For good reason this is known as the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon: in the 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo, who had brought an end to the Kamakura shogunate, was forced from his throne by Takauji Ashikaga. After Go-Daigo died, Takauji had twinges of conscience. That's when Priest Muso Soseki had a dream in which a golden dragon rose from the nearby Oi-gawa. He told the shogun about his dream and interpreted it to mean the spirit of Go-Daigo was not at peace. Worried about
this ill omen, Takauji completed Tenryu-ji in 1339 on the same spot where Go-Daigo had his favorite villa. Apparently the late emperor's spirit was appeased. Construction took several years and was partly financed by a trading mission to China, which brought back treasures of the Ming Dynasty. In the Hatto (Lecture Hall), where today's monks meditate, a huge "cloud dragon" is painted on the ceiling. The temple was often ravaged by fire, and the current buildings are as recent as 1900; the painting of the dragon was rendered by 20th-century artist Shonen Suzuki.
The Sogenchi garden of Tenryu-ji dates from the 14th century and is one of the most notable in Kyoto. Muso Soseki, an influential Zen monk and skillful garden designer, created the garden to resemble Mt. Horai in China. It is famed for the arrangement of vertical stones in its large pond and as one of the first gardens to use "borrowed scenery," incorporating the mountains in the distance into the design of the garden.
If you visit Tenryu-ji at lunchtime, consider purchasing a ticket for Zen cuisine served at Shigetsu, within the temple precinct. The price for lunch in the large dining area overlooking a garden begins at ¥3,500, and includes admission to the garden itself. Although you won't partake in the monk's daily helping of gruel, a salted plum, and pickled radishes, you will try Zen cuisine prepared for festival days. The tenzo, a monk specially trained to prepare Zen cuisine, creates a multicourse meal that achieves the harmony of the six basic flavors—bitter, sour, sweet, salty, light, and hot—required for monks to balance body and mind. Reservations are required.
Take the JR San-in Main Line from Kyoto Station to Saga Station or the Keifuku Electric Railway to Arashiyama Station. From Saga Station walk west; from Arashiyama Station walk north.