Tenryu-ji – Ancient Place of Worship and Trade
Nestled in the Higashiyama mountains, Tenryu-ji Temple is an age-old Zen Buddhist temple with a rich history. Read our guide and enjoy the temple to its fullest.
Tenryu-ji, or Tenryu Shiseizen-ji, is the head of the Buddhist Tenryu variation of Rinzai Zen, one of the oldest branches of Buddhism. The name Tenryu-ji literally means “sky dragon temple” (天龍寺). It is a very highly respected institution and the leader of the “Five Mountains” – a collection of ten of the most significant Rinzai temples, five in Kyoto and five in Kamakura. Tenryu-ji was registered as a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto in the UNESCO World Heritage list of 1994.
Located at the foot of Kyoto’s Arashiyama Mountains, Tenryu-ji is surrounded by numerous other temples and shrines as well as wonderful nature.
Founded when Kyoto was the capital of Japan in the Heian period (794 – 1185), Tenryu-ji was built on the site of an older temple named Danrin-ji by order of the wife of Emperor Saga, Tachibana no Kachiko. It was not well maintained and suffered extensive damage due to neglect over the next few centuries. The original structures were then turned into an imperial villa named “Kameyama” – turtle mountain. This name was selected due to the nearby Mount Ogura having been likened to the shell of a turtle. These kinds of associations of mountains with temples were a tradition at the time known as sango.
Finally, in the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), the palace was transformed into a temple come memorial for the late Emperor Go-Daigo. This was on the orders of the late Emperor’s friend-turned-enemy Shogun Ashikaga who came to power in 1338. The temple’s name was the result of a supposedly prophetic dream had by Shogun Ashikaga’s younger brother in which a golden dragon appeared.
The 1430’s saw the temple form a connection with the Imperial Court of China’s Ming Dynasty which allowed the two countries to engage in trading, despite the ban which was in place, in exchange for a degree of Chinese control over the temple. This mutual understanding benefited the shogunate but Rinzai Zen especially, giving the sect sole authority over trade agreements, goods and import-export regulations with China and control of the China-Okinawa-Japan trade route which would become of great importance right through to the 19th century.
As the temple prospered, the grounds were expanded and numerous sub-temples were established in the vicinity, many of which are still around today.
Tenryu-ji itself fell prey to fire on several occasions, with every building, at some point, having to be rebuilt. The last major incident took place in 1864 as a result of what is known as the Kinmon Incident in which a rebel attack on the Tokugawa shogunate sent large swathes of Kyoto up in flames. Subsequently, the temple was reconstructed, but only toward the end of the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912).
The gardens at Tenryu-ji Temple include a pond and plenty of greenery, designed in typically simplistic Buddhist fashion. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially when the seasons change and the Momiji (maples) turn the surrounding hillsides into a patchwork of color or when the cherry blossoms make their annual outing.
Mon – Sun
08.30 am – 05.30 pm (Mar 21st – Oct 20th)
08.30 am – 05.00 pm (Oct 21st – Mar 20th)
adult: 500 yen, child: 300 yen
Ukyo, Kyoto, Japan
One of two options to get to Tenryu-ji Temple is to use the Sagano Sightseeing Line and get off at Torokko Arashiyama Station, just 10 minutes on foot from Tenryu-ji. This line connects directly to central Kyoto stations and is therefore very convenient if you’re coming from, say, JR Kyoto Station. The way there via this route is very scenic and definitely worth enjoying in itself, but there’s a second option that might be closer to you:
The second option is to take the Keifuku-Dentetsu Arashiyama Line to Arashiyama Station and walk from there. This is a shorter walk of just about 5 minutes, though the tram doesn’t really connect to the larger central stations in Kyoto directly, making it a possibly inconvenient choice.