Not to be confused with Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Ginkaku-ji is the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Despite the name though, it’s not actually covered in silver leaf. In fact, it’s much more modest than the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. But in a way, this makes it even more special. The Silver Pavilion feels much more traditional and “Old World” than the Golden Pavilion does. It’s also not nearly as crowded or touristy as the Golden Pavilion. This allows you to stroll around the temple and the surrounding gardens at a slower pace.
Ginkaku-ji’s official name is Jishō-ji, or the Temple of Shining Mercy. Around 1460, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th shōgun of the Muromachi shogunate, had plans to build his retirement villa here. However, the Ōnin War (1467 to 1477) interrupted the construction plans.
The Ōnin War began over who would succeed Yoshimasa as shōgun. Since he had no children of his own, Yoshimasa chose his brother, a Buddhist monk named Yoshimi, to succeed him. But a year later, Yoshimasa’s wife bore him a son. Naturally, Yoshimasa declared his son as heir, removing the title from his brother.
Meanwhile, there were two powerful men in Kyoto who’d been engaged in a previous feud over succession in the 1450s – Yamana Sozen, a Buddhist monk, and his son-in-law Hosokawa Katsumoto. They found themselves on opposing sides once again.
Sozen declared his support for the infant Yoshihisa, while Katsumoto supported the shōgun’s brother, Yoshimi. Both men rallied for support behind their chosen successor. Soon, their respective armies reached in the tens of thousands. But neither man was ready to go to war. At least, not until a mysterious fire claimed one of Hosokawa’s mansions. That’s when it officially all kicked off.
Yoshimasa didn’t do much to alleviate the tensions either. In fact, he didn’t really get involved at all. Instead, he spent the time reading poetry and planning out his retirement home.
By the end of the war nearly eleven years later, hundreds of buildings had been destroyed, and Kyoto was in ruins.
Yoshimasa finally built the Jishō-ji temple in 1482. After his death in 1490, the building became a Zen Buddhist temple.
The Temple of the Silver Pavilion
The Silver Pavilion was originally called Kannon-den, and is two stories tall. It was completed in 1489. The first floor was built in Shoin-zukuri style. This is a traditional style of Japanese architecture used in residences. The second floor follows the Chinese temple style. The bronze phoenix on the roof faces east, and protects the temple. The pavilion contains a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, but the interior is not open to the public.
The builders used Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s grandfather’s villa, Kinkaku-ji, as a template for the Silver pavilion. The original plans may have included covering the pavilion in silver foil, similar to Kinkaku-ji’s gold-leafed facade. But this plan was never implemented.
However, the pavilion may have been given its name for another trait. The building was originally covered in a shiny black lacquer which reflected the moonlight, giving it a silver appearance.
Togudo Hall is the only other building in the complex dating back to the temple’s foundation. It was built in 1485 as a Buddha Hall. It’s not usually open to the public. However, it contains a study hall considered to be the oldest surviving example of Shoin architecture. Shoin-zukuri architecture was a typical style used in military residences.
Togudo Hall, along with the Silver Pavilion, are the only two buildings on the complex grounds which have survived the numerous fires and earthquakes over the centuries.
The gardens surrounding the Silver Pavilion are lush, thick and maintain an interesting balance of wild yet contained. They don’t feel quite as manicured as the gardens surrounding the Golden Pavilion, but they are no less inspiring.
Ginkaku-ji has an interesting sand garden, called the Sea of Silver Sand.
This is a sand cone, called the Moon Viewing Platform. I wonder how often they have to re-form it?
Here’s a wider shot of the Sea of Silver Sand garden. You can see the sand cone in the background on the right hand side.
The moss garden is calming and relaxing to stroll through. The garden is designed in a circuit style, with a pond in the center, and rocks, trees and shrubs planted around it.
This is Sengetsu-sen (Moon washing falls), a small waterfall in the garden:
The pond is filled with coins. If you can get a coin onto the flat stone in the middle, you’ll have good luck!
If you take the stairs, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of Kyoto:
I really enjoyed visiting Ginkaku-ji. It was less crowded than Kinkaku-ji, but just as beautiful. But it’s worth seeing both because they do have different vibes, so make the time to spend an hour or two at each site. If you’ve already been to both, did you have a favourite? Which one?
By bus: Bus number 5, 17 or 100 from Kyoto Station
On foot: from Nanzen-ji, walk via Philosopher’s Path (approximately 35-40 minutes)
Hours: 8:30 to 17:00 (9:00 to 16:30 from December to February)
Admission: 500 yen