Kon-do: Main Hall

Kon-do, borrowed from the official Chinese Ninna-ji blog

I mentioned Kon-do in an earlier post about hajitomi (the distinctive lattice shutters on Kon-do, Shinden, and Mie-do), but today I will be offering more background on the main hall of the temple.

Originally built in 1613, Kon-do served as a hall for state ceremonies (shishinden 紫宸殿) at the imperial palace. In the 17th century Kon-do was given to Ninna-ji during the reconstruction of the temple. Kon-do was taken apart at the imperial palace and reconstructed on the temple grounds during the Kan’ei Era. The temple’s principle image of Buddha, the Amida Triad (Amida Buddha and two attendant deities) made by Unsetsu was enshrined within Kon-do in 1644, the same year construction was completed. There were relatively few changes made to the building during its reconstruction; the shingle roof was replaced with tiles and an altar was constructed inside, but other aristocratic architectural elements such as the latticed shutters (hajitomi) remain. Kon-do is 12.6m (41.3ft) across and 9m (29.5ft) deep with a hip-gable roof.  As the oldest building of its style still in existence today, Kon-do has been designated a national treasure of Japan.

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Chokushi-mon: Gate of the Imperial Messenger

Chokushi-mon from outside the palace
The Chokushi-mon is visible on the left after entering the temple through the Nio-mon. Behind this gate lies the South Garden and the palace area (“Goten”) of the temple. The Chokushi Gate was destroyed in a fire in 1887 and was rebuilt in 1913.  Many other parts of the palace were destroyed in this fire, and those buildings as well as the Chokushi Gate were reconstructed under the careful observation of architect Suekichi Kameoka. The Chokushi Gate is considered a truly magnificent example of the “Kameoka-style.”

The Chokushi Gate was built as a gate for the Emperor to pass through in order to enter the palace grounds. Outside of any visits from the Emperor, the gate is opened once a year for a festival that originates at nearby Fukuōji Shrine. The mother of Emperor Uda is enshrined there, and every year in October there is a procession from Fukuōji Shrine to Ninna-ji Temple in order to bring the mother to visit her son.
Chokushi-mon close-up

Niō-mon: Gate of the Two Guardian Kings

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The first thing most visitors to Ninna-ji Temple see is the Niō Gate. The gate stands 18.7m (61.4ft) tall featuring a tile irimoya (hip-and-gable) roof and two stories. The present Niō Gate was constructed between 1637 and 1646 after the original gate, along with other structures on the temple grounds, was destroyed during the Ōnin War. The gate is built in the Wayō (和様) style, a Japanese style that originated in the Nara Period (710-794).

On the left and right sides of the gate stand statues of the two guardian Deva kings. On the interior side of the gate, two mythical lions sit directly behind the Deva kings. The Niō Gate along with the gates at Chion-in and Nanzenji are considered to be the three great sanmon-style gates of Kyoto (京の三大門). These three gates were constructed during the same period, but the Wayō style of Niō-mon offers a contrast to the Chinese Zen-style architecture of the other two gates.DSC02118

Omuro-zakura: Omuro Cherry Trees

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Ninna-ji Temple is home to a special variety of short, late-blooming cherry trees. In many parts of Kyoto cherry trees start blooming as soon as March, but the Omuro Cherry Trees are much slower to blossom, often coming into full bloom in early to mid-April.

The Omuro Cherry Trees have been at the temple since the Edo Period, and have been beloved by many for hundreds of years. The beauty of the trees in bloom and their special characteristics have been recorded in many poems. The practice of flower-viewing at Ninna-ji Temple is even recorded in the Keijo Shoran, a guidebook to Kyoto’s famous sites created during the mid-Edo period (18th century). This long history ultimately led to the designation of Ninna-ji Temple’s cherry tree grove as a nationally recognized Place of Scenic Beauty (“meisho” 名勝) in 1924.
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Until recently it was thought that the height of the trees was due to the presence of bedrock under the grove that stunted the roots and the trees’ overall growth, but recent research has discovered that clay-like soil, not bedrock, lies beneath the cherry trees. This clay-like soil offers less oxygen and nutrients for the trees, and this appears to be one reason why the roots of the trees are shallow. Although it was not bedrock to blame, the main assumption that the roots are not able to grow deep into the ground was not mistaken. Research on the trees continues today, and we will update as more is learned about what makes the Omuro Cherry Trees so special.

Historical Overview

 Ninna-ji Temple, Nio-mon

Ninna-ji Temple was founded in the 4th year of the Ninna Era (888) by Emperor Uda, the 59th emperor of Japan and the first Japanese emperor to ever retire from the throne to become a monk. The retired emperor became the abbot of the temple, and there continued to be a member of the imperial family serving as the abbot at the temple until 1869.

Ninna-ji has unfortunately been the site of several major fires, to which the original buildings have been lost. The entire temple was ruined in the late 15th century during the Onin War, a 10 year struggle for power that  began in the city of Kyoto. Most of the current buildings date from the 17th century reconstruction sponsored by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was also during this reconstruction that the temple’s famous late-blooming cherry trees were planted.

Ninna-ji Temple is currently the headquarters of the Omuro School of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. Ninna-ji also serves as the headquarters of the nationally known Omuro School of Flower Arrangement. In 1994 the temple was officially designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is home to national treasures and several buildings certified as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government.