天龍寺 Imperial Exile, Dragon Dreams, and the Price of Power

I visited Tenryuji a while ago when my sister and cousin were visiting. Tenryuji is one of those temples that is both beautiful and has a rich history. This temple tells a tale of enemies united after battle, of a shrewd monk and of the start of a new Shogunate.

Tenryuji 天龍寺, meaning ‘heavenly dragon temple’, was founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339. Takauji had just become Shogun, the very first of the Ashikaga shogunate which would last over 200 years. As one would expect of a great Shogun, he had commissioned the construction of Tenruji, a magnificent temple, to commemorate the recently deceased Emperor. However, all is not as it appears in this founding moment. Ashikaga and the late Emperor GoDaigo had been friends before becoming enemies, an enmity that would divide the Japanese imperial court in two for 60 years.



This begins with the accession of Emperor GoDaigo to the Chrysanthemum Throne. He had always looked back on the times of direct imperial rule as a golden age, and intended from the start to overthrow the ruling Kamakura shogunate and take back imperial power. The Kamakura shogunate heard of his plans and exiled GoDaigo, replacing him with a more compliant Emperor. He planned in exile, gathering forces. One of those that allied themselves with GoDaigo was Ashikaga Takauji.



Godaigo marched on Kyoto and established himself once again as Emperor, sending forces to remove the Kamakura shogunate. This move was successful and GoDaigo set about reestablishing direct imperial rule. However, Takauji was nervous and feared samurai rebellion (and probably wanted a slice of power for himself). When there was a rebellion in Kamakurea, Takauji set off to put it down but took Kamakura for himself, declaring himself shogun. Though he said he allied himself with the imperial court in Kyoto, his old friend GoDaigo denounced him, declaring that he should be executed.



GoDaigo sent forces to overthrow Takauji’s new Ashikaga shogunate, but they failed. Takauji’s forces marched on Kyoto but were defeated. He regrouped for a year before trying again, this time victorious. GoDaigo’s court was exiled to the South, establishing themselves as a rival court to the Ashikaga’s new Emperor Komyo. Thus started the period of Nanbokucho, or ‘North and South courts’.



When GoDaigo died, Takauji had Tenryuji founded in his honour by the most famous monk of the time (and his personal friend) Muso Soseki. This attempt to honour the late Emperor suggests that though he betrayed him to seek power, there was a great deal of respect between these two men. In fact, Ashigaka Takauji is praised by Muso Soseki as fearless, merciful and very generous, the last two characteristics are slightly unexpected of one who’s life story is so shaped by his quest for power. Perhaps this veneration of GoDaigo was a sign of his true feelings of friendship towards the exiled Emperor.



Tenryuji had beautiful gardens as well as a special room with a huge dragon painted on the ceiling. This dragon was painted to commemorate the 650th anniversary of the death of Muso Soseki, the monk that founded the temple. Muso Soseki was a teacher, calligrapher, poet and garden designer (and of course a monk). He allied himself with the Ashikaga family before they had fully taken power, shrewdly putting himself in a great position. He helped to spread zen Buddhism throughout Japan during the Ashikaga shogunate, helping to legitimise the shogunate and bolster the power of his religion. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the ceiling room, so here is one I found on the web to give you an idea.


The obsession with dragons at Tenryuji goes back to its founding. It was originally named Ryakuo Shiseienji, but Takauji Ashikaga’s brother dreamed of a golden dragon around the time it was founded. This was taken as a sign and the name was changed to Tenryu Shiseizenji instead. Tenryu 天龍 means ‘heavenly dragon’.



Tenryuji played an important role in the history of Japan; Japan’s courts refused to submit to the Chinese tributary system, which would see Japan as a junior in the relationship. Tenryuji did submit to the tributary system and became the link between Japan and Ming China for trade. This bolstered Zen Buddhism’s power greatly, as they were effectively controlling trade with one of Japan’s most important trade partners. In return China chose the abbot of Tenryuji. This arrangement lasted until the 19th century; though there are periods where historians claim Japan was ‘closed off’ to the outside world, the truth is there were several unofficial channels, such as the link at Tenryuji, which remained open.





Tenryuji also has a number of sub temples, some of which are open to the public. We stopped by Kogenji 弘源寺, a temple dedicated to Kannon founded in 1429. The temple pillars have cuts in the wood from samurai testing the sharpness of their swords during the Hamaguri rebellion of 1864. These were pro-imperial forces that were seeking to restore direct imperial rule through capturing the emperor (not entirely sure how that would work). They failed and a lot of Kyoto got set on fire, which seems to be the default result of anything happening in pre-modern Kyoto.



There we had tea and a small sweet. It was a lovely experience – the temple garden was pretty and it had a small display of screens and other artefacts (sadly no photos).



Tenryuji is well worth a visit, and you can incorporate it into a day trip to Arashiyama; there is also the bamboo grove (which I will write about soon!) and the monkey park (which I have written about here). This temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Kyoto’s 5 main Zen temples. It can be a little expensive to go around all the sections – the ceiling room, the gardens and the main building inside all cost 500円 (£2.70) each. We did not do the insides of the temple as you can pretty much see most of it from the outside. The gardens and the ceiling are worth it in my opinion.

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