Tenryu-ji was the place where I finally understood why the Japanese people love contemplating nature since very ancient times.
Until then, I never fully comprehended how one can sit for hours and hours doing nothing but taking in the surrounding landscape. As an active and restless urban person, in my mind I often associated that with extreme boredom, and, although I love nature, I was pretty sure I couldn’t do such thing for too long. Tenryu-ji proved me terribly wrong and showed me that I was fully capable of spending several hours doing mostly nothing but sitting on a porch and just staring at the amazingly beautiful Zen garden in front of me.
The peace and tranquility that Tenryu-ji emanates are unparalleled: although there are usually plenty of visitors there, you don’t feel their presence (like it happens in Kiyomizudera, for instance), and you can still be in your own little world. The place seems frozen in ancient times, and its story seems to be still unfolding. And, if not for the tourists and the local ladies who were drawing there (one of them kindly let us take a photo of her sketch – see the image below), it would be indeed difficult to say we’re in the 21st century.
Hidden in the green heart of Arashiyama, at the outskirts of Kyoto, Tenryu-ji (or “The Temple of the Heavenly Dragon”) witnessed many eventful centuries passing by. It all started in the Heian period. On the same spot, in the 9th century, Empress Tachibana no Kachiko founded Danrin-ji, the first Zen temple in Japan. Later, in 1255, the area was turned into a secluded palace by the Emperor Go-Saga and his son, Emperor Kameyama.
Tenryu-ji temple was founded in 1339 by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji, with the purpose of appeasing the spirit of the late emperor Go-Daigo, who used to live there – in the past, Ashikaga Takauji was Go-Daigo’s general and his ally, but later turned against him in a civil war that brought the Ashikaga clan to power. The prominent Zen master of the time, Musou Soseki, was appointed as the temple’s first head priest.
Its construction was by no means a smooth one. Although many donations were made for the new temple, the funds were insufficient. In the end, it was completed using the revenues from two trading ships sent to China. The temple was officially consecrated in 1345 and designated first among Kyoto’s five major Zen temples. It still preserves this ranking.
Nowadays a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tenryu-ji went through eight major fires, and a large part of the property being confiscated by the Meiji government in the 19th century. Of the former buildings that made the complex, only one survived the last great fire in 1864, previous to Meiji period: the Zen meditation hall, that was moved to replace the lecture hall and the Buddha hall, which had been destroyed. What the visitor sees today dates back mainly to the Meiji period, and most of the halls (main hall, living quarters, reception hall, drawing hall) were completed in the early 20th century.
The only part of the entire complex that survived through the centuries in its original form is the Sogenchi Teien (Sogen Pond Garden), a Zen garden designed by the first head priest, Musou Soseki. It was the first place in Japan that was declared a Site of Special Historic and Scenic Importance by the Japanese government. The garden can be admired from the porch of the Hojo (main hall), and consists of a central pond surrounded by rocks, sand, pine trees and views of Arashiyama mountain.
The garden also features an arrangement of large rocks largely used in Zen gardens and called the Dragon Gate Falls, a waterfall on the Yellow River in China. According to a Chinese legend, any carp that can scale these falls turns into a dragon; in Zen philosophy, this symbolizes enlightenment.
If you are in Kyoto and want to spend several hours in a dream-like atmosphere, then Tenryu-ji is the perfect spot. The ticket is 500 JPY (garden only), 800 JPY (garden and buildings), and there is an extra fee of 500 JPY for special admission to see the Cloud Dragon painting in the Hatto (Dharma hall). The Hatto is open on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays only, and during special periods in spring and autumn. Tenryu-ji is easily accessible by train (get off at Arashiyama Station, and walk for about 10 minutes), and bus (get off at Arashiyama Tenryu-ji Mae). You could easily spend an entire day in Arashiyama, and visit also the other temples and places in the area, such as Gio-ji.
Photos by Alexandru Mihai Gheorghe
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of CosplayGEN Magazine, editor at CollectiKult, and a translation industry professional.