Take a Trip to Ninna-Ji, One of Kyoto's Oldest Temples

For centuries now, Buddhism has prevailed alongside Shintoism as one of Japan’s most fundamental religions. All over the Japanese archipelago, you’ll find both temple and shrine remnants as well as structures that have been established over a thousand years ago still standing today. Head to Kyoto, and you’ll get the chance to see one of the Prefecture’s most sacred and historically significant temples, Ninna-Ji Temple.

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Ninna-Ji Temple: The Basics

Fully constructed by Emperor Uda in 888, Ninna-ji (written as “仁和寺” in Japanese) is part of Buddhism’s Shingon Sect. Under that sect is a school that teaches its principles, called the Omuro school. This school has designated Ninna-ji as its head temple.

The current address of this head temple is 33 Ōuchi Omuro, Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, which is found in Kyoto’s western region. The deity that it is dedicated to is Amida Nyorai, otherwise known as Amitabha. This area is now labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site, specifically under the category of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” category.

More Info About the Shingon Sect

There are many schools under Buddhism. Shingon Buddhism is one of them, and it falls under the lineage of Vajrayana. Shingon Buddhism, being a subgroup of this lineage, is particularly most popular throughout East Asia. “Shingon” came from the Chinese word “Zhenyan” (真言), translated as “true words”. Zhenyan is the Chinese reference to the word “mantra”, which is a Sanskrit word.

It is no surprise then, that the Vajrayana lineage originated from India, which then made its way to China. This was primarily thanks to several dedicated monks who spread the word. Examples of these monks include Amoghavajra and Vajrabodhi. The religion eventually found its way to Japan because of the proximity and influence of China over Japan during the country’s initial formative years.

What would evolve as a philosophical hit in Japan were the teachings of Kukai (空海), who was a famous Japanese Buddhist monk – among many other things, such as being a scholar, poet, and civil servant. His teachings were called “tangmi”, and were very esoteric in nature. Later, Kukai would be given the title as the Founder of Shingon Buddhism. 

The History of the Ninna-Ji Head Temple

It was during the Heian Period (794 – 1185) that the Ninna-Ji temple was established, and was only done so in two years after it was ordered to be built in 886. Although Emperor Koko was responsible for initiating the construction of this temple, he passed away before it was created, thus holding Emperor Uda accountable for its founding. 

The man who named this head temple “Ninna-Ji” was Emperor Uda, and he did so to honor the late Emperor Koko’s regnal year. 

A Tradition for Nearly a Millennium

Emperor Uda would also go on to become an aristocratic priest – the first of its kind - which in Japanese is called a “Monzeki”. This became a tradition ever since, and the temple would continue to have many more head priests with royal blood report to this temple. It would take a little under thousand years of this practice, ending right until a year after the Meiji period began – 1869 – when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Until then, the temple would take in one of the sons of Japan’s reigning Emperor to become its head priest every time the spot needed to be filled.

There were 30 Monzeki in total, who, through hundreds of years, served Ninna-ji. The last one was Junnin Hosshino, who was the temple’s chief up until the final year of the Edo period.

A Fire That Ruined It All

During the Onin War, a fire ravaged the temple, destroying most of what stood on the temple grounds. This occurred in 1467. It took 150 years for Ninna-ji to be reconstructed, and it was done so under the orders of Kakushin Hosshinno (who was Emperor Go-Yozei’s eldest son). He acquired assistance and capital to do so by convincing Tokugawa Iemitsu to help him in his endeavor. His timing was fortunate, because while the Ninna-ji was being rebuilt, so was Kyoto’s Imperial Palace, thus making it convenient for Tokugawa Iemitsu to allocate some of the imperial funds to the reconstruction of Ninna-ji. 

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Architecture Lives On

Luckily, Ninna-ji’s different buildings are in decent condition. Many of the structures that stand here are mostly from what was rebuilt by Kakishin Hosshino in the 1600’s. The one that is designated the National Treasure of Japan is the Golden Hall. 

The others, which fall under the category of “Important Cultural Property of Japan”, include the Chumon, Chumon of Miei-do, Hito-tei, Kannon-do, Kyozo, Kyusho-myojin, Miei-do, Nio Gate, Omotemon of Honbo, the five-story Pagoda, Ryokaku-tei, and Shoro. 

As for the buildings that exist but have not been given titles, these are the Chokushimon, Kuro Shoin, Reimeiden, Shinden, and Shiro Shoin. 

Your Quick Guide to Ninna Ji

Ninna ji temple ranks 15th place out of the 1,245 listed things to do in Kyoto. Nearing 1,000 reviews on the TripAdvisor website, it has a star rating of 4.5 out of 5. It also has the certificate of excellence, so you know you can’t go wrong just spending a couple of hours enjoying the view. 

This temple draws many visitors every year, though the nearby temples like Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, Toji, and Myoshinji may tend to attract even bigger audiences. Guests can decide to either walk and bask in its beautiful, tranquil gardens and scenery, try their accommodation services instead of booking a normal hotel (though you need to make reservations to avail of this), or both can be done.

