Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, located in Kyoto, is one of those sites you have to see to believe. It manages to exist in its own world of contradictions, making it a fascinating site to visit. It’s both gaudy yet modest, touristy while still feeling local, and overcrowded while still exuding zen and calm.
Mark and I had an interesting time trying to even get to the Golden Pavilion. We both had instructions on how to get there from central Kyoto, but our instructions didn’t match up. So, being more convinced that my information was correct (ok, I was pushier, I’ll admit it) we decided to follow the instructions I found. My information claimed that it was very easy to get there by subway, and then you could walk the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, once we popped out of the transit station and checked our GPS, it turned out we were still 5km away. As we unfolded our map and tried to decide our next move, an older lady approached us. With broken English she asked where we were going. When we said the Golden Pavilion, she shook her head and pointed back to the transit station. She gestured to us and started to walk toward the station. “Come,” she insisted. “You need the bus. I’ll show you.”
So, with a bit of uncertainty, we followed her back into the transit station. We went down the stairs, and into an enclosed waiting room. She pointed to the transit maps on the wall and told us which bus to take and how much it would cost. We thanked her for going out of her way to assist us.
Mark was very good about not telling me “I told you so.”
The bus arrived in a few short minutes and we were off on our adventure.
Kinkaku-ji is also known by its official name: Rokuon-ji, or the Deer Garden Temple. Originally, this land was part of a villa owned by an aristocrat during the Kamakura period (1185-1332). In 1397, a retired military dictator (or shōgun) named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu purchased the villa. He created the Kinkaku-ji complex and called the villa Kitayama Palace. After Yoshimitsu’s death, his son turned the complex into a Zen Buddhist temple, as his father had wished.
During the Onin War (1467–1477), all of the buildings in the complex were burned down, except for the pavilion.
The temple eventually fell into decline, but was restored during the Edo period (1615-1867).
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is three stories high and is surrounded by a reflective lake. And no, that’s not gold paint. The top two stories are covered in pure gold leaf. The building is a shariden, or a house for the relics of the Buddha. You’ll notice that each floor is designed and decorated in a different architectural style.
The first floor is called the Chamber of Dharma Waters. It uses the shinden-zukuri style of aristocratic residential architecture, common in the 10th and 11th Centuries. Most of the walls are made of shutters, which change the views from inside.
The second floor is called the Tower of Sound Waves. It was built in the buke-zukuri style, which was a style commonly used for military families and samurai. This floor contains a Buddha Hall and a shrine dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
The third floor follows the Chinese chan, or Japanese zen style of architecture called zenshū-butsuden-zukuri. This floor is called the Cupola of the Ultimate. The roof is topped with a phoenix ornament.
This isn’t the original pavilion, however. In 1950, a novice monk burned down the pavilion. The fire also destroyed the original statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The current building is a 1955 reconstruction of the original pavilion. It’s doubtful, however that this much of the pavilion was covered in gold originally.
The gardens around Kinkaku-ji temple are equally stunning. It’s a “strolling garden”, which becomes immediately apparent as you walk along the paths and discover new viewpoints. Strolling gardens were common during the Muromachi period.
The Mirror Pond that the temple overlooks has ten smaller islands, like this one:
The gardens follow a form of landscaping called borrowed scenery. This means that the background landscape is incorporated into the design of the garden.
This is the White Snake Pagoda, set on a little island in the garden.
Toward the end of the strolling trail, you can throw coin offerings into the bowl (if you can get it in) of the stone Buddha.
While you’re here, be sure to stop into the tea house for some tea and a sweet before you leave. Kinkaku-ji is definitely a little slice of paradise in the middle of a bustling, crowded city.
Bus: Take the bus 101 or 205 and get off at the stop ’Kinkaku-ji’. From Tokyo Station it takes around 40 minutes and costs 220 yen.
Subway: Take the Karasuma line to Kitaō-ji station. From there you can take a taxi (approx. 10 minutes, 900 yen) or bus 101, 102, 204 or 205 (10 minutes, 220 yen).
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Admission: 400 yen (approx. $4 CDN)