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A Comprehensive Look at the Cultural Stay Experience at the Famous Ninna-ji Temple in Kyoto

In May 2018, the famous Kyoto temple, Ninna-ji, began taking reservations for a program to stay overnight and experience Japanese culture. The announcement drew great interest, partly due to the cost of one million JPY per night. What is the experience guests can have for this price? We interviewed a priest at Ninna-ji Temple to find out!

What is Ninna-ji Temple?

In Japan, temples where members of the Imperial Family have lived after entering priesthood are called “monseki temples” and are considered to be of the highest status. Ninna-ji is the leading temple among all the monseki temples. It was headed by abdicated emperors, as well as their children and grandchildren, for 1,000 years since its founding in 888.

Due to its close connection to the Imperial Family, Ninna-ji Temple became a gathering place for members of the Imperial Family and other people of culture, who together formed what is known as “Ninna-ji Culture”. A variety of cultural trends and works, from literature to painting and architecture, originated from the temple. The number of treasures collected over its long history is more than 100,000, including 12 groups of 88 items that are designated as national treasures of Japan.

Ninna-ji Temple is now famous as one of Kyoto's leading tourist destinations. It has majestic buildings, such as the Kondo (main hall) and Five-storied Pagoda, and is registered as a World Heritage Site. There is an audio app called “On the Trip”, which you can use to learn about the history and heritage of the temple in English, Korean, and Chinese (simplified and traditional).

What is Ninna-ji Temple?

33 Omuro-ouchi, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Access and Entrance Fees

To get to Ninna-ji Temple, take the City Bus No. 26 from Kyoto Station for about 40 minutes. Alternatively, you can walk for about 15 minutes from Hanazono Station on the JR Sagano Line. From Keihan Sanjo Station, it is about 40 minutes on City Bus No. 10 or 59. Look for the huge Nio-mon gate.

Entrance fee: 500 JPY/adult and high school student, 300 JPY/elementary and junior high school student

Cultural Experience Program Inaugurated at Ninna-ji Temple

The historical Ninna-ji Temple now offers a special cultural experience program targeted at affluent travelers to Japan. The following details are based on a conversation with Masahiro Nagaoka, the head of the educational program at the temple.

Inquiries: (Contact: Yakura)

Overview of the Program

First, can you give us an overview of the program?
"It is offered as a part of the Iroha Nihon Project by The Nippon Foundation. For 1 million JPY (excl. tax) per night, a group of guests is welcomed in a historic house called ‘Shorin-an’ to have a variety of experiences unique to Ninna-ji Temple*."

The Iroha Nihon Project is a limited-scale cultural program for tourists from overseas that includes an overnight stay at a Buddhist temple that is normally closed to the public, with activities that tourists would otherwise be unable to experience. The goal is to increase awareness of the value of Japanese culture both in Japan and overseas, as well as to cultivate a better understanding of Japan and an interest in its cultural properties.

*Additional fees required for experiences

What is Shorin-an?

What kind of building is Shorin-an?
"We have many cultural properties in Ninna-ji Temple, but some of them were not being utilized. Shorin-an was one such building."

Shorin-an is a 2-story wooden structure with a Japanese tearoom. It was bequeathed by the Hisatomi family, who had close connections with Ninna-ji Temple. It is a simple yet elegant building that did not have a specific function for some time.

Why was this particular building chosen for overnight accommodations?
"Shorin-an has a unique and playful structure with, for example, a taiko-bashi* inside. It is hard to maintain as it is not eligible for government assistance, but it is a valuable building that should be preserved for future generations. We therefore decided to renovate it into overnight accommodations and utilize it as a part of The Nippon Foundation's Iroha Nihon Project.”

*An arch-shaped bridge

Transition from Traditions Into the Future!

While keeping some of its original design elements, such as the taiko-bashi, the building was renovated into a space with a modern Japanese feel. Most of the furniture comes from Japanese manufacturers (design by Yukiko Ono of Ono Interior Consultation). A cultural property without a use was reborn as an overnight accommodation where guests can relax in leisure.

So, the program was initiated to reutilize a cultural property?
"One of Iroha Nihon Project's objectives is to effectively utilize cultural properties that are not subject to government assistance and to use any revenues derived from them to preserve and hand down Japanese culture. In the case of Ninna-ji Temple, we have renovated and are utilizing Shorin-an, and are contributing 20% of the revenues from it to the protection of cultural properties across Japan."

The program at Ninna-ji Temple represents a new model for preserving and restoring cultural assets. It is an endeavor to connect traditions with the future.

What Cultural Experiences Are Available?

What are the cultural experiences offered through this program?
“We do not offer a specific plan. Rather, we provide guests the opportunity to have their own experiences drawing on the resources of the World Heritage Site, Ninna-ji Temple. The ultimate benefit is the opportunity to borrow Goten Palace for a night.”

Goten Palace is the place where generations of head priests have performed their official duties. It is a highly distinguished area with a chokushimon (imperial envoy gate) that only opens when members of the Imperial Family or imperial envoys are visiting or special events are held. It consists of seven buildings, two tearooms, and two gardens (the south garden and north garden).

So, guests can have this luxurious space to themselves?
"The 1 million yen fee includes not only overnight accommodation in Shorin-an, but also the opportunity to utilize this historic space themselves. Of course, we are open to discussion about seeing other cultural properties in addition to Goten Palace."

What Experiences Will Guests Have in the Goten?

What, specifically, are the experiences guests have in the Goten?
"Our last guests had the garden lit up and enjoyed dinner in a building called ‘Shinden’ while listening to music played on Japanese instruments. They were thrilled by the experience of living like a Japanese aristocrat and uttered the word ‘amazing’ over and over."

The Shinden is one of the main buildings of Goten Palace. It is an elegant and stately space with dazzling folding screens covered with gold leaf​, and was used for rites and ceremonies. It is shrouded in a particularly mystical atmosphere when it is lit up in the evening.

You'll Find Authentic Japanese Culture Here!

So, the guests have a unique experience that takes their requests into consideration?
"We always have discussions with the guests in advance to develop a customized plan for them. They can, for example, listen to gagaku (old Japanese court music) or experience ikebana (flower arranging), chado (tea ceremony), and shakyo (hand-copying sutra). They can even spend their time wearing junihitoe (twelve-layered ceremonial kimono, historically worn by women of the court).”

Those all seem like exceptional experiences that one wouldn’t get to do regularly, don’t they?
"They can also enjoy the tranquility and listen to the sounds of the water and frogs, or gaze at the white sand in the garden shimmering in the moonlight."

This is an opportunity for those interested in Japanese culture to gain wonderful and irresistible experiences. Through the fascinating Goten Palace, one can truly understand Japanese culture and wisdom with all of their senses.

What is Unique to Ninna-ji Temple?

All this is possible because it is at Ninna-ji, a temple with great history.
"Our hope is that guests feel something that is unique to Ninna-ji Temple, whether that be its history or culture, and take it home with them once they’re done with their visit."

This is how Nagaoka concluded our conversation. There are reservations for this program during the fall tourist season, with plans for guests to listen to the priests' shomyo​ (chants used in Buddhist ceremonies) while appreciating the moon. Doesn't thinking about what you can do if you were to take over this space for yourself get you excited?

Goten Palace is open to the public during the day, so anyone can go to see it. If this has piqued your interest, why not visit and see one of the best places to experience Japan's outstanding traditions and culture for yourself?

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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