Ninnaji Temple (仁和寺) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northwest Kyoto, Japan. It’s one of the few high-profile with free admission to the grounds, and it’s near popular spots in Arashiyama. In this post, I’ll share photos I took at Ninnaji, info & tips for visiting, history of the temple, and thoughts on our experience at Ninnaji.
The free grounds at Ninna-ji Temple offer quite a bit to see across a fairly large and well-landscaped area. Most notable is the towering five-story pagoda visible from far outside the temple, but the massive Niomon Gate (one of the three most important gates in Kyoto, along with the Sanmon Gates at Nanzenji and Chion-in Temples) is also noteworthy, as are the important Buddhist statues, and of course the beautiful halls.
The grounds of Ninnaji also feature many Omuro Sakura, or late-blooming cherry trees. Sakura season is the one time of year when Ninnaji Temple is said to be busy, when many visitors come to see the cherry blossoms, as well as the Reihokan Museum/Treasure House, which is only open for short windows for special viewings in the fall and spring.
Now let’s take a look at the history of Ninnaji, info and tips to improve your visit to the temple, and anecdotes from our experience here…
The site of Ninnaji Temple originally served as a summer villa for the Imperial Family (known as Omuro Palace), seeking to escape the heat of the centrally-located Gosho Palace.
Construction of a temple in Northwestern Kyoto was ordered by Emperor Koko, who died a year later, in 886 to advance the teachings of buddhism. Emperor Uda, who became its first head aristocratic priest (monzeki), completed Ninnaji Temple in 888.
For nearly 100 years after its founding, it was custom for the Imperial Family to send the Emperor’s son to Ninnaji to act as head priest. This practice ended in 1869 at the beginning of the Meiji Period when the Imperial household relocated to Tokyo. Following that and until the end of the Edo period, Ninnaji saw a succession of head priests of imperial lineage.
Much of Ninnaji was destroyed by fire and the Onin War during the 15th century; the temple was rebuilt in the 17th century with many buildings relocated from Kyoto Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
Those moved include buildings designated as Japanese National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. Most of the buildings present today at Ninnaji Temple date to this 17th century relocation/reconstruction.
Info & Tips
Ninnaji Temple is directly across the street from Omuro Ninnaji Station along the Keifuku Kitano Line, which services points of interest in the Arashiyama area. This connects the temple to Kyoto Monkey Park, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and other popular spots in this district.
From Kyoto Station, Ninnaji Temple can be reached directly via bus 26. From central Kyoto, the JR San-in Main Line will get you to Hanazono Station, which is a fairly short walk to Ninnaji Temple. As with all points of interest in Kyoto, you should consult Google Maps for the most efficient train route based upon your location and departure time, as there are almost always 2-3 ways to access any temple in Kyoto.
Personally, I find the temples and shrines in this area of Arashiyama and Kitano to be among the most frustrating to access. Most require a convoluted train route or use of buses, and the trip takes longer than it should. For this reason, we typically recommend walking from the Golden Pavilion to Ryoanji, and from there to Ninnaji Temple.
Admission to the grounds of Ninnaji Temple is free, except during special events (namely cherry blossom season) when a fee applies. Access to Goten Palace, which we highly recommend, requires a 500 yen admission.
Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ninnaji is very much an under-the-radar temple. You won’t find it listed prominently in many (any?) guidebooks about Kyoto, and its popularity pales in comparison to Ryoanji. Despite Ryoanji having overflow tour bus parking that’s to the right of Ninnaji’s entrance (it’s literally closer to Ninnaji than it is Ryoanji!), you won’t find those groups here.
An itinerary that puts the Golden Pavilion as the first stop of the day or the last stop of the day will put Ninnaji either two stops before or after Golden Pavilion (so, closer to midday, either way). In our estimation, this is the perfect approach. Ninnaji’s lack of crowds make it a perfect middle-of-the-day stop.
Our Experience & Review
Unlike the famous temples on the Higashiyama side of Kyoto that we’ve visited many times over, we’ve only been to Ninnaji Temple once thus far. Our reason for this is pretty straightforward: there’s not much that draws us to Northwestern Kyoto.
The day we finally made it here, we were testing a Northwest Kyoto to Arashiyama itinerary to see how much we could reasonably accomplish in a day starting at the Golden Pavilion and finishing in the vicinity of Kyoto Monkey Park. This was our third stop of the day, and was totally dead. We saw maybe 10 other people the entire time we were there–significantly fewer than at either of our first two stops.
As we finished wandering the free areas in Ninnaji Temple, we discussed how it rated for us relative to Kyoto’s other temples. Perhaps due to the name similarities, but my mind instantly turned to Nanzenji, another temple with free grounds and added charges for particular buildings.
At that point, I was inclined to rank it highly–somewhere in the top 20–but a good distance behind Nanzenji. While the pagoda and main gate here are both impressive, Kyoto has other pagoda that I find just as impressive, and I’ve never been overcome with awe when viewing main gates. Our thinking was that Ninnaji’s grounds were excellent, but offered nothing particularly unique.
We try to find a “flagship” item of interest at each place we visit–something of unparalleled quality or that cannot be found at other temples in Kyoto. With so many temples in Kyoto, these elements are a necessary way to distinguish one from another so they don’t just blur together. Nanzenji has exactly that in its aqueduct, and that thing impresses the heck out of me. My simple mind is in awe of both its design and function.
Then we entered the Omuro Palace (Goten), and the calculus was changed entirely. After only a few minutes strolling through this Imperial villa, it became obvious to us that this is its flagship offering. From the landscaped gardens to the covered corridors, it was the most remarkable residence we had walked through in Kyoto.
Among all of that, what resonated with me the most are the main rooms of Goten’s imperial residence. Each of these feature fusuma and wall paintings that depict one of the four seasons. These scenes were painted by famed artist Insho Domoto depict Sakura Season, Arashiyama’s Aoi Festival, Imperial Autumn Boat Outing, and Winter Falcon Hunt.
These scenes are incredibly detailed, and I spent a lot of time trying to ascertain the details of each fusuma. I may or may not have used my zoom lens like binoculars for a good ten minutes of this. I might’ve looked like a dope in the process, but these scenes were so beautifully composed and dense with detail that I couldn’t resist. I have zero regrets.
All told, we were both very impressed by Goten (in discussing this after the fact, it’s clear I enjoyed it more than Sarah, but she still liked it a lot), and we spent roughly an hour in Goten alone. Part of this was because no one else was there, so we sat gazing out at one of the rock gardens for a while. I loved Goten, and would go as far as to say that it elevates Ninnaji Temple into the elite tier of Kyoto temples.
Ultimately, even if all of this is unpersuasive, there’s still no excuse not to visit Ninnaji Temple. You are almost certainly going to visit the Golden Pavilion, and once you make that long trek to Northwestern Kyoto, you might as well stop at Ninnaji. At worst, you waste 15 minutes and zero yen making a quick pass through the free grounds on your way to Omuro Ninnaji Station to catch the trolley to the monkey park. At best, you spend a couple of hours here, strolling the beautiful grounds, soaking up the incredible ambiance, basking in the relative lack of crowds, and making the wise investment of 500 yen to see one of Kyoto’s highlights in Goten Palace. Our prediction is that the best case scenario is pretty likely for most visitors who roll the dice on this unheralded temple.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Ninnaji Temple? What did you think of it? How do you think its free area compares to other popular temples in Kyoto? What about the Omuro Palace (Goten)? Would you recommend Ninnaji Temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this Temple 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!