Translation: heavenly woman, celestial woman
Habitat: Tendō, the realm of heaven in Buddhist cosmology
Diet: as a human
Appearance: Tennyo are extraordinarily beautiful creatures who resemble human women. Aside from their unparalleled grace and elegance, and supernaturally attractive faces and figures, there is little way to differentiate them from ordinary women. They wear beautiful gowns called hagoromo (literally “feather cloth”), which allow them to fly.
Behavior: Tennyo are servants and courtesans for the emperor of heaven, and companions of buddhas and bodhisattvas. They sing, dance, play music, recite poetry, and do much of the same things as their earthly counterparts in human imperial courts; though they do them all with more grace, refinement, and beauty. They aid and entertain the other inhabitants of heaven, and they even occasionally fly down to earth to visit.
Origin: Tennyo are a female-only subgroup of tennin, one of many celestial races native to Tendō. They are based on the Indian apsaras, celestial nymphs from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. They were brought to China from India along with Buddhism, where they developed into the tennyo we know today. The Chinese Buddhist tennyo was later brought over to Japan.
Legends: Tennyo are a popular subject of folklore throughout all of Japan. Legends often involve love stories and marriage between tennyo and human men. The most famous story is the Noh play Hagoromo.
Long ago, in what is today Shizuoka, a fisherman named Hakuryō was walking along the pine-covered beaches of the Miho peninsula. It was a beautiful spring morning, and Hakuryō stopped for a moment to admire the beautiful white sand, the sparkling waves, the fluffy clouds, and the fishing ships on the bay. A pleasant fragrance filled the air, and it seemed that ethereal music was dancing on the winds. Something caught his eye; draped over a nearby pine branch was a robe of the most splendid fabric he had ever seen. It was made of a soft, feathery material, and was woven in fantastic colors, so he decided to take it home and keep it as a family heirloom.
Just as Hakuryō was preparing to leave, a young woman of breathtaking beauty appeared in the nude before him. She had flowers in her hair, and smelled just as beautiful as she looked. She said that he was holding her hagoromo robe, and asked him to return it. Hakuryō realized that this beautiful maiden was a tennyo. He refused to return to robe, saying it would bring good luck and fortune to his village.
The woman grew sad, and lamented that she would not be able to fly home to heaven without her robe. She dropped to her knees and cried, her tears falling like beautiful pearls into the sand. The flowers in her hair wilted. She looked up at the clouds above, and heard a flock of geese flying by, which only saddened her more as they reminded her of the celestial karyōbinga birds back home in heaven.
Hakuryō was moved by the beautiful maiden’s sadness. He told her that he would return her robe, but first she must perform a celestial dance for him. She agreed to perform the dance, but told Hakuryō that she needed her hagoromo to perform the dance. Hakuryō refused to return the robe. He thought she would just fly off to heaven without performing for him. The tennyo replied to him that deception was a part of his world, not hers, and that her kind do not lie. Hakuryō felt shame, and returned the dress to her.
The tennyo donned her hagoromo and performed the dance of the Palace of the Moon. She was accompanied by celestial music, flutes, koto, and the wind in the pines. The moon shown through the trees and sweet fragrances filled the air. The waves grew calm and peaceful. Her long sleeves danced upon the wind, and she danced in sheer joy. As she danced, she slowly floated up into the sky. She flew over the beach, higher and higher, above the pines, through the clouds, and beyond the top of Mt. Fuji. She disappeared into the mists of heaven.