Hail and well met travelers! Today, we’ll be taking a look at the mysterious Muro-ji. Found in the eastern sections of Nara Prefecture, far away from the ever-adorable deer, this Buddhist temple is a spot that often pops up on Instagram these days. At the same time though, due to it being located in one of Nara’s most rural regions, few overseas visitors to Japan actually ever make it down to the complex. Given that it is one of the most spectacular autumn sights that I’ve ever seen, it’s high time that someone give Muro-ji its due justice.
As far as the historical records show, Muro-ji was founded over a millenia ago by the now-mythologized-but-actually-real mystic En-no-Gyoja. Thereafter, the compound was allegedly refurbished by the famous Kukai sometime before he founded his Shingon Buddhism enclave atop Mt. Koya. At some point during its impressively long legacy, Muro-ji became a tributary temple to Kofuku-ji (you know, that sprawling compound with the pagoda in the middle of Nara Park?) and this connection to one of Nara’s principal properties continued for centuries.
For those of you who are interested, know that the Muro-ji temple complex and the surrounding infrastructure pays homage to the dragon god Ryujin. According to local folktales, the emperor of Japan and his imperial court have often came to Muro-ji to worship for ample rains such that there may be a good harvest. Around one kilometer from the main compound, you’ll find a shrine known as Ryuketsu Shrine which is said to be one of the homes of the dragon deity himself. If you believe the tall tales, Ryujin is said to be able to bring the rains so maybe the Heian period (794–1185) court was onto something.
Myths aside for a second, one standout regarding Muro-ji is that it was often considered to be the women’s Mt. Koya. While the now-famous mountaintop complex presently welcomes worshipers of all genders (and you definitely ought to spend the night there), Mt. Koya traditionally was open only to men. Fortunately though, the Muro-ji temple compound made itself available to all genders from the get go, thereby earning it the nickname of “Nyonin Koya” or “the Koya for Women.” As you may imagine, this led to a number of nuns flocking to Muro-ji over the years.
Additionally, another point of interest that caught my attention was that the Muro-ji temple complex and the surrounding mountains were often used as training grounds by various people. In addition to the typical mountain ascetics that you’d expect in a place like this, this hilly part of Japan was also favored by the ninja of nearby Iga as a place to hone their skills. That’s right, not only was this a hidden spot perfect for seeking spiritual perfection, it was also a great place for shinobi to practice in secret too!
All things considered, Muro-ji is a hidden gem that you really ought to add to your bucket lists. Especially during the months of autumn, the temple grounds are incredibly striking and you could spend the better part of a day just meandering about the dozen or so buildings on site. Though Muro-ji is not something that you should come all the way over to eastern Nara for alone, it is one of several splendid attractions in the region and therefore definitely worth considering as one stop on your tour.
By the way, I realize that I am more than a bit late in publishing this one for the fall foliage. My autumn in 2022 was jam packed with all sorts of adventures and I am only now getting around to catching up on a lot of the places that I visited. Suffice to say though, if you ever find yourself in Nara Prefecture during the middle of November, you really ought to budget some extra time to visit the likes of Muro-ji. It’s really one of the most stellar places that I’ve visited to date.
How to Get There
I am going to do everyone a favor and assume that you’re already in Nara for this one. Should you not know how to get there, just plug in the Kintetsu Nara Station into a service like Jorudan and it will calculate the connections for you. For most readers out there, you’re going to want to combine an excursion to the Muro-ji temple complex with a trip to the prefecture’s famed Nara Park. For example, you could arrive in Nara on day one, play with the deer and then head on to Muro-ji on the second day.
Once you start off the day in Nara, you’ll want to use the JR Nara Station to go to Sakurai Station via the local Sakurai Line. From there, you’ll want to transfer to Kintetsu’s Osaka Line and get off at Muroguchi-Ono Station. Once at the station, the final leg of the journey will require you to take a bus ride over to Muro-ji. While this final foray from the bus stop will take but a few minutes, there are only a handful of daily departures. Thus, you’ll want to use some sort of tool to check your connections in advance.
Seeing as access to Muro-ji via public transportation is not exactly what one might call “convenient,” it might be easier to instead employ the use of a rental car. Doing so will allow you to maximize your travel time and skip out on standing around at the bus stop waiting for the next one to come. Moreover, having your own set of wheels will allow you to see some of the other nearby sights which I’ll detail in the “Other Nearby Attractions” section at the end of this article.
