Kyoto is the most popular tourist destination for foreign visitors to Japan by far and it should be no surprise that every attraction easily gets crowded. But what if I told you there is an ancient great temple and recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site that actually does not receive many visitors even though its well-worth visiting? Well, that place would be Ninnaji, a Buddhist temple located in north-western Kyoto which serves as the head temple of the Omuro School.
The temple grounds
When you enter through the massive gate, the first thing you will notice is how spacious the temple grounds are and as you walk along the paved path towards the main hall you will come by the “Goten”. The Goten served as a residence for the head priest of the temple, who in fact were members of the Imperial Household for several generations. The residence is built in a similar style as imperial palaces with its elegant buildings connecting up with one another by covered corridors. At the heart of the residence lies an exquisite rock and pond garden of which you can enjoy the changing leaves and calmness of Ninnaji in autumn from the residence’s raised floors. Like many temples in Kyoto from the early Heian period (794-1185), Ninnaji was originally built as a palace of which you may notice some hints in the carefully planned and designed architecture of the residence. Emperor Koko ordered its construction, but he died before its completion and his son would later convert the residence and its grounds. He named the temple after the name of the calendar’s year of the temple’s completion, Ninna Temple or Ninnaji.
Note that there is no admission fee for the temple grounds (except during the cherry blossom viewing period), but there is one for the Goten at 500 yen for adults or 300 yen for junior high and elementary school students. Making your way up towards the main hall, you will notice it is flanked by a Treasure Hall on one side and an exquisite five-story pagoda on the other. The Treasure Hall is only open to the public twice a year for a minor admission fee and houses many of the temple’s ancient treasures such as precious statues, scrolls and scriptures. The temple grounds encompass several more non-excisable buildings, such as a bell-tower and the monks’ dorms.
If you want to make your travel story about Kyoto even more interesting, you might want to consider staying overnight at a World Heritage Site. It is a little-known fact that some temples, like Ninnaji, offer you to stay overnight. Staying the night at Ninnaji’s Omuro Kaikan Hall allows you to attend the morning service with the monks and you will also receive a free pass to enter the Goten. The rates do not depend on your room size but on your age and number of guests as there are several room sizes available to accommodate guests, including single as well as family rooms. Essentially, staying overnight starts at 5,200 yen for an adult or 4.700 for child per night without meals, but if you wish to enjoy traditional Kyoto cuisine prepared at the temple’s kitchen you can do so for a small additional fee. The restrooms are shared with other guests on your floor and everyone shares two public baths which are of course separated by gender.
More information on reservations and rates here.
The hidden path
After enjoying a good night’s rest, morning service and delicious breakfast there is another hidden secret behind Ninnaji few people know about. When you exit Ninnaji from its western gate to turn right you will see a shrine hidden away in the forest with a path that leads across the mountain ridge. This path is often hiked by worshippers as there are dozens of small temples along its path, but any visitor will easily feel swept away by the amazing views the ridge offers over the city. Hiking along this path takes about an hour and is partly paved with stairs, so it is not particularly exhausting. However, if you visit during the swelling Kansai summer please make sure you bring plenty to drink and occasionally take a rest.
Getting to Ninnaji
Kyoto’s city buses 26 and 59 stop at “Omuro Ninna-ji”, which is right in front of the main gate. Like most temples in Kyoto Ninnaji opens to the public at 9:00 until 17:00 from March to November and closes half an hour earlier from December to February. Lastly, there are several small and affordable eating establishments and cafés along the road in front of the temple to recover from your visit.