Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺, Tenryūji) is the most important Zen temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. It was ranked first among the city’s Five Great Zen Temples, and is now registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this post, we’ll share some photos from our visit to Tenryu-ji and thoughts on whether it’s worth your time.
Located within a 5-minute walk from Arashiyama Bamboo Forest (a place we highly recommend), Tenryu-ji Temple is a common place to visit since that bamboo grove is a bucket-list caliber destination that belongs on any itinerary to Kyoto. Proximity makes it easy to visit both in the same morning.
As for Tenryu-ji, it is the head temple of its own school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. It’s “ranked” first among Kyoto’s Five Great Zen Temples: Nanzen-ji, Shokoku-ji, Tofuku-ji and Kennin-ji (here’s an interesting history of how these five temples came to be established, if you’re so inclined). Between that and it’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Tenryu-ji Temple seems destined to top many people’s must-do lists in Kyoto. While we do recommend visiting, we’re not so enthusiastic about Tenryu-ji Temple…
Personally, I prefer Nanzen-ji, which is one of my favorite temples in Kyoto. I’d also give the nod to Tofuku-ji. I think it’s worth noting that for foreign visitors who don’t have a full grasp of historical significance, these rankings are going to be immaterial.
I’ve read about them, and I’ll admit that some of it still eludes me. For me, they’re a bit like the BCS rankings: totally arbitrary. (Okay, not quite that bad!)
Tenryu-ji (obviously) has a good deal of historical significance. Immediately prior to becoming Tenryu-ji, it was a villa home for the ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Prior to that, it was a Buddhist temple known as Danrin-ji on the exact same spot.
It was converted from a villa to a temple in 1339 by Ashikaga Takauji, who dedicated the temple to the recently-deceased Emperor Go-Daigo. These two important historical figures had been allies prior to Takauji turning against Emperor Go-Daigo in a power struggle.
By building the temple, Takauji sought to appease the soul of Emperor Go-Daigo. In addition to the temple holding the memorial service for Emperor Go-Daigo, the Emperors Gosaga and Kageyama are both buried within Tenryu-ji Temple. There are also important cultural properties housed at Tenryu-ji, including portraits of the temple’s first head priest, a wooden carving of Gautama Buddha, and various illustrations.
Tenryu-ji’s buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries. Fire destroyed buildings at least five times in the 14th and 15th centuries, and war destroyed buildings twice more in the 1800s.
Info & Tips
Tenryu-ji Temple is in the heart of the Arashiyama district, located about 10 minutes by foot from the main station in the area, the JR Saga-Arashiyama Station. (That’s the one those of you using the Japan Rail Pass will want.) It’s also only 5 minutes from Arashiyama Station, which connects the southern Arashiyama to temples farther north, such as the Ninnaji, Ryoanji, and the Golden Pavilion.
From Kyoto Station, Tenryu-ji Temple is easy to access via the JR San-in Main Line; no transfers required. Tenryu-ji is arguably the heart of Arashiyama, and you will surely pass by it if you do any amount of exploring in this area. As with all points of interest in Kyoto, you should consult Google Maps for the most efficient train route based upon your location and departure time, as there are almost always 2-3 ways to access any temple in Kyoto.
Admission to Tenryu-ji Temple costs 500 yen for exterior access to Sougenchi Pond and Hyakkaen Garden. Entry to the interior temple buildings, which we don’t necessarily recommend, requires another 300 yen admission fee.
Tenryu-ji Temple as it stands today dates mainly from the more recent Meiji Period; this includes the main hall (Hojo), drawing hall (Shoin) and temple kitchen (Kuri). That makes it a tad less impressive historically, but nonetheless significant.
By contrast, Tenryuji’s garden has survived since the 14th Centuries largely in its original form, with a large central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees, and the forested Arashiyama mountains. The garden utilizes “borrowed scenery” from those nearby mountains, which create the illusion that the garden extends to further tiers.
