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.

哲学の道 Trial by Fire, Snake and Pillow

The last few weeks in Kyoto have been the weeks of 花見, hanami – the time when you can see the spectacular cherry blossom or sakura that coats the city in a pale pink cloud. My parents and I took the opportunity to visit Philosophers walk, 哲学の道 (Tetsugaku no michi), a path from North to South down the Eastern portion of Kyoto that is awash with sakura in the spring. That day we visited 6 different temples so I will cover all of them in a few different posts. Today I want to focus on one temple and one shrine, both with a rich history and links to interesting people from throughout Japanese history. This kind of temple is always fun to research because you find out about figures in Japanese history that are not considered pivotal enough to be covered in any lecture, but have their own amusing aspects and kept the historical thread running, even if they didn’t alter the pattern.

These happen to be the fourth and fifth temples we visited, so they are located pretty close together. I will start with Reikan-ji 霊鑑寺, a nunnery belonging to the Rinzai-Zen sect which was founded in 1654 by Retired Emperor Gomizunoo. This Retired Emperor, whose name when ruling was Emperor Go-Yozei, oversaw the end of the sengoku-jidai, the century of civil war faced by Japan in the 16th Century, and was still on the throne when the country came under the control of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the final unifier of Japan and the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that would rule Japan for 250 years.

P1070013 P1060999 P1070001P1070017

The main temple building was donated by Tokugawa Ienari, the 11th and longest serving shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. He was not a great unifier like Tokugawa Ieyasu, and his reign was characterised by natural disasters, court excesses and a great famine. This excess should really have been anticipated when, upon succeeding to the title of shogun, Ienari locked himself in the inner sanctuary of the castle and refused to leave for 18 days. When bakufu councillors tried to force him to do his duty, he held them off with 600 women of the harem armed with pillows. These women held the entrance to the inner quarters for three days before he was captured.

P1070002 P1070008 P1070010 P1070014

While Ienari was certainly a fun-loving guy, the series of natural disasters under his rule and a series of revolts due to famine caused people to lose faith in the Shogunate. His rule was 1773 until 1841, and as the shogunate fell in 1868, it seems his rule laid the foundations of problems that led to the bakufu’s destruction. While he could not prevent American involvement in opening up Japan, the shogunate was already on shaky footing due to its inability to cope well with internal disasters, causing some to feel like the shogunate may have lost its mandate to rule.

P1070020 P1070022 P1070024P1070038

Ienari was also the shogun that expelled the first woman to visit Japan, Titia Bergsma, a Dutch woman that travelled with her husband to trade with Japan (the Dutch were allowed to visit Japan in limited capacity, and women were not allowed). While she was on Dejima, the man-made island that the Dutch were permitted to stay on while trading with Japan, over 500 images were made of her, making her an icon in Japan at the time. She was expelled within 5 days of landing in Japan. Unfortunately for the Tokugawa Shogunate, expelling foreigners became much harder after the ‘friendly visit’ paid by the American ‘black ships’ in 1851.

P1070027 P1070029 P1070034P1070041

The temple itself was beautiful, with spectacular gardens full of camellias. It is said that the founding Retired Emperor Gomizunoo loved camellias so he had many planted there. His patronage also ensured that princesses and granddaughters of the imperial line were priestesses here for centuries. The stamp I got at Reikan-ji is one of my favourite stamps in my stamp book. I would strongly recommend this temple if you visit in late winter or spring, though check when it opens as apparently it is shut for most of the year.


Just along the road from Reikan-ji is Otoyo-Jinja 大豊神社, or in my mind, ‘the mouse shrine’, founded in 887. This is because rather than the standard foxes, this shrine also has mouse guardians, kite guardians and guardian monkeys, making it a little more interesting than the Japan standard Inari shrine. There are foxes too, of course.

P1070049P1070048P1070075 P1070073 P1070074

This shrine’s mice come from a legend surrounding Okuninushi-no-mikoto also known as Taikoku, whom we have met before, remember the story of the white rabbit? Well our hero went on to fall in love with a beautiful princess, but, as many young men have found, he had issues with her dad. In order to win Princeess Suseri, Okuninushi had to pass a series of tests. First, Suasanoo, her father, challenged him to sleep in a room full of snakes. Luckily Princess Suseri gave him a scarf to wear and it protected him. You may say he would be fine as gods cant die anyway right? But actaully this particular god had already died twice before chasing a different girl, but that is a story for another time.

P1070055 P1070056 P1070057P1070054 P1070053 P1070052

Having survived the first trial, Okuninushi was then challenged to find an arrow that Susanoo had shot into a vast field. As he was hunting for the arrow Susanoo set fire to the field and it looked as though Okuinushi may die for a third time. He was saved by a small mouse, who showed him a hole in the ground in which he could hide. Once the fire had passed overhead the mouse brought him the arrow and he was able to marry his princess. Thus the mouse became his symbol and guardian.

P1070060 P1070061 P1070063 P1070064 P1070065

Also enshrined at Otoyo-jinja is Emperor Ojin, the 15th Emperor of Japan. Though he falls into the category of ‘legendary Emperors’ meaning he was potentially made up by the authors of the Nihonshoki and Kojiki (early historical chronicles) to make Japanese ancestry seem longer, he is towards the more believable side of the timeline, and historians believe he probably ruled around 200AD. He was allegedly the son of the 14th Emperor, however it is said that he was conceived and then the Emperor died. While pregnant his mother went on a quest to find the ‘Promised Land’ for three years, and upon her return gave birth to him. As such it is pretty unlikely that this was a miraculous birth and it is more likely that he was not a descendent of the imperial line. This is one of many probable breaks in the chain of the Japanese ‘continuous imperial line’.

P1070062 P1070069 P1070072

While not the most exciting shrine in comparison to the garden of Reikan-ji, it is pretty and has lovely statues so I would definitely stop by if you are taking a stroll down Philosopher’s walk. I’m not sure why there are monkey and kite guardians so if anyone knows please enlighten me.