Try Lodging in a Temple in Japan; Stay in Ninna-Ji; A “Shukubo” For All

As for the Ninna-Ji Temple itself, it is open for those who want to spend a night experiencing what life is like on the temple grounds. It was once part of many Buddhist temple’s old traditions but was later monetized after the war as a creative means to allocate funds for the aging temple. No matter what religion you have, you can still pay to stay in a Buddhist temple. However, not all Buddhist temples do this – only a few. Those few are called “Shukubo” in Japan.

In Ninna-Ji, your room is located at the Omuro Kaikan Hall. Once you’re there, you will see all you need to know about the rules, regulations, and practices of Ninna-Ji as a shukubo. However, these may not be printed out or explained in English, and there may not be a guide ready to help in many instances. 

Only in Japanese

If you do understand Japanese, or have a companion who understands Japanese, experiencing what it’s like to sleep in a shukubo is a worthwhile experience. The monks even allow you to join them in their morning service, which is performed at Kon-do. There are many different buildings within Ninna-ji, and one of them is a small palace called “Goten”. If you are a guest in their shukubo, you will be given free admission to the Goten.

Details of the Guest’s Quarters

There are only 12 guest rooms in Ninna-Ji. The style of each room follows the traditional Japanese format – so yes, there are tatami mats. Within these 12 guest rooms, the maximum count of people that you can fit in here is 66, though the rooms differ in size. There are only two restrooms, both of which are to be shared by all the guests, and are found outside the guest rooms. 

Inside the guest rooms, there is a small television, a safe, and an air conditioner. You will be given yukata to wear, as well as the complementary face towel, shampoo, and a toothbrush set (soap can be found in the bathing area). You can check in starting at 4 PM, and check out at 9 AM. Breakfast is served at 7:30 AM and dinner is served from 6 PM until 6:30 PM. 

Lodging Fees

The price of staying in Ninna-ji depends on only two things; if you’d like to eat the meals served by the temple (the kind of food served to guests is Kyoto cuisine, and is not vegetarian), and how old you are. One night for an adult, including breakfast and dinner for an adult, should cost around 9,500 yen.

With those same specifications, accommodation for one night for a child will cost you 7,500 yen. For accommodation and breakfast only, an adult will be charged 6,000 yen, a child will be charged 5,500 yen. Lastly, if you don’t want to avail of the meals, lodging will cost you 5,200 yen for an adult, and 4,700 yen for a child. All listed prices already include tax. To make a reservation, visit Ninna-ji’s website, and fill out their form. An e-mail should soon follow to confirm your reservation. 

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Visit the Garden in Ninna-ji

Unlike other temples that are crowded, this temple is often overlooked and is thus much more spacious. Here, you can truly have a moment of Zen and peacefulness. Within the compound are several buildings – but what connects each building is a serene and lush garden, that brims with trees that have been there for hundreds of years.

Within this garden are many trees that have leaves that turn into warm, gorgeous shades of yellow, red, and orange during fall. During summer, spring, and autumn, these trees frame the tip of the towering Ninnaji temple, which can be seen from quite a distance. Winter sees caps of snow that top the different leaves and branches, and coat the roofs of the different structures with bright white frost. The garden, as well as the entirety of the compound, take each season with grace. 

See Omuro Sakura Trees When You Visit the Ninnaji Temple in Spring

Speaking of gardens, this temple is, in fact, known for its orchard of 200 cherry blossom trees that tend to flower later in spring than most cherry blossoms do. These trees are smaller-sized than the usual cherry blossom trees (dwarf cherry trees) and have been planted there for around 400 years, which dates to the beginning of the Edo era. 

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Learn Ikebana at the Omuro School of Flower Arrangement

Coincidentally, the Omuro School of Flower Arrangement (sort of an Ikebana University) sees Ninna-ji as its head temple as well. Flower arrangement is no simple task of bunching up plants together - Japanese culture has close affiliations when it comes to creating art via arranging flowers following a strict set of criteria that have been around for ages. This Japanese art is called “ikebana”, and it is exactly what you learn when you attend the Omuro School of Flower Arrangement. 

Opening Hours and Fees of Ninna Ji Temple

This temple is open from 9 AM until 4:30 PM from December until February. Other than that, it is open from 9 AM to 5 PM. It usually takes 1 to 2 hours to properly and thoroughly visit and explore this cultural and historical landmark. 

During most of the year, you won’t have to pay to take a stroll in the garden. However, cherry blossom season during spring garners a 600-yen fee to come see the special tree orchard in full bloom inside. As for the buildings, Omuro Palace or “Goten” costs 500 yen to enter, while the Reihokan also costs 500 yen. 

How to Get from Arashiyama to Ninnaji

To get from Arashiyama to Ninnaji, first, take the Keifuku Kitano line that heads to Omuro Ninnaji Station. From there, it’s only a few steps away. Otherwise, you can take a JR bus if you’re coming from Kyoto Station. A bus ride from here will cost you 230 yen and has a travel duration of 30 minutes. These buses show up at intervals of 15 to 30 minutes. These buses usually accept a JR Pass.