If you only have one trip to Kyoto, chances are that the famed Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji, otherwise known as the Silver and Golden Pavilions, are on the top of your must-see list. And they definitely should fall somewhere on that list! No matter how many times you see these world cultural heritage sites in photos or videos, experiencing them in real life cannot compare. They are both equally magnificent pieces of architecture and culture, surrounded by amazing reflective ponds, landscape scenery, and tranquil wooded areas.
Ginkaku-ji. The Silver Pavilion.
Despite its name, the Silver Pavilion was never covered in silver. In fact, not a bit of silver is on it! So how did the name ‘Silver Pavilion’ come to be? When the temple was built in the 1480’s as a retirement home for the then shogun, the plan was for it to be coated in silver leaf. But scholars believe that he ran out of money before he got to that part of the project. And when he died a few years later, the silver-less pavilion was converted into the Zen temple it is today. Many also say it is believed that the name arose as a nickname more than a century after the buildings construction to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion. Others also explained the name saying that the moonlight reflected on the building’s dark exterior (which used to be covered in black lacquer in the past) gave it a silvery appearance.
Ginkakuji is found along Kyoto’s eastern mountains, Higashiyama. In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today’s temple, modeling it after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), his grandfathers retirement villa which is at the base of Kyoto’s northern Kitayama mountains. The villa that was here converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490.
As the retirement villa of an art obsessed shogun, Ginkakuji became a center of contemporary culture. Unlike the times during his grandfather’s life, the arts had developed and refined during the Higashiyama Culture. This included the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, noh theatre, poetry, garden design, and architecture. Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, numerous other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden, and a unique dry sand garden.
Kinkaku-ji. The Golden Pavilion.
Despite the Silver Pavilion not having any trace of silver on it, Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, is actually made with gold. The Golden Pavilion is a Zen temple located in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf! Formerly known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it was converted into a Zen temple after his death in 1408. As mentioned above, this pavilion was the inspiration for Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) built by his grandson a few decades later.
The Golden Pavilion is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
Each floor of Kinkakuji represents a different architectural style. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels of the pavilion and a shining phoenix stands on top of the shingled roof. The first level is built in the shinden style of the 11th-century imperial aristocracy. Its natural wood pillars and white plaster walls contrasts, yet compliments, the gilded upper stories of the pavilion. Statues of the historical buddha and Yoshimitsu are stored in the first floor (although it is not open to the public but you may see them from afar). The second level is in buke style of the samurai/warrior aristocracy, the exterior completely covered in gold leaf. The top level is in the Chinese zenshu-butsuden style, also in gold leaf. Overall, Kinkakuji is representative of Muromachi-period architecture.
The pond with the Golden Pavilion, and islets large and small, is the center of the garden. Rocks donated by various provincial lords of the period are placed throughout the garden. As a pond garden is designed for strolling, it is typical of the Muromachi period.
The Sekka-tei Tea House
Sekkatei (Place of Evening Beauty) is the detached teahouse built during the Edo period. The famous alcove pillar is of nandina wood (heavenly bamboo).
A small temple hall which houses a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings and protector of Buddhism. The statue is said to be carved by Kobo Daishi, one of the most important figures in Japanese history.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!