July 25, 2017

Secrets of the “Ninja Temple”

Kanazawa's Ninja-dera is a temple that has been designed to function as a concealed castle. The building is full of false doors and deadly traps.

Kanazawa's Myoryu-ji, the so-called "Ninja-dera" or "Ninja Temple"

Ninja-dera is a temple in Ishikawa Prefecture’s city of Kanazawa. I had intended to only include this attraction as an afterthought in my area guide for the region. Despite my initial plan though, I was so overwhelmed by Ninja-dera that I decided it needed its own article. This place EASILY ranks among my top 10 best hidden gems so if you’re in the area be sure not to skip it.

Officially known as Myoryu-ji (lit. “Oddly Built Temple”), on paper Ninja-dera is just another Buddhist temple from the Nichiren sect. Don’t let it’s appearances deceive you though. The inauspicious structure hides a covert fortress filled with traps and secret doors. Though technically a religious facility, the local lords designed Ninja-dera to serve as a defensive outpost in the event of an attack.

From the outside, Ninja-dera appears to follow the feudal era regulations that forbid structures over three stories. The temple’s interior however is an entirely different matter. Due to the fact that only monks could venture past the main sanctum, the structure’s true purpose remained undisclosed. Officially Ninja-dera has four floors but when one takes into account all the hidden levels, this total rises to seven.

Kanazawa Castle on a sunny day in Ishikawa Prefecture

Most of the temple complex is built around a 25-meter deep well. According to local legend, this connects underground to the nearby Kanazawa Castle. Supposedly Kanazawa’s lords could move unhindered via this subterranean passageway during an attack. The temple is also host to many other pathways to safety such as the hidden door behind the main altar.

The temple’s network of 23 rooms and 29 staircases makes for a confusing layout. Furthermore, the whole structure itself is rife with traps and auto-locking doors. It is often said that Ninja-dera is so complex that it’s nigh impossible to find your way out alone. More so than a place of worship, Ninja-dera is a labyrinthine maze designed to obfuscate!

Luckily for you though, the temple offers guided tours from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM. Reservations can be made in advance or on site. In busy travel seasons, it would behoove you to call ahead if possible to ensure availability. Unfortunately for the monolinguals though, these 1,000 yen tours are conducted in Japanese-only. That said, there’s an English guide book you can follow along well enough with.

Photography is strictly not allowed inside of Ninja-dera. Because of this, I cannot visually show you all the crafty ingenuity that went into building this military outpost. While I also don’t want to spoil all the fun, be sure to keep an eye out for some of the following!

  • Akari-Tori Stairs
    The vertical part of these stairs are made from traditional Japanese shoji paper. They allow a guard hiding below to trace the outline of any would-be hostiles. While lurking in the shadows, it would then be child’s play to get the jump on anyone foolish enough to attack the temple!
  • Pitfall Trap
    On the left hand side of the main altar is a hidden drop than can be concealed with floor boards. Enemy attackers would fall through the trap and find themselves in a underground room. The stunned assailants would then be easy prey for any of the guards awaiting below.
  • Seppuku Room
    In war, it was often customary for Japanese to take the heads of vanquished enemies. This room was designed to to prevent this should the situation turn dire. If escape were impossible, a lord could retreat to this self-locking room. Once he trapped himself inside, he could commit seppuku then burn the whole temple down with a flame kept in the room.

Getting to Kanazawa & the Ninja Temple

The bus stop section of Kanazawa Station in Ishikawa Prefecture

As mentioned, Ninja-dera is located up in the city of Kanazawa. For most people, this means you’re going to need to first either take the bullet train or an airplane. Be sure to consult Hyperdia or a similar service for the best route for you. Given the distance, you’re also going to want to plan on overnighting.

Once you’re in Kanazawa, make your way towards the station’s bus terminal. You’re going to want to keep an eye out for the Kanazawa Loop Bus. To get to Ninja-dera you will need to take the left loop to Hiroko-ji (bus stop LL5). From there it’s just a few minutes walk.

Here’s a link to a Google Map that will take you to the front door of the temple…

Where Are All the Ninja at in Kanazawa?

A lone ninja sits at a table drinking sake

Despite the name, Ninja-dera actually has no connection to the ninja. Unfortunately for enthusiasts, you won’t find the stealthy warriors of legend here! The temple earned its nickname due to its extensive collection of traps and secret doors. To find a real ninja you’ll have to head to a place like Iga or Koga.

Even so, Ninja-dera is not without its unsolved mysteries. For one, no one knows the identity of the man responsible for the temple’s defenses! It was very common for scholars to document architectural accomplishments, especially for something as impressive as this. For some reason though, no such legacy exists for Ninja-dera.

Luckily though, a nameless architect doesn’t detract from Ninja-dera’s marvels today. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I’ve been to a lot of spectacular places across Japan. Without a question, Ninja-dera easily ranks among the best of the best. If you’re in Kanazawa, you can’t afford to miss this one!

Attractions Near Kanazawa’s Ninja Temple

The Western Chaya District of Kanazwa near where Myoryu-ji (A.K.A. Ninja-dera) is

Ninja-dera is located right next to the Western Chaya District. You’d do well to check that out after visiting this secret-laden temple. For more information on things to do in Kanazawa, check out my area guide on the city!