Kyoto, the city of samurai movies

Samurai movie Hollywood, packed with World Heritage Sites

Kyoto is one of the largest tourist spots in Japan, where many World Heritage Sites such as Nijo Castle and Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji temples are concentrated. In addition, the city has many sites for fans of Japanese period dramas, as it is the main shooting location for samurai movies.

In particular, the northern part of Ukyo-ku, the largest ward in western Kyoto City, is an area that Japanese period drama fans cannot miss. In addition to a period drama theme park where visitors can take a tour of a studio for period dramas and real movie sets, there is Myoshin-ji Temple, which is the main temple of approximately 3,400 Myoshin-ji branches of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism throughout Japan and often appears in Japanese period dramas. If you are a Japanese period drama fan, you might have seen the temple on a movie screen, as it is still used often as a location for filming swordfights or other scenes in samurai movies.

Ninnaji Temple is also another World Heritage Site, located right by Omuro-Ninnaji Station on the Keifuku Railway Kitano Line, one stop after Myoshinji Station. Ninnaji Temple was favored by Director Kenji Mizoguchi, the master of classic Japanese cinema who won awards at the Venice Film Festival for three consecutive years for his works “The Life of Oharu”, “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff”, which were highly praised by French New Wave directors including Jean-Luc Godard. Though the temple becomes crowded in spring as it is famous for beautiful cherry blossoms, it is fairly quiet in other seasons. There are many sights to see within the temple premises, including the Kon-do (Golden Hall), which is a National Treasure of Japan, Nio-mon Gate, located at the entrance, the vermilion-lacquered Chu-mon Gate, and a Five-Storied Pagoda, along with a garden that takes on a different look with each season.

Kenji Mizoguchi-directed film “The Cuckoo” (1927)

Mizoguchi was especially fond of the area called “Omuro”, which includes Ninnaji Temple and its surrounding area. He lived in a rental house near Ninnaji Temple for a long time, and made his home in this area in his later years. He is known for a technique that captures more details including the surrounding ambience using long-takes, and influenced the Greek filmmaker Theodoros Angelopoulos, who directed “The Travelling Players”, which is one of the greatest masterpieces of global film history. Ninnaji Temple and its surrounding area are filled with the graceful atmosphere of Mizoguchi films.

Myoshinji Temple

Address:64 Hanazono Myoshinji-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Access:Five minute walk from Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Railway Kitano Line or Hanazono Station on the JR Sagano Line

Ninna-ji Temple

Address:33, Omuro Ouchi, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Access:Approx. 2 minute walk from Omuro-Ninnaji Station on the Keifuku Railway Kitano Line

A samurai film theme park, World Heritage Sites, and the stages of Mizoguchi films

If you walk northwest from Ninna-ji Temple for about 10 minutes, you will arrive at Ryoan-ji Temple, which is a World Heritage Site. This temple is particularly famous for its stone garden in which 15 stones are placed over white gravel. From the garden representing the spirit of Zen, which expresses water without using water, you can feel the spirit and the essence of the beauty of Japan, which has become the base of Japanese movies.


The Uzumasa area is a place you should definitely visit if you are a Japanese period drama fan. You can get to this area by taking a train on the Kitano Line from Omuro-ninnaji Station to the next station, Katabira-no-tsuji Station, and then switching to the Arashiyama Main Line and taking it to the next station. In this area, “Toei Kyoto Studio”, where many Japanese period dramas have been filmed, and “Toei Kyoto Studio Park”, a part of “Toei Kyoto Studio” that has opened to the public as a theme park, can be found. At “Tokei Kyoto Studio Park” you can get a close look at movie sets of a traditional Japanese town that are used for movie shoots and, if you are lucky, you might be able to see a movie being filmed. In addition, there are also photo studios where you can wear samurai, princess or ninja costumes and have a photo taken, and swordfight events are held as well. In the Japanese Movie Archives (*) inside the park, there is an exhibition introducing the works of filmmakers including Kenji Mizoguchi who established Japanese film history.

Hebizuka-kofun Tumulus, located in a residential area near Katabira-no-tsuji Station, was a shooting location for “New Tales of the Taira Clan”, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is a large keyhole-shaped tomb mound with horizontal stone chambers that is 75 meters in length, having the largest stone chambers in Kyoto. It is said that Kenji Mizoguchi became cursed after filming a scene in Hebizuka-kofun Tumulus. “New Tales of the Taira Clan” was made in 1955. The following year, he passed away in Kyoto, and his ashes were buried separately in Manganji Temple in Sakyo-ku, Kyoto and his grave in Tokyo.

