Kyoto is among the top destinations many tourists go to during their first trip to Japan for countless reasons. For one, the city used to be the capital of Japan. Two, it is home to more than two thousand religious structures. And best of all, it has over fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites worth visiting.
According to avid visitors of Japan, Kyoto serves as the perfect place for a person to experience the rawness of Japanese culture. It is considered to be the birthplace of many traditional arts and practices including Kabuki theater, the tea ceremony, and Zen Buddhism.
The city of Kyoto offers a wide array of refined cultural tourist spots, most of which cannot be found in any other place including the current capital of Japan, that is modern Tokyo. Its most iconic site that no tourist should miss out on is Kinkakuji, a gold-leaf covered Zen temple situated in Northern Kyoto.
History of Kinkakuji
The famous Gold Pavilion known as Kinkakuji is a reconstructed structure that was built to represent the luxurious Kitayama culture of aristocrats during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the thirst shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, from 1368 to 1394.
According to historians, Kinkakuji originally came in the form of a villa, which was given to Shogun Yoshimitsu by Saionji Kintsune. It served as the shogun’s retirement villa and went by the official name of Rokuonji, while the famous gold-leaf covered structure was known as Kinkaku. Given the extreme popularity of the three-storey structure, the entire complex is often recognized as Kinkakuji.
After the death of Yoshimitsu, every part of the villa excluding the actual temple was torn apart, as instructed in the shogun’s will. Since 1408, the Kinkakuji has served as a Zen temple for the Rinzai sect.
Over the years, Kinkakuji has gone through three major restorations. In 1950, it was set on fire which ultimately destroyed a big portion of the Kinkaku and the cultural items it housed. During the Edo Period’s Onin War, the site also suffered damages in terms of architecture.
The structure was disassembled and reconstructed later on in the Meiji Period. Due to the deterioration of the building’s gold leaf and lacquer, it again underwent significant repairs in 1986.
Although the current Kinkakuji no longer features its original structure, it still remains a true testament to the ancient times of Japan.
The Architectural Design, Interior, and Garden of Kinkakuji
As previously mentioned, Kinkakuji was built as a means to echo the extravagant lifestyle of Japan’s aristocracy during the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573). However, a closer look at the structure of the temple actually shows three distinct architectural styles.
The gold-leaf-covered building consists of three floors, each designed to carry a unique design from Japan’s history. Contrary to popular belief, the entire temple is not actually covered in gold leaf. Its first floor makes use of white plaster walls and natural wood pillars to showcase the Shinden style of the Heian Period. This architectural design was often used for palace structures and offers a pleasant contrast to the upper floors of the temple.
The first floor houses statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha, a historical Buddha. Entering the pavilion is not allowed but the front windows of this floor are often left open so visitors can view the items from afar.
Kinkakuji’s second floor features an architectural style known as Bukke, which was used in ancient times for the design of samurai residences. This portion of the pavilion is entirely covered with gold leaf on the outside and houses several important statues including the Kannon Bodhisattva and the Four Heavenly Kings, which, unfortunately, are not open for public viewing.
Finally, the third, uppermost floor of the Kinkaku exhibits a similar style to that of Chinese Zen temple halls. This floor is covered in gold, inside and out, and features a golden phoenix perched on top of it.
Visitors may admire and view the Kinkaku from across a large pond. The golden structure is reflected quite nicely on the surface of the water and offers a great photo opportunity.
The vicinity offers many other attractions worth checking out. Tourists may pass by the hojo, which served as the living quarters of priests and appreciate stunning painted sliding doors known as fusuma. However, similar to the pavilion, this area may not be entered by visitors.
Behind the Kinkaku, another path offers a view of the pavilion and stretches through the vicinity’s spectacular gardens. These gardens feature the original designs as that of Shogun Yoshimitsu’s retirement villa. Several statues can be located within the gardens which many visitors throw coins at for good luck.
Another pond known as Anmintaku Pond is situated in the gardens and is believed to have and will never dry up. Further ahead, tourists can find the Sekkatei Teahouse, which was added to the temple complex in the Edo Period.
Outside of the paid temple area, a small temple hall, several souvenir shops, and a dainty tea garden are available for visitors to top off their trip. The temple hall is known as Fudo Hall and houses the statue of the protector of Buddhism known as Fudo Myoo, who is also regarded to be one of the Five Wisdom Kings. Sweets and matcha tea are sold at the tea garden.
“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” by Yukio Mishima – A Novel about Kinkakuji
In 1956, a novel by Yukio Mishima entitled “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” was published. The burning of the Kinkakuji in 1950 by a young acolyte of the temple serves as a loose basis for the book’s story. As the pavilion was recognized as a national monument that survived significant war damages, the act of arson came as a shock to Japan.
According to records, the name of the acolyte behind this unpleasant event was Hayashi Yoken, who was under the supervision or training of Murakami Jikai.
Yoken was sentenced to prison but was released on September 29, 1955, which was significantly earlier than discussed. He apparently suffered from schizophrenia and did not have full control of his actions. Shortly after, he passed away in 1956 someday during the month of March.
Mishima allotted a lot of his time in collecting as much information about Yoken, even going as far as visiting the prison he was kept in. As such, Mishima’s book shares a frightening amount of closeness to the real story.
