In the mountain village of Murou, you can visit Murouji, a beautiful Buddhist temple, and also Ryuketsu Shrine, a mysterious Shinto shrine. Enjoy the cool mountains, the sound of the river, and the scenes of ancient sacred sites still preserved today. If you want to experience the beauty of a Japanese shrine or temple without the crowds, choose this hidden gem in Nara Prefecture.

If you’re visiting Murou Village, you may also wish to consider visiting the nearby Murou Art Forest.

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What is Murouji?

Murouji is a Buddhist temple located in the village of Murou. It is famous for its small pagoda, its history of accepting women worshippers at a time when they were largely forbidden, and for its atmosphere in general; it is often said that the temple blends with nature, rather than trying to conquer nature. The main Buddha of worship is Shaka Nyorai, the Buddha of Enlightenment.

In the 770s, Prince Yamabe (who would later become Emperor Kanmu) became gravely ill. Murou priests performed a ritual and he miraculously recovered. Because of this, the Imperial Court ordered a monk named Kenkyo (who belonged to nearby Kofukuji Temple) to build a temple in gratitude. Kenkyo unfortunately died in 793, before completion, and the responsibility of construction passed to his pupil Shuen.

Murouji originally belonged to the Kofuku Temple group in Nara, and they supplied the first priests. But in 1698 the temple changed its affiliation to Shingon Buddhism. (For more on Shingon Buddhism, please see below.)

Murouji has a long history of progressive values toward women. The temple first opened its doors to women in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), at a time when women were commonly forbidden to enter temples because they were known as a “distraction.” Further, in the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Shogun’s mother Keisho-in gave a sum of money to Murouji. The money was used for repairs and renovations, and its relationship with women followers deepened.

There is a Rhododendron Festival in May, and on the 21st of every month, guests can see a special image of Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism.

Buildings of Murouji

  • Niomon. Constructed in 1965, it marks the entrance to the temple.
  • Kondo. Built in the late 9th century. National Treasure. Contains wood carvings entitled The 12 Heavenly Generals.
  • Mirokudo. Originally built in the 13th century but has had modifications. Important Cultural Property. Houses a statue of Miroku Bosatsu, Buddha of the Future. This figure’s special characteristic is its disproportionately large head, which makes him look like a child.
  • Hondo. Built in 1308, National Treasure. Its centerpiece is a representation of Shaka Nyorai, the Buddha of Enlightenment. This wood statue was carved in the 8th century and is 234.8cm tall.
  • 5-Story Pagoda. Built around 800, 16m high. In 1997, it was severely damaged by a typhoon, and was repaired in 1999-2000. Researchers took this opportunity to examine the wood and found it was logged in 794. 2nd oldest wooden 5-story pagoda. Smallest wood outdoor pagoda.
  • Kanjodo. Holds a figure of Nyoirin Kannon figure carved during the Heian era (794 – 1185). 78.7cm tall. People ask this deity for health, longevity and easy childbirth.
  • Yoroi-zaka. This is the name given to the staircase just after the gate. The stones are said to look like armor, hence the name which means “armor hill.”
  • Okuno-in Mie-do. This building is at the top of the temple and houses an image of the Shingon founder, Kukai (or Kobo-daishi). It is open to the public on the 21st of every month. Important Cultural Property, built during the late Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

What is Ryuketsu Shrine and Kissho Ryuketsu Cave?

Ryuketsu Shrine is a shrine built in the village of Murou to enshrine and honor a ryu-jin or “dragon god.” Dragons are a symbol of the ocean and water, and this dragon-god is said to be responsible for the rainfall, rivers and in general clean water of the Murou area. The exact date of the construction of the shrine is unknown, but it is said to precede the construction of Murou Temple. The ryu-jin of this particular shrine achieved greater recognition and popularity after being credited with saving the life of Prince Yamabe; this event also prompted the imperial court to demand construction of a temple in Murou as a commemoration. Thus, Murouji is related to Ryuketsu Shrine because without the assistance of the ryu-jin, Prince Yamabe would not have been saved, and Murouji would not have been built.

