Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. The free shrine is a popular place to visit during spring for its plum trees and fall for its autumn foliage, as well as during its monthly flea market. In this post, we’ll share photos from our experiences here, tips for visiting, whether it’s worth your time.
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is the first shrine in Japan with an actual person, Sugawara Michizane, enshrined as a deity. He is associated with Tenjin, and now best known as the “god of academics,” as well as the “god of agriculture,” “god of honesty and sincerity,” “god of dispelling false accusations” and “god of performing arts.” The shrine was built in 947 AD as a place of peace.
There are now as many as 12,000 shrines in Japan dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, but the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is the first and main shrine. Following Michizane’s death in exile, numerous disasters were attributed to his vengeful spirit, and these shrines were built to appease Sugawara Michizane.
To this day, people wishing for superior abilities and Japanese students who pray for good scores on their tests visit Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, making it especially crowded during final exams.
The layout of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is one of its most intriguing aspects. The main shrine, worship hall, and the Ishi-no-Ma Hall have combined roofs above them and are interconnected. This unique, multi-building construction method is called “yatsumune-zukuri.”
The current shrine was built by Toyotomi Hideyori during the twelfth year of the Keicho era (1607 AD) and is designated as a National Treasure of Japan. The main shrine buildings, Ro-mon Gate, and Sanko-mon Gate were all constructed at the same time, and all feature ornate golden decorations, detailed sculpting, and vivid colors.
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is one of the best places in Japan to view ume or plum blossom trees. The 2,000 ume trees in the shrine’s garden were planted due to Sugawara Michizane fondness for them. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine holds a plum blossom festival every year in February and March when the flowers bloom, at which time the Bai-en (ume garden) is open to the public.
Additionally, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine hosts a special tea ceremony, called Baikasai, in the Bai-en every February 25th, where the geiko and maiko of Kamishichiken come to serve matcha and sweets.
In the fall, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine opens its Momiji-en (autumn maple garden), which is home to 350 maple trees. Here, hundreds of maple trees circle a valley and line the garden’s river, and are illuminated in the evenings until 8 p.m. (While the shrine’s official information lists “only” 350 maple trees, it sure felt like a lot more to us.)
Finally, every month on the anniversary of Sugawara Michizane’s death, on the 25th of each month, there is a flea market called “Tenjin-san’s Festival” that is held on the outer areas of the shrine’s grounds. From 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., hundreds of vendors sell food, antiques, crafts, toys, and various used items.
We attended the flea market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine during the heart of fall colors season, and calling it absolutely bonkers would be an understatement. We love markets like this as they’re a great place to buy antique souvenirs and eat random street food, but this was just too congested.
It probably didn’t help that the weekend we went also coincided with Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the popular autumn foliage season. With that said, we’d definitely go to the flea market again, but probably not in February or November. Those months, you’re better off going some other day.
Speaking of February and November, those are really the times to visit Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. There are some neat architectural flourishes and the inter-connected construction of the main shrine buildings is interesting, but not enough to justify the trek here.
It’s a different story during plum blossom and fall colors seasons, when the gardens are absolutely stunning. The colors are beautiful, and due to the difficulty of accessing Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, you’ll be amidst a crowd that’s almost exclusively locals. (Even though there’s tour bus parking here, we’ve never seen one–probably owing to the location, or perhaps we’ve just been lucky.)
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is open from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. April through September, and 5:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. October through March. Admission to the main shrine grounds is free.
The special garden openings in February/March and November cost 700 yen. That might seem steep, but it’s well worth the money, as it includes a sweet and cup of matcha.
In terms of accessing it, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is a challenge. You can reach the shrine via Kyoto City Bus numbers 50 or 101 from Kyoto Station, or indirectly via the Karasuma Subway Line or JR San-In Line followed by bus numbers 102 or 203, getting off at the Kitano Tenmangumae bus stop.
Almost no one is going to be coming from Kyoto Station. If you’re visiting Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, it’s going to be from the Golden Pavilion, Daitokuji Temple, Nijo Castle, or another near-ish point of interest. From the Golden Pavilion, it’s only around a 20 minute walk, which is the closest major point of interest.
As you might’ve gathered, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is somewhat isolated, and it’s difficult to slot into an efficient Kyoto itinerary…which is part of the reason why so few tourists visit. While we really enjoy Kitano Tenmangu Shrine when the gardens are open for plum blossom or fall colors seasons, it’s otherwise a shrine you should skip.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kitano Tenmangu Shrine? What time of year did you visit? Did you think it was worth the effort? Would you recommend this shrine to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!