling like you’re wading through cherry blossom clouds. The beauty of these dwarf cherry trees has been admired since the Edo period, and many poems have been written about it throughout the ages. The grove was even designated a national scenic beauty spot in the 13th year of Taisho period (1924).
One of the most interesting structures in the Ninna-ji complex is the Goten, also called the Omuro Palace. Once the residence of the temple’s abbot, who was traditionally a member of the imperial family, the Goten is fittingly constructed in a style more reminiscent of a palace residence than a temple. With multiple buildings connected by covered walkways over beds of moss and carefully laid white gravel, the interior of the Goten contains many tasteful fusuma-e (painted sliding screens) that depict delicate scenes from nature, most notably trees and birds. With alcoves and split-level shelves over fine tatami with lacquer and cushioned seats, the Goten allows visitors a glimpse back into how the elite once lived.
The North Garden
The North Garden in the Goten area was originally completed in the 17th century. The garden is designed in a “pond-viewing” style and features a large pond with a waterfall in the shape of the Chinese character “心”, which means “heart” or “spirit”. Though beautiful all year round, it is particularly lovely in summer when lilies bloom on the water’s surface. The garden also features white sand that is carefully raked into parallel stripes daily, as well as a 200 year old teahouse called the Hitō-tei. Visitors can view the garden best from the veranda of the Shinden (main building). Prepare to sit there for a long time, as you can easily get lost in the serenity of just staring at this lovely garden.
88 Temple Hike
Behind Ninna-ji Temple on Mount Joju is a short hiking trail called “88 Kasho”. It is modeled after the popular 88 Temple Pilgrimage Route in Shikoku, Japan. It was built in the Edo Period for those who could not make the long journey to Shikoku, since the pilgrimage route there is 12,000 kilometers long and takes about two months to complete. Luckily, the route behind Ninna-ji only takes around an hour to an hour and a half to finish. During the hike you will come across many small worship sites - 88 to be exact! The temples are spread out about 150m apart, and during your trek you will also come across some interesting statues and enjoy a stunning panoramic view of Kyoto once you reach the top.
When the Amida sect of Buddhism was being popularized in Kyoto, the 58th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Kōkō, declared a temple be built in the foothills of western Kyoto for the purpose of enshrining Amida Buddha and propagating the teachings. A noble’s villa became the designated site, and construction of the temple, to be named Nishiyama Gogan-ji, was begun. However, Emperor Kōkō passed away before construction was completed, leaving it to be finished under his son Emperor Uda.
The temple was dedicated in 888 and given the name Ninna-ji in honor of Emperor Kōkō, whose regency had been posthumously dubbed the Ninna Era. The first abbot is said to have been a disciple of the famous monk Kōbō Daishi. Less than ten years after Ninna-ji was founded, Emperor Uda abdicated the throne at age 31, and at age 34 in the year 900 he entered the temple as member of the Buddhist priesthood under the name Kongō Kaku. From this period onward until 1869 it was customary for an Imperial family member such as the son of an Emperor to serve as chief abbot of Ninna-ji, establishing it as a monzeki temple receiving Imperial patronage and importance.
Like many structures at the time, Ninna-ji was destroyed by fire during the Ōnin War in 1467. The temple was rebuilt 150 years later by Prince Kakushin Hosshinnō, son of Emperor Go-Yōzei and 21st abbot of Ninna-ji, who managed to enlist the financial support of Tokugawa Iemitsu, third shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, timing his request to the reconstruction of the Imperial Palace. Most of the temple’s current structures date back to this massive reconstruction, as does the temple’s famous grove of dwarf cherry blossom trees.
Despite Ninna-ji’s loss of its monzeki status following the reign of the 30th abbot of Imperial lineage, Prince Junnin Hosshinnō, it continued to enjoy its status as the head temple of the Omuro school of Shingon Buddhism, and in 1994 was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- General Admission: Goten: ¥500, Reiho-kan Hall: ¥500, Sakura Season: ¥500
- High School Students: Goten: ¥500, Reiho-kan Hall: ¥300, Sakura Season: ¥500
- Junior High School Students: Goten: ¥300, Reiho-kan Hall: ¥300, Sakura Season: ¥200
- Elementary School Students: Goten: ¥300, Reiho-kan Hall: Free, Sakura Season: ¥200
- General Admission: 09:00 – 17:00 (March – November), 09:00 – 16:30 (December – February)
- Closed: No closing days
- From Ryōan-ji Temple ⇒ 10 minutes walking
- From Kyoto Station ⇒ City Bus Route 26 ⇒ Omuro Ninna-ji-mae Bus Stop ⇒ 2 minutes walking
- From Kyoto Station ⇒ JR Bus towards Takao, Kyōkitasen ⇒ Omuro Ninna-ji-mae OR Omuro Higashi Bus Stop ⇒ 2 minutes walking
- From Sanjō Station ⇒ City Bus Route 10 or 59 ⇒ Omuro Ninna-ji-mae Bus Stop ⇒ 2 minutes walking
- From Hankyū Ōmiya Station or Hankyū Shijō Station ⇒ City Bus Route 26 ⇒ Omuro Ninna-ji-mae Bus Stop ⇒ 2 minutes walking
- By Keifuku Kitano Line (Randen) ⇒ Omuro Ninna-ji Station ⇒ 2 minutes walking