In 1966, Jean-Luc Godard, who admired Kenji Mizoguchi and considered him to be one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, visited Managanji Temple, where the spirit of Mizoguchi rests. The photos taken at that time spread to the world, and Manganji Temple became a world-famous sacred location for cinema. About 20 years ago, the ashes of Mizoguchi that were kept in the temple were transferred to his grave in Tokyo and only a monument saying “In memory of Kenji Mizoguchi, the world-renowned film director” remains; however, even today there is no end to filmmakers from all over the world visiting this temple.

*The Japanese Movie Archives is closed until October 11 (Fri.), due to construction.

Ryoanji Temple

Address:13 Ryoanji Goryonoshita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi
Access:Approx. 7 minute walk from Ryoanji Station on the Keifuku Railway Kitano Line

TOEI Kyoto Studio Park

Address:10 Higashi-Hachigaokacho, Uzumasa, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Access:Approx. 5 minute walk from Uzumasa-Koryuji Station on the Keifuku Railway Arashiyama Main Line or from Uzumasa Station on the JR Sanin Main Line (Sagano Line)

Hebizuka-kofun Tumulus

Address:Uzumasaomokagecho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Access:Approx. 7 minute walk from Katabira-no-tsuji Station on the Keifuku Railway Arashiyama Main Line and Kitano Line

Manganji Temple

Address:130 Okazakihoshojicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Access:Approx. 5 minute walk from “Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsukan-mae” bus stop of Kyoto City Bus No. 5 and other lines. Approx. 10 minute walk from Keage Station on the Kyoto Municipal Subway Tozai Line

Encountering movies on “Randen”

Both the Arashiyama Main Line that departs from Arashiyama, a famous sightseeing spot in western Kyoto City, and the Kitano Line that branches off from the Main Line have over 100 years of history and are known familiarly by the nickname “Randen”. Partly because of the appearance of the retro-looking trains or the station buildings along the railroad lines, Randen is popular as a means of transportation for Kyoto sightseeing and is also deeply associated with Japanese period dramas.

The Arashiyama Main Line runs from Arashiyama to the center of Kyoto City. The area around Uzumasa-Koryuji Station is a place where the main studios of film companies such as Toei, Shochiku and Daiei were once located. Tokei Kyoto Studio still exists, and many actors/actresses and staff for movies use Randen. It was also on Randen that one day, in about the year 1950, my father Satoru Nishida, who was a student at that time, was asked by Kenji Mizoguchi if he was interested in becoming an actor, which lead to his appearing in the Mizoguchi films “The Lady of Musashino” and “New Tales of the Taira Clan”.

The Kitano Line begins from Katabira-no-tsuji Station, located in the middle of the Arashiyama Main Line, splits off to the north and runs through Omuro-Ninnaji Station, Myoshinji Station and Ryoanji Station, and arrives at its final destination, Kitano-Hakubaicho Station. The KOZU KOBUNKA MUSEUM, situated approximately five minutes on foot from Kitano-Hakubaicho Station, was founded by the Kozu Corporation, which supports the Japanese movie industry through activities such as dealing in stage properties for Japanese period dramas. Inside the museum, there are armor and sword exhibitions that include important cultural properties as well as paintings or ceramics. Even outside of the exhibition sessions in spring and fall, you can view the exhibitions by contacting the museum in advance.

Kozu Kobunka Museum
Address:61 Okamino-cho Tenjinsuji-sagaru Imadegawa-dori Kamigyo-ku Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Access:Approx. 5 minute walk from Kitano-Hakubaicho Station on the Keifuku Railway Kitano Line
*Open only during exhibitions in spring and fall. Please contact the museum when visiting outside of the exhibition sessions.

Nobuyoshi Nishida, movie and book producer

Nobuyoshi Nishida has edited works such as “Film & Video Yearbook” and “Mizoguchi Kenji Shusei (Kenji Mizoguchi Collection)” for Kinema-Junposha. Co., Ltd. He engages in the production, distribution and advertisement of movies, as well as the editing and issuing of movie-related publications as a representative of OMURO Ltd. He worked on the planning and editing of the “Film Makers” series (Kinema-Junposha), and published “The Complete Writings of Kenji Mizoguchi” through OMURO Ltd. His father is Satoru Nishida, an actor who starred in some Mizoguchi films.