Ryuketsu Shrine is located just up the road from Murouji. Near the shrine is a narrow, winding mountain road which leads to Kissho Ryuuketsu Cave. The trail, clearly marked off the main road by a sign and a parking lot, is steep but well-constructed. The trail leads to a waterfall, a worship pavilion and a cave where the ryu-jin is said to live. Please do not venture off the trail or attempt to enter the cave (which requires crossing a swiftly-moving stream).

Though passable by car, the road is very narrow and includes several blind turns; hiking is recommended instead of driving. It is approximately a thirty-minute hike from Ryuketsu Shrine to Kissho Ryuketsu Cave. Please be aware there is no cell phone service at the top.

Access to the Murou Area

Take the Osaka-Kintetsu line to Murouguchi-Ono Station, then take a bus to Murou Village. From the bus station, the temple is about a five-minute walk. Please be aware that the final bus leaves the village at 4:30.

430 Yen one-way.
* Indicates weekends and holidays only.

From Station to MurouFrom Murou to Station
8:20 *8:50 *

Murouji is open from 8:30 to 5:00 (April through November) or 9:00 – 4:00 (December through March). Entry is 600 yen for adults or 400 yen for children. Please be aware that the last bus from Murou Village departs before Murouji closes.

Ryuketsu Shrine is free and is open during daylight hours. It is a twelve-minute walk from Murouji up the main road, on the right. A Google Maps link is here.

Kissho Ryuketsu Cave is a thiry-minute hike from Ryuketsu Shrine. The praying area is free and open during daylight hours; please do not attempt to enter the cave. A Google Maps link is here.

Kukai, Founder of Shingon Buddhism

Kukai was a traveling priest in Japan for many years before he stumbled upon a mysterious text, written in ancient Chinese and Sanskrit which he couldn’t understand (even though, like most well-educated people at that time, he was fluent in modern Chinese). He realized that he would need to go to China to learn the teachings of the text, and he went in 804. He soon met a Chinese monk named Huiguo, the leader of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism. (Shingon Buddhism is also known as Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, so the point here is that Huiguo was the leader of the religion which Kukai would eventually bring to Japan. In other words, Huiguo was a big deal.) Huiguo was on the verge of death, but had foreseen Kukai’s arrival and believed he would be the one to bring Esoteric Buddhism to Japan. Due to miraculous powers Kukai received throughout his previous years of meditation (siddhi), he was able to absorb all of Huiguo’s teachings, which were passed down orally because the religion has no written doctrine. Huiguo passed away and then Kukai returned to Japan to spread the religion. He is most famous for establishing the religion on Mt. Koya (which, in contrast to Murou Temple, did not allow women).

Kukai died in 835 at the age of 61. He was also known by his followers as Kobo-Daishi, or, after death as Odaishi-sama.

Introduction to Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism is also known as Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. It has very few books explaining it; even in Japan, not a single book regarding it was written until 1940. Even today the religion has no written doctrine and traditions are passed down orally. As such, much of it is unknown and only the most loyal of followers know all parts of the religion. (As a side-note, “esoteric” means “intended for, or likely to be understood by, only a small number of people with specialized knowledge or interest.” This is probably why the religion is known as Japanese Esoteric Buddhism.)

The religion was very popular during the Heian period, especially with the nobility, due to its ownership and influence in several key temples in the Kyoto area. It also greatly influenced the arts and culture of this time.

The main tenets of the religion state that enlightenment is possible in this life by cultivating an inner nature, called Buddha-nature, with the help of a genuine teacher. The religion features a long training process, and though there are no written tests or certifications, all teachers are thoroughly trained before being allowed to take on students. A key feature of the teaching style is the teacher’s ability to adapt to the student, rather than the other way around. The religion stresses that body, mind and speech must be disciplined.

From the outside, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish this sect of Buddhism from other sects. However, most Japanese people can make the distinction by only one event: the Goma Fire Ritual. This ritual varies in size and execution depending on the temple, but always involves a fire, invoking the deity known as Fudo Myo (Acala). The ritual may involve beating on taiko drums and chanting by the priests and possibly the audience. The purpose of the ritual is to eliminate negative energy, thoughts and desires, as well as to pray for secular blessings like the cure of an illness or a good harvest. The ritual is performed daily in most Shingon temples, either in the morning or afternoon.