Japanese Gate Typology (15)

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (門). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Heijūmon
  2. Kabukimon
  3. Kōraimon
  4. Yakuimon
  5. Yotsu-ashimon
  6. Munamon
  7. Commentary
  8. Uzumimon
  9. Yaguramon
  10. Rōmon
  11. Shōrōmon
  12. Taikomon
  13. Nijūmon
  14. Sanmon


Niōmon (仁王門)

This type of gate spans a few categories amongst those looked at so far. It may often be of a form like an eight-legged rōmon, aka hyakkyakumon, or it may be in the classic two storied gate form, nijūmon, 5×2 or 3×2 bays. And it may, especially at smaller temple complexes, be a term for a wide variety of gate types.

The term niō (仁王) translates as ‘two-kings’. Perhaps you’ve come across these chaps before on a stroll through a Japanese temple gate?

Here’s the gentleman on the left:


This one with the closed mouth is called Naraen Kongō (那羅延金剛). He is bare handed in this instance but often will be depicted carrying a sword. His mouth is closed, and he symbolizes strength held back but ready to be unleashed, kind of an early Clint Eastwood archetype.

And to the right, gentleman number 2:


The other fellow, with his teeth bared, is named Misshaku Kongō (密迹金剛). In his lower hand, slightly out of view, he wields a weapon called a vajra (mallet), which is part diamond and part thunderbolt. Something you don’t want to mess with. This guardian symbolizes an overtly violent, take-no-prisoners, lay waste to the landscape, ain’t takin’ none o’ of your shit sort of demeanor.

These two fearsome looking wrestlers are guardians of the Buddha, together called niō or kongō-rikishi. ‘Rikishi’, by the way, is the Japanese word for a professional sumo wrestler, and literally means “strong man (力士).

Notice the partnering of a figure with mouth open, breath exhaling, and a figure with mouth closed, breath held in. Mouth open is termed agyō (阿形), while mouth closed is termed ungyō (吽形). These two modes are abbreviated as a-un (). Men are supposedly born speaking the “a” sound with mouths open and die speaking an “un” and mouths closed, so the two statues taken together symbolize the birth and death of all things.

The two fearsome kings are placed, one to a side, in the posted enclosures of the entry gate to a temple. Here’s an example, from Murōji (室生寺) in Nara:

Otherwise, the above gate corresponds to the rōmon in form.

Same for the next gate :


Here we have a gate at Hōshakiji (宝積寺) which is officially called a sanmon gate, even though it is single story:

Remember the trump card of gate naming, as far as temples are concerned, is that if the gate is the main gate of a temple, regardless of form, it will usually be called a sanmon.

Here’s a nijūmon which is also a sanmon, which is also a niōmon, at Seiryūji (清涼寺) in Aomori Prefecture:


Next, a single story gate with a dramatic hipped gable roof – the west gate at Shitennōji (四天王寺) in Osaka, the first ever Buddhist temple established in Japan (in 593):


This gate, one of three in the interior of the compound, is referred to by two different names, niōmon, and chūmon, which means ‘middle gate’.

As with all niōmon, from the interior side of the gate no kongo-rikishi are to be seen:


Here’s a closer look at the left figure from that gate, ungyō, in this case holding a sword in his left hand:


This guy could make the cover of Men’s Fitness Magazine any time, cover story for yet another breathtaking article on how to obtain 6-pack abs in just minutes a day, though I guess the green flesh tinge would have to be airbrushed.

Shitennō-ji is a huge compound having perimeter gates as well, as one would expect, and one of those, the Great East Gate (東大門) is a niōmon:


Now here’s a gate which looks extremely similar to Shitennō-ji’s niōmon, located at Tsubosaka-dera (壷阪寺), in Nara, many kilometers to the south:


These two niōmon would be great candidates for one of those side-by-side, ‘can you spot the difference?’ photo contests. This temple is part – the most famous part – of a larger overall temple complex called Minami-hokkeji (南法華寺), originally founded in 703. While that date isn’t far off the date of Shitennō-ji’s founding, the construction of the niōmon must be separated by a few hundred years at least. While they might look outwardly very similar, there are numerous framing differences which make the niōmon at Tsubosaka-dera considerably more modern than the one at Shitennō-ji.

Here’s a closer look at the two kongo-rikishi at Tsubosaka-dera’s niōmon, in a combined image:


In Yamagata Prefecture, there is a temple called Seigenji (清源寺) with an unusual niōmon:


This gate has the form of a rōmon in terms of the single roof and walkway – and yet the windows on the second level seem to indicate that the floor is actually used. The mass and 5×2 bay construction more typical of a sanmon, and it is termed a sanmon by the temple, which means it is the main front gate of the temple, and yet it is not the front gate:


You can see it in behind the front gate, which looks to be a yakuimon.

Another view of this gate shows the stairwell to the second floor, more or less confirming that it is a usable space:


The gate is called a sanmon yet it does not have the classic two roofs and is not the front gate, and it is a niōmon because it houses the guardian figures. As I have noted previously in this thread, classification schemes do not always come out so cleanly cut-and-dried as one might like.

Another view, looking up at the magnificent framing:


The guardian figures in this gate are a bit obscure to view, their enclosures fronted by latticework and mesh wire:


Finally, at the more humble end of the spectrum, we have this small niōmon at Chōkoku-in (長谷院) near Tokyo:


The copper post cladding is a bit odd.

With freshened up paint:


The overall effect here reminds me a bit of a pair of British telephone booths with a roof overlaid.

We’ve been considering gates which associate to castles, and gates which associate to temples. That covers a good chunk of the cases where we might find gates employed, however there are shrines and imperial compounds which have yet to be examined, and there we will see other styles of gates. And garden gate will be covered too!

I hope you’ll stay tuned as this series rolls on. Thanks for your visit. On to post 16

2 thoughts on “Japanese Gate Typology (15)

  1. Chris

    Just wanted you to know I am enjoying this tour of Japanese gates. Fanned rafters and guardian figures… what could be better?


Anything to add?