For reference, know that Muro-ji is located in Nara’s Uda City. This can be reached from the area around Nara Park in around an hour by car. To reach the 8th century temple compound, you’ll need to make your way down to the part of the prefecture near where Omiwa Shrine is. From there, you’ll head east and eventually come across a long tunnel the burrows under the mountain. Once you’ve passed through it, you’ll come out to where Muro-ji is. Note that there are a number of parking lots along the river so just pick whichever is empty.
What to See at Muro-ji
More so than a singular attraction, Muro-ji is a place that has several areas of interest to it. Like with many other large temples of its kind, you’ll find a host of buildings strewn here and there. In addition to Muro-ji’s various halls , the compound has one of the oldest standing wooden pagodas in all of Japan. From what I can gather, the spire was built around the start of the 9th century meaning that it predates the first Norse settlers who arrived in Iceland and was around during the reign of Charlemagne. Now, THAT is a pagoda with some real history to it!
In addition to the 1,200-year-old pagoda, Muro-ji’s Kon-do (lit. “Golden Hall’’) is also a structure that has stood the test of time. The building dates from the early Heian period and is a National Treasure of Japan along with the aforementioned pagoda. Inside of the ancient Kon-do, you’ll find an arrangement of Buddhist statues. In total, there are five large, halo-backed statues with twelve smaller figures in front. Among their count, those well acquainted with Buddhism and its effigies should keep their eyes peeled for the likes of Kannon, Shakyamuni Buddha, etc.
For the most part, the lion’s share of Muro-ji’s infrastructure is clustered around the Niomon Gate. This vermillion arch can be found towards the entrance to the compound. In addition to the previously noted pagoda and Kon-do, this part of the complex is also home to both the Miroku-do and the Kanjo-do, Muro-ji’s main hall. While not boasting quite as much history as the other national treasures on the temple’s grounds, this pair of wooden temple buildings does date from the late Kamakura period (1185–1333) and is equally as charming.
To access the four-hall set, you’ll want to pass through the Niomon Gate and then climb a set of stone stairs called the Yoroi-zaka. After your quick ascent, you’ll find yourself near the core collection of temple halls mentioned thus far. If you’re hungering for more and up for a challenge though, I suggest that you head deeper into the sacred forest until you come across a 700-step staircase that will take you to the top of Mt. Muro. Here, you’ll find Muro-ji’s Oku-no-in. While it’s quite the climb, the experience more than makes up for it!
Finally, know that Muro-ji is also famous for its rhododendrons (see the image at the start of this section for a visual). Every year from mid April to early May, these flowers blossom amidst the forest on the temple grounds. Should the timing work out for you, be sure to budget an additional hour or so after your for the rhododendrons. While autumn is my favorite time for Muro-ji, these late spring blossoms are a great alternative too should you not be in Japan during the fall.
Other Nearby Attractions
During my stint in eastern Nara last year, I combined my visit to Muro-ji with a stop at Nara’s Hase-dera. This temple complex is the twin sister of the one down in Kamakura (they share a set of wooden Kannon statues carved from the same tree) and is absolutely stunning during the months of autumn. Should you not mind the back-to-back dose of Buddhism, I suggest hopping back on the Kintetsu Osaka Line and heading over to Hase-dera. In addition to Oka-dera, and Abe Monju-in, Hase-dera and Muro-ji make up a pilgrimage of four temples in Nara. While I haven’t done it myself, it seems there’s a bus tour that will cart you around to the quartet.
Seeing as eastern Nara is quite close to Iga-Ueno, I also suggest that you go and learn about the historically authentic ninja who hailed from there. Unfortunately, the story of the shinobi has been muddled beyond any and all historical recognition by the likes of Hollywood and other such media. Thus, a trip to Iga-Ueno is something of a reset and will allow you to learn the truth behind these shadowy figures. Just be sure to plan your logistics ahead of time; You’ll need to be very mindful of the trains if you’re not using a rental car as departures are few and far between.
Speaking of rental cars, I have one final suggestion for you if someone in your group can get behind the wheel. Following my visit to Hase-dera and the topic of today’s article, my anime-loving travel companion and I made a beeline for Yagyu Village and its Itto-seki. Located in the rural parts of northeastern Nara, this hamlet is home to a stone that inspired the iconic scene in Demon Slayer (A.K.A Kimetsu-no-Yaiba) where Kamado Tanjiro finally slices the boulder in two during his training. I’ve already covered Yagyu Village at length here so just refer to my existing treatise on this amazingly underrated spot for more info.
Until next time travelers…