In Kyoto: the Tenryu-ji Temple

ON THE list: visit as many United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage sites in Kyoto as I can. I had five days in the ancient capital of Japan and that was my plan.

First up, the Tenryu-ji Temple. It’s nestled at the foot of the mountains on the western outskirts of Kyoto in Arashiyama. It was the third Arashiyama attraction I visited, following the Togenkuyo Bridge and the Sagano Bamboo Grove.

Where the Tenryu-ji sits today is the former site of the Danrin-ji Temple, which was established in the 9th century. Danrin-ji is historically significant as the first Zen temple in Japan established in the 9th century.

In the 13th century, Emperor Kameyama built a villa on the same property, where his grandson Go-Daigo was raised. Go-Daigo became the next emperor.
The Tenryu-ji Temple was the property’s next occupant. It was established in 1939 by the shogun Ashikagi Takauji in honor of Emperor Go-Daigo, who passed away in Yoshino after the civil war that brought the Ashikaga family to power.

The Tenryu-ji Temple is also known as the “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon” (“Tenryu” translates to “dragon of the sky”). It wasn’t its intended name, but the brother of the shogun dreamt about a golden dragon dashing over the Oi River, which lies south of the temple. The temple was named Tenryu Shiseizen-ji.

Tenryu-ji is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of the Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Appointed as the temple’s founding abbot about was Zen master Muso Soseki.

It was Muso Soseki, who completed the temple’s construction after he sent the shipping vessel, the Tenryu-ji ship, on a trade mission to Yuan-dynasty China. His lineage also played a lead role in the prospering “gozanbungaku,” a Zen literary culture. Tenryu-ji was ranked first in the “Five Zen Mountains of Kyoto.”

Since the temples foundation, Tenryu-ji has been ravaged by fire eight times, with 1864 as the most recent one. Thus, most of the buildings we see today date only to the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

But one of Muso Soseki’s handiwork remains in its original form, Sogenchi Teien (Sogen Pond Garden). Designed in the 14th century, the strolling pond garden displaying the four seasons is one of the oldest in Japan.

It was the first place in Japan designated by the government as a Site of Special Historic and Scenic Importance (Shiseki, Tokubetsu Meisho), and the United Nations designated it as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1994.

A stroll around the garden or sit and immerse in its beauty is not to be missed, especially during summer (view it with the Shoin in the background), in winter (view it from the Hojo) and in Fall, Mount Arashi serves as a breathtaking backdrop of the garden.

Since the seasons is in topic, during spring the blossoms of the cherry trees surrounding the Tahoden (Hall of many Treasures) will be in bloom. Check out the Cloud Dragon painting on the ceiling of the Hatoo (Dharma Hall) as well.

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