In “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, a disturbed Buddhist acolyte called Mizoguchi serves as the main character and narrator. He is described to have a stutter and an obsession with all things beautiful. His approach to beauty, however, is quite fascinating as he exhibits a great desire to destroy it.
The novel was translated into English in 1959 by Ivan Morris. It was also adapted into several films, theater performances, and plays, the most popular ones being:
Enjo (1958) – a film by Kon Ichikawa which also goes by the name Conflagration
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – a film by Paul Shrader which also discusses two other novels written by Yukio Mishimia
Kinkaku-ji (1976) – a film by Yoichi Takabayashi
Kinkaku-ji (1976) – an opera adaptation by Toshiro Mayuzumi
Kinkaku-ji (2002) – a contemporary dance adaptation by Kenji Kawarasaki
Kinkaku-ji (2011) – a stage performance by Serge Lamonthe and Amon Miyamoto
The Connection Between Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji
The name “Ginkakuji” may pop up when discussing Kinkakuji. Foreign travelers should not confuse these two to refer to the same gold-leaf covered building. Ginkakuji is actually another popular temple in Kyoto that may be aesthetically different from the Golden Pavilion but, in fact, shares a connection with it.
Ginkakuji, which translates to mean “Silver Pavilion” in English, was built under the command of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun of the Muromachi Period and the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. He had a great sense of respect for his grandfather which is primarily why he initiated the plans for the Jishoji, the official name of Ginkakuji.
Another reason for building Ginkakuji was to preserve the Higashiyama culture or Higashiyama Bunka of the same period. Similar to Yoshimitsu, Yoshimasa used the villa for his retirement and instructed that it be turned into a Zen temple after his death.
Originally, the temple was supposed to serve as the silver counterpart of Kinkakuji. However, for reasons that remain unknown up to this day, Ginkakuji serves as a modest, two-storey version.
Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji both fall under the jurisdiction of Shokokuji, a Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto considered to be a part of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto. This temple was also founded by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu during the year 1382. The Golden and Silver Pavilions were designed, built, and taken care of by the preachers of the Shokokuji during ancient times.
Additional Facts about Kinkakuji for Tourists – Access, Hours &Fees, and Visiting it in Winter
From the Kyoto Station, tourists can take the Kyoto City Bus number 205 or 101 which directly go to Kinkakuji. Both options take about forty minutes of travel time and cost 230 yen, one way.
For a faster route, tourists can choose to ride the Karasuma Subway Line by catching a train at the Kyoto Station and getting off at the Kitaoji Station. The train ride takes 15 minutes and costs 260 yen. From there, a taxi (costs 1,000 – 1,200 yen) or bus (bus numbers 205, 204, 102, or 101; costs 230 yen) can be taken to get to Kinkakuji in just ten minutes.
The English address of Kinkakuji is 1 Kinkaku-ji-cho, Kita-ku.
Hours & Fees
Kinkakuji is open every day of the year from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM for worshipping and sightseeing purposes. Visitors are required to pay an admission fee of 400 yen. Elementary and Junior High School students only need to pay 300 yen per person.
Kinkakuji During Winter and Other Seasons
Kinkakuji is a spectacular site to see any day of the year. It becomes even more stunning during the winter season when the area is covered with a nice blanket of snow. However, given that Kyoto does not experience snow as heavily as other cities in Japan, tourists need to keep a close eye on the latest weather forecast or report.
If possible, it is highly recommended that tourists stay within the region for, at the very least, a night to not miss out on the once in a lifetime opportunity.
Of course, seeing it in summer, spring, and fall is also wonderful as the area comes alive with color. In spring, the lush greens and blooming cherry blossoms fill the temple grounds. These turn into deeper shades during the summer, before turning red and orange in fall.
Throughout all four seasons, the Golden Pavilion magnificently stands out and creates a harmonious scene with the pond and gardens.
More Sites to Visit in Kyoto, Japan Other than Kinkakuji – Kyoto Imperial Palace, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Etc.
Before or after visiting Kinkakuji, tourists do not have to worry about not having any other place to visit. As discussed, Kyoto is home to countless sites worth checking out, the most popular ones being:
In Northern Kyoto
Ninnaji Temple – a temple that was turned into the home of the Imperial Family during ancient times
Ryoanji Temple – a Zen temple known for its stunning rock garden
Kurama – a rural town known for its hot springs and temples
In Central Kyoto
Sento Palace – an Imperial Palace known for its stunning gardens
Kyoto Railway Museum – one of Japan’s largest train museums
Nijo Castle – the former home of the shogun
Kyoto Imperial Palace – the home of the Imperial Family up until 1868
Pontocho – a narrow street filled with food establishments
In Eastern Kyoto
Ginkakuji – the Silver Pavilion
Higashiyama – a preserved, ancient district
Kiyomizudera – a temple known for its massive wooden terrace
Kyoto National Museum – one of the best museums in Kyoto for art and history
Nanzenji Temple – a Zen temple known for its stunning stone garden
In Southern Kyoto
Tofukuji Temple – a temple known for showcasing stunning autumn colors
Fushimi Inari Shrine – a shrine known for its series of orange tori gates
Toji Temple – a temple known for having the tallest pagoda in Japan
In Western Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – a popular tourist destination filled with soaring bamboo stalks
Yoshiminedera – a temple situated in the western mountains of Kyoto
Tenryuji Temple – a Zen temple of the district of Arashiyama
Daikakuji Temple – a massive temple that also served as an Imperial Palace