Tenryū-ji, a registered World Heritage Site, is a true treasure of the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. Founded in 1339, the temple presently serves as one of the headquarters of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism. The name “Tenryū-ji” was suggested by Ashikaga Tadayoshi (brother of the shōgun Ashikaga Takauji) following a dream he had of a golden dragon flying into the heavens from the river just south of the temple. Tenryū-ji’s beautiful landscape garden and Sōgen Pond, famous for its use of shakkei (borrowed scenery), was laid out by Musō Soseki, an eminent Zen master. Tenryū-ji is also known for the Cloud Dragon painting in its Dharma Hall, and for the opportunities it offers visitors to participate in traditional Buddhist practices such as meditation and sutra copying.
Tenryū-ji’s beautiful landscape garden and Sōgen Pond, famous for its use of shakkei (borrowed scenery), was laid out by Musō Soseki, an eminent Zen master.
Tenryū-ji’s Famous Scenery
Tenryū-ji’s garden, located behind the Abbot’s Quarters, dates back to the mid-14th century. Designed by the Zen master Musō Soseki (1275-1351), Tenryū-ji’s founder, the garden centers around the Sōgen Pond and skillfully employs the scenery of the surrounding mountains in a method called shakkei (borrowed landscape) to give it an added sense of depth. On the far bank of the pond is an arrangement of large stones representing the Dragon Gate Falls on the Yellow River in China. Legend has it that any carp able to jump these falls transforms into a dragon, which in Zen has come to symbolize the attainment of enlightenment and the realization of buddhahood. Depending on the season the visitor can also enjoy cherry blossoms, azaleas, and autumn maple colors.
Upon entering Tenryū-ji’s main building the visitor is greeted by a large painting of Bodhidharma (Called Daruma Daishi in Japanese), the 5th century Indian monk said to have transmitted the Zen teachings from India to China. Traditional Zen histories report that Bodhidharma, once in China, sat in a cave silently facing the wall for nine years doing zazen (seated meditation), the central practice of Zen Buddhism.
Tenryū-ji’s Dharma Hall (Hattō), where the temple’s important religious ceremonies are held, is well known for the large painting of a cloud dragon on its ceiling. The dragon’s eyes are rendered in such a way that, no matter where you stand in the building, the dragon seems to be looking directly at you. This effect, known in Japanese as happo-nirami ("all direction gaze"), symbolizes the all-seeing eyes with which the dragon protects Buddhism. Painted in 1997 by the famous Japanese painter Matazō Kayama, it was one of several commemorative projects commissioned for the 650th anniversary of the death of Musō Soseki.
Since the Dharma Hall is not open every day, visitors wishing to see it should be sure to go on weekends or holidays, or during the special open periods held during the spring and autumn. Check Tenryū-ji’s English website for precise dates.
Tenryū-ji offers its visitors not only lovely gardens and historic artwork but also opportunities to experience something of the religious life of the temple. On the morning of the second Sunday of every month except February and August there is a meditation session from 9:00 to 10:00, open to the public. This is immediately followed by a Zen sermon in Japanese by Tenryū-ji’s abbot. Visitors can also try their hand at calligraphy by making an appointment to practice shakyō (copying sutras with brush and ink). For more information or to make an appointment, check Tenryū-ji’s English webpage.
In the 9th century Tenryū-ji’s site was occupied by Danrin-ji, a temple founded on the site by the wife of Emperor Saga, Tachibana no Kachiko, who followed the custom of the time to take the tonsure as a nun after the death of her husband. Greatly interested in Buddhism, she invited a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk from China called Gikū Zenshi in Japan to come to the temple, Danrin-ji, which is now known as the first Zen temple in Japan. In the 13th century, after Danrin-ji fell into disrepair and disappeared, Emperor Go-Saga used the land for his summer villa, the Kameyama Detached Palace. Named “kameyama” (turtle mountain) due to the rounded shape of Mt. Ogura to the west, the villa was later occupied by Emperor Go-Saga’s son, Emperor Kameyama, and great-grandson, Emperor Go-Daigo.