With large maple trees surrounding the large pond, this area is stunning in the autumn when the fall colors reflect in its placid waters. Our first time at Tenryu-ji, we visited slightly too early to see these fall colors, but you can see the makings of them in the above photo. In spring, cherry trees and red pines also give color to the landscape.
Many elements of Tenryuji’s garden served as prototypes for later gardens built at other temples. This garden was created by famous designer Muso Soseki, who went on to design the gardens of other significant temples. Kogenji is also famous for its Japanese karesansui garden of rock and stone at its main building.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Kyoto’s “Five Great Zen Temples,” Tenryu-ji is immensely popular. If you’re doing a south to north Arashiyama itinerary, this can pretty easily be your first stop of the day, and we think that’s the best approach.
Alternatively, if you start your day at the Golden Pavilion, this is a feasible last stop, which enables you to outlast the crowds.
While at Tenryu-ji Temple, be sure to find the walking trail that leads up above the treeline. This short walking path elevates you just above the tops of the temple buildings, for neat views of Arashiyama.
It’s an easy and short walk, but we’ve found it to be far less crowded than the main walkways. (I can’t really describe how to find this path, but it’s not difficult at all and plainly marked on the map–most visitors just skip it for some reason.)
Our Experience & Review
In reading the above synoposis of Tenryu-ji Temple, you might think it’s a really important, special place. That was my impression before we visited for the first time, and I had high expectations. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I found Tenryu-ji Temple to be lacking.
The thing is, I don’t really think this is even an unpopular opinion. In consulting guidebooks and reading online reviews, Tenryuji Temple does not seem to be considered one of the can’t miss spots in Kyoto. People note its significance, but most seem to stop short of gushing about their experience.
Yes, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you’ll repeatedly read that it’s an important Zen temple, but I don’t see this reflected in many resources bestowing ‘must-do’ status upon Tenryu-ji Temple. Sure, it has a high score on TripAdvisor, but this is the case with virtually every temple in Kyoto.
They are all fairly spectacular if you’ve never seen a temple (or seen very few), so the true measure of a temple should be how it compares to other temples in Kyoto. Maybe I’m missing it, but I’m not seeing many critics or visitors singing Tenryu-ji Temple’s praises.
After revisiting Tenryu-ji Temple on our more recent trip during fall colors season, I have to say that we appreciated it more. The beauty of the colors and how they integrated with the borrowed scenery was quite pretty. The downside–and it was a big one–was that Tenryu-ji was absolutely slammed with crowds.
There were at least double the number of people there during the heart of fall colors season, and we were there fairly early in the day on a weekday. I can only imagine how bad it’d be midday on a weekend. Yikes.
Quite frankly, I would take the lower crowds of Kyoto’s early-fall shoulder season and see the trees still green with low crowds, rather than the vibrance of autumn foliage and the crowds that come with that.
While Tenryu-ji was definitely better the second time around, it wasn’t that good.
Tenryu-ji Temple is a big draw, but at least part of that is predicated upon location and another part on the “Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto” and UNESCO World Heritage Site statuses. Despite all of this, it doesn’t seem to be a memorable one for many people. (Or perhaps I’m projecting, and substituting my own judgment here.)
What most resources do is acknowledging those ‘facts’ about its historical significance, but stop short of offering any sort of glowing review or endorsement. While this blog recognizes the fact of this status as one of the “Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto” (while also failing to understand the why of the status), we choose to do a bit more editorializing, and in so doing, would ‘rank’ Tenryu-ji about in the middle of the pack among temples in Kyoto.
Despite this, Tenryu-ji Temple still might be worth your time. As mentioned, it’s a stone’s throw from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which is a must-do. Given that convenience, it absolutely makes sense to see it. Who knows, maybe you’ll vehemently disagree with us? That’s entirely possible, especially during the autumn when those reflected fall colors look brilliant.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Tenryu-ji Temple? What did you think of it? Would you recommend this temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this Temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!