The Zen garden at Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the most peaceful places in Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites. If you find yourself feeling “templed out” after a whirlwind tour of Kyoto’s temples, plan to a stop at this garden to watch the Japanese carp (koi) slowly drift across the pond between precisely placed stones and reflections of seasonal foliage. It’s my favorite place in Kyoto to relax and recharge.
The most interesting way to enter the garden is to walk from Arashiyama through the Sagano bamboo forest. This route takes you away from the crowds of temple visitors in downtown Arashiyama and leads you through a giant bamboo grove. The walk helps you drift into a peaceful state of mind before you enter the garden.
The fascination with natural beauty and quiet surroundings continues as you enter the Tenryu-ji temple grounds and walk between ornamental trees and a hillside of giant bamboo. The culmination of the experience begins as you approach the exquisite wooden Ohojo abbey and see the view open up to a lovely koi pond reflecting the forested hillside vegetation. Take the time to sit on the magnificent wooden balcony of the Ohojo and let all the stress of the day’s travel drift away. You will then be recharged to continue on with your tour of Arashiyama and Kyoto’s historic sites.
Two Routes Back to Civilization
There are two routes on the west side of the temple that will take you back to busy Arashiyama. One passes the teaching hall and exits the main temple gate across the street from Randen (Keifuku) Railway Arashiyama Station. This is the quickest route back to shops and public transportation, and the most crowded.
My favorite route back to Arashiyama takes a little more time, but provides a much nicer experience and prolongs the sense of an escape out in nature. The trail takes you uphill through the trees and then drops down a long staircase to the side of the Hozu River. At the top of the hill, you can look down on the narrow river gorge and view the fall colors or sakura trees that cover Arashiyama Mountain on the far side of the river.
At the bottom of the long stone staircase, turn left and walk along the river as is flows out of the gorge to central Arashiyama. Drift boats glide past carrying tourists from their trip down the Hozu Gorge. Stop and have a beer and noodles at the lone noodle shop at the edge of the river. By the time you re-enter the busy streets of Arashiyama on your walk back to the train station or bus stop, you will be relaxed and tranquil, ready for your return to Kyoto.
Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the most important temples of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism. It was established by a powerful shogun and has a long history of connections with the Imperial family.
In the Heian period (794-1185), Emperor Saga’s wife, Tachibana no Kachiko, founded a temple named Danrin-joi on the site where the current temple now sits. Around 400 years later, in 1255, Emperor Go-Saga built an Imperial villa there with his son. Still later, in 1339, Shogun Ashikaga, founded Tenryu-ji on the villa site, to honor the recently deceased Emperor Go-Daigo. The memorial temple was completed in 1345.
At one time, the temple grounds were much larger, and held as many as 150 temple buildings. Through the centuries all of the buildings were destroyed by numerous fires. The current buildings were rebuilt in the Meiji Period (1868 -1912).
The Garden that Influenced All of Japan
The Zen garden, Sogenchi-teien, was designed by Muso Soseki, the head monk of the early Tenryu-ji Temple. Today, it is recognized by the government of Japan as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty. The garden was designed to combine the mountain scenery in the background with the elements of a Chinese legend of a koi that swam up a waterfall to become a dragon. The koi-filled pound contains numerous stones that represent koi, and large stones lead down the hillside into the pond to represent the waterfall. This famous temple garden has influenced Japanese gardens throughout Japan.
The main buildings of are closed for routine maintenance from December 2012 – March 2014. The Zen garden will be open during this time.
Getting to Tenryu-ji Temple
From JR Kyoto Station
JR Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station (approx. 20 minutes)
Walk 10 minutes
From North Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji)
Randen (Keifuku) Arashiyama Line to Arashiyama Station
Walk 3 minutes
Randen (Keifuku) Arashiyama Line Omiya Station to Arashiyama Station
Walk 3 minutes
Hankyu Railway to Arashiyama Station
Walk 15 minutes
From JR Kyoto Station
Kyoto City Bus
Bus to Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae bus stop (approx. 35 minutes)
Walk 2 minutes
Bus to Keifuku Arashiyama-eki-mae bus stop
Walk 1 minute
March 21 – October 20 8:30 – 17:30
October 21 – March 20 8:30 – 17:00
Open All Year
Entrance to Zen Garden
Adults: 500 yen
Junior High School Students: 300 yen
Entrance to Temple buildings
Added to garden entrance fee + 100 yen
*(See Construction Notice, above)
68 Saga-Tenryuji-Susukinobaba-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City