On none of our previous visits to Arashiyama have we gone to look at the World Heritage Site Tenryuji (天龍寺). After we’d watched the 2015 Mifune Matsuri, we decided to rectify this.

First, we made our way from the banks of the River Oi up to the bamboo groves, though. Everyone loves a picture of a bamboo grove, and the groves at Arashiyama are particularly photogenic, so here is a selection from our 2015 trip.


Maybe that’s too many pictures of a bamboo grove in one go, but here’s another one, with the sun flaring off my dirty lens.

On this trip, the bamboo grove was really busy. Probably because there had just been a big festival down by the river, and all the other visitors had the same idea as us of seeking shelter from the hot sun in the groves. As we walked down towards town, we passed the northern entrance to Tenryuji and decided that today was the day we would go in.

Tenryuji is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. The temple was established in 1339 as a memorial to the Emperor Go-Daigo, who had died a few years after the civil war between the imperial house and the supporters of the shogun Ashikaga Takauji. It is thought that Ashikaga established the temple to try to appease the spirit of his former nemesis. The temple was created by converting a villa built on the site of Danrin-ji, considered to be the first Zen temple in Japan. The villa had been the childhood home of Go-Daigo.

Most of the original buildings are long gone, destroyed at various points by fire. The most recent fire was in 1864, and most of the buildings on the site now date from the Meiji-era. For us, the buildings weren’t the big draw, though. We were more interested in strolling through the gardens, which are among the oldest of their kind in Japan. The stroll garden behind the main hall was designed in the 14th century by Muso Soseki, and has remained unchanged since. It is the garden, known as Sogenchi, that has the World Heritage Site listing, and it was the first Special Historical Scenic Area named by the Japanese government.

The temple was pretty busy, especially around the main hall. We’d already paid 500円 to go in, and the hall cost an additional 100円, so we gave it a miss. The stroll garden was a delight. We started at the north entrance and walked down through a less structured garden towards the central pond, past a huge carved obelisk and a purification fountain, a hidden stone lantern, and some delicate irises.


The path we followed also took us alongside the Tahoden building, which is built on the site of the place Go-Daigo studied as a young man. It was based on the design of Go-Daigo’s shishinden (ceremonial hall) at his southern court in Yoshino.


The central pond was very picturesque, surrounded by a gravel garden, filled with carp, and fringed with more irises.


Around the back of the pond, a set of stone steps led the way up into the stroll garden.

We followed the path up to a viewing spot that afforded views across the top of the Kuri building (the temple kitchen) towards Kyoto and Daimonji.

I really enjoyed the peace and quiet up there on the hillside, away from the other visitors who were posing in front of the pond and shattering the peace with their shouts to move a little more to the left. I don’t know about it over all. I think I was expecting a little more from something with World Heritage Status. I understand that this status is awarded because of what a place represents, more than what it looks like and what its entertainment value is. Perhaps if I was a Zen Buddhist, I would have got more out of being on the site of the first Zen temple in Japan. The stroll garden was nice enough, but I enjoyed the gardens at Ninomaru Historic Garden more, and they were a fraction of the entry cost.

I think, as well, that by entering through the northern gate and being put off by the crowds, we missed a lot of what is at the front of the site. Certainly, as we walked past it later, the main entrance on the road that runs towards the Togetsukyo bridge, was very impressive and we could see the other buildings in the complex from a distance. Some of the additional buildings are covered by the additional 100円 fee, but the one that sounded the most interesting, the Dharma Hall with its Cloud Dragon painting, would have been another 500円. I know, I know. 1100円 is still less than £6.00, and it is a World Heritage Site. It just didn’t really grab me. Am I a philistine?

You might like it. I’m just saying that I would prioritise other sites in Arashiyama over it. Saga-Toriimoto and Adashino Nembutsu-ji, for example. But that’s just me!


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