In the beginning of the Muromachi Period, 1339, Shogun Ashikaga Takauji (1305 – 1358), the first shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, converted the Kameyama Detached Palace into a Zen temple dedicated to praying for the spirit of the recently deceased Emperor Go-Daigo. Ashikaga and Go-Daigo had been allies in the 1333 war to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate and restore political power to the imperial throne, but following increasing tensions between the court and the samurai class Ashikaga had turned against the emperor and driven him and his army into exile on Mt. Yoshino south of the capital, where Go-Daigo died. Musō Soseki (1275–1351), an eminent Zen master who was the teacher of both Ashikaga and Go-Daigo, served as Tenryū-ji’s founding abbot.
The temple was originally called Ryakuō Shisei Zenji, after the name of the imperial era in which it was founded. However, the warrior monks of Mt. Hiei objected to the name, and it was changed to Tenryū-ji after Ashikaga Takauji’s brother Tadayoshi had a dream of a golden dragon flying into the heavens from out of the Ōi River just south of the temple. Around 1342, so-called “Tenryū-ji Ships” were twice dispatched on trading missions to China to help finance the temple’s construction, allowing work on Tenryū-ji to continue until completion. The temple was formally dedicated on the seventh anniversary of Emperor Go-Daigo’s death in 1345, and a memorial service was performed in the emperor’s honor.
Tenryū-ji prospered under the patronage of the Ashikaga family and the Muromachi period bakufu government, expanding to an area of about 244 acres (99 hectares) and containing as many as 150 sub-temples. With the waning of the Ashikaga’s power in the 15th and 16th centuries, however, the fortunes of the temple declined, hastened by series of eight major fires leading up to the Meiji period. In 1864, most of Tenryū-ji was reduced to ashes during the fighting that accompanied the Hamaguri Gomon Incident, part of the conflict preceding the end of the feudal period in 1868. In was only in 1900 that the Hōjō (main temple building) was restored, followed by other important buildings over the next few decades. Most of the temple’s major buildings are therefore quite recent, and its current land holdings are approximately 24 acres (10 hectares). However, the temple’s main attractions—its exquisite landscape garden and the surrounding scenery—remain unchanged from times of old.
|Tea, Shukushin Ceremony, Daihannya Ceremony|
|Shukushin Ceremony; New Year’s Poem Replies|
|Monthly Founder's Day Ceremony|
|Setsubun (Beginning of the Lunar Year) Ceremony|
|Nehan'e (Buddha's Passing into Nirvana Ceremony)|
|Hanamatsuri (Buddha's Birthday Ceremony)|
August 13th - 15th
|Urabon Ceremony (Service for the Repose of the Dead)|
|Toro-nagashi (Lantern-floating Ceremony); Kawa-segaki Ceremony|
Memorial Service for Emperor Go-Daigo; Hachiman Festival Hojo’e
(Releasing of Captive Animals Ceremony)
|Bodhidharma's Memorial Ceremony|
|Annual Founder's Day Celebrations|
|Annual Founder's Day Celebrations|
|Beginning of Rohatsu Ozesshin|
|Jodo'e (Buddha's Enlightenment Celebration)|
- Garden Admission: ¥500
- Junior High School, Elementary School: ¥300
- (+¥100 yen to enter buildings, +¥500 for Dharma Hall admission)
- General Admission: 08:30 - 17:30 (Summer), 08:30-17:00 (Winter, Oct. 21-Mar. 20)
- Temple Interior Closed: Oct. 29th to 30th (Gardens Still Accessible)
- From Keifuku Dentetsu Arashiyama Line ⇒ Get off at Arashiyama Station, walk 2 minutes to Tenryu-ji
- From JR Sagano Line ⇒ Get off at Saga-Arashiyama Station, walk 13 minutes to Tenryū-ji
- From Hankyu Line ⇒ Get off at Arashiyama Station, walk 15 minutes to Tenryū-ji
- By City Bus Line ⇒ Take bus numbers 11, 28, or 93 and get off at the Arashiyama Tenryu-ji Mae bus stop
- By Kyoto Bus Line ⇒ Take bus numbers 61, 72, or 83 and get off at the Arashiyama Tenryu-ji Mae bus stop
- By Car ⇒ Parking for Cars: ¥1,000 (per use)