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.

大原野 Under the Sakura Sea

When my parents came to visit (which was quite a long time ago now…) we decided to head to Oharano. This town is rather out of the way but we decided to go to get out of the crowds and check out some temples that I had read about in the wonderful book Exploring Kyoto: on Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy (I strongly recommend this to anyone spending a considerable amount of time in Kyoto). It was very out of the way, requiring 2 trains and a bus to get there, but I enjoyed getting out of Kyoto and into new territory. We visited a number of temples and shrines that day, all of which I enjoyed, though some were better than others.

The first shrine we came to was Oharano shrine 大原野神社, founded in 784 as the new shrine to the kami of the Fujiwara family. The Emperor had moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyo that same year and the powerful Fujiwara family needed a family shrine near to the new capital. It is said that the Fujiwara family kami accepted the move and appeared riding a deer. The Fujiwara family animal is a deer, it is the same deer that appears at the Fujiwara clan shrine Kasuga Taisha in Nara. The capital was moved by Emperor Kanmu due to the increasing influence of Buddhism on the court in Nara. See this post for more background on Buddhism and politics in Nara.

Oharano Shrine continued to flourish even after the capital moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), and in 965 Emperor Murakami ordered that imperial messengers should announce important events to the kami residing at this shrine. Also please note the little turtles in the picture above! Pretty rare sight but they are native to Japan.

The shrine should have been peaceful but we had walked straight into a corporate hanami event. Hanami 花見 (literally ‘seeing flowers’), is the ancient tradition of sitting under cherry trees during full bloom and getting very drunk (it started around 700AD). Well, at least that’s what it is in practice. This was a corporate-style event complete with microphones, pre-packed lunches and business suits. This meant that we couldn’t get anywhere near the lovely weeping cherry that Oharano shrine is famous for, but at least we got a taste for true Japanese corporate hanami, further cementing my view that I don’t ever want to work for a Japanese company in Japan.

The next stop was mercifully much quieter. This next temple was Shobo-ji 正法寺, a temple founded as a hermitage by Chinese monk Chii-Daitoku. Though there is very little information about Chii, he was the disciple of a very influential Chinese monk called Jianzhen, who tried to visit Japan 6 times before finally succeeding. One of his failed attempts led to an infection that rendered him blind, meaning he never got to see Japan. Jianzhen still ended up presiding over Todai-ji in Nara, the most important temple in the country at the time, and he ordained former Emperor Shomu and former Empress Kotaku.

Though Shobo-ji, originally known as Ohara-ji, was burned down in the Onin war (1467 – 77), it was restored under the name Shobo-ji in the 17th Century. The temple features a beautiful zen rock garden with views over to the Higashiyama mountains. The garden is famous for the rocks that look like different animals, such as mice, elephants and frogs. Some of the images were a bit of a stretch, but I could see most of the ‘animals’ the monk pointed out.

Shobo-ji also had an inside section with screens and scrolls which we were allowed to take pictures of (usually it’s banned). A really lovely temple and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

The next temple was a little way away from the other shrines, through the forest. We went through a rather dilapidated gate with a sad looking protective statue and up the hill past some rather worn out older Japanese who praised our youthfulness in getting up the slope (it wasn’t really that steep…). The temple at the summit was Shoji-ji 勝持寺, better known by the  name Hana-dera 花寺, meaning ‘temple of flowers’. It is famous for the cherry blossoms that surround the temple. We were a little late for full bloom but there were still blossoms on the trees.

Shojiji was founded in 679 and is famous for the Saigyo cherry tree that can be found here.  This is a special type of cherry tree that was planted (or created, it’s unclear) by the poet Saigyo. Saigyo (1118 – 1190) was a poet of the Heian period. He was a body guard of the retired emperor until age 22 when he suddenly decided to become a monk. He took the religious name Saigyo, meaning Western journey, as a reference to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. His poetry is fairly melocholy, lamenting the decline of Buddhism as a feature of Japanese politics and the sense of disillusionment with Buddhism felt by the Japanese people. His poems focus on sadness, loneliness, his path of Buddhism and his thoughts on the Buddhist teaching of releasing desire and its conflict with his love of nature.

An example of one of Saigyo’s poems is:

願わくは花の下にて春死なむ  その如月の望月のころ

Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month.

Kisaragi is the classical Japanese for February, and the kanji 衣更着 sometimes used to write it (sometimes its 如月) means ‘wear more clothes’. Normally a monk would pray to die facing West towards the pure land, but Saigyo, despite his name, wishes to die surrounded by his beloved cherry trees. Perhaps he would be happy to die at Shojiji. The third generation of Saigyo’s cherry tree still lives in the gardens of Shojiji.

Finally we got a taxi from the station to Yohsiminedera, a rather out-of-the-way temple in the mountains. Though it was a little far it was worth the visit, with a huge main gate and sprawling temple complex. It cost 500円 (£2.60) entry but it was definitely worth it.

Yoshiminedera 善峯寺, is a Tendai sect temple dedicated to Kannon, a Bodhisattva of Mercy. It was founded in 1029 by the monk Gensan as a personal retreat. It too was destroyed in the Onin war but it was rebuilt in 1621. If you are wondering, the short version of the Onin war is that it started as a dispute over shogunal succession and ended up starting the Sengoku-jidai, or ‘warring states period’ that lasted a hundred years.

Yoshiminedera is famous for its Yūryu no Matsu 遊龍の松, or ‘playful dragon pine tree’, a pine tree that has been trained to grow horizontally and stretches over 40m. This pine is 600 years old and used to be over 50m but 10m were cut off due to insect damage. It is indeed very long and supported by props in several places. It is intended to look like a dragon swimming through waves, and I could see the resemblance, though if you imagine the outline of a ‘dragon swimming through waves’, a long wavy line probably sums it up pretty well –  not exactly a challenging shape but still impressive for a tree.

Praying at Yoshiminedera is said to ease the symptoms of neuralgia and lumbago, and the temple has medicated baths that open twice a year (2nd Sunday of May and October) which are said to cure these diseases. I can imagine it gets very busy on those two days and the complex car park was  huge so they are definitely prepared. It is also very popular in the Autumn.

We had to phone a taxi to get back from Yoshiminedera as we went late in the day and it was deserted. Mum pointed out that I now bow on the phone when speaking to Japanese people… I suppose I am internalising Japan quite a bit. Tomorrow I am off on a spontaneous solo trip to Ise to visit one of Japan’s most sacred shrines, so no blog posts on the weekend, but I will have lots of material for next week!