The Architectural Piece of Art that is Kinkaku-Ji

A favorite of tourists, and one of the most famous Buddhist temples in northern Kyoto, Japan, is the Kinkakuji Temple. The pavilion is so popular that it has earned a special place as a National Special Historic Site and as a National Special Landscape of Japan. It has been included as one of the 17 important locations under the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Also, it is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Facts About the Kinkakuji Temple in Japan

Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga built this 12.5-meter-high building in 1393, after purchasing the villa grounds from Saionji Kintsune of the Saionji family. It was originally called Kitayama-dai (北山第). Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s ambitious intention was to turn it into his retirement estate. He had grandiose plans for it – one of them being to coat the Kinkakuji in gold. The purpose of this was to diminish or alleviate any ill thoughts or fears of death.

The temple was constructed under the influence of the opulent Kitayama culture, which was common among the wealthy aristocrats during the Muromachi, period. Yoshimitsu dwelt here in extravagance while the rest of the Japanese people were suffering and going through famine, experiencing earthquakes, and dying from large scale epidemics.

Unfortunately, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu accomplished his ambition only partly. He was just able to cover the ceiling of the third floor with gold leaf when he died in 1408.  Yoshimitsu’s son, Ashikaga Yoshimochi, then converted the pavilion into a Zen temple following the wishes of his father. The Zen temple is of the Rinzai sect in honor of the Rinzai monk, Muso Soseki.

Kinkaku-ji sadly burned down twice during the civil war (Onin War) And then in 1950, a schizophrenic 22-year-old monk burned it down again. In 1955, five years after the fire, the pavilion was rebuilt and made even with more splendor. Most of its paintings and statues were restored. This restoration process continued until 2003.

Gold leaf was used to cover the second and third floors of the temple. Gold leaf is real gold manufactured through the art called “gold beating”, which is the ancient hand-made method of pounding gold (of different karats and of darker or lighter shades of gold) into a whole panel of thin metal.  The result is a very, very slim panel (about 4 millionths of an inch) called the gold leaf. This Japanese Temple was decorated with material to beautify it. As a result, it has become this breathtakingly beautiful landmark.

This temple is now known as Kinka-ku, because that is the name given to it from the pure gold leaf that was used entirely inside and outside, to decorate the second and third floors of the temple. The grounds where it stands is officially called “Rokuon-ji”, meaning Deer Garden Temple.

Levels of the Temple

•    The first floor (The Chamber of Dharma Waters) was designed with one large spacious living room with wooden pillars and adjacent verandas. It was used as a reception room. Based on the Shinden-Zukuri style, it was the style used by the rich during the Heian Period. Shutters surround the first floor where the view of the garden is much appreciated and enjoyed. This is also where the statues of Buddha and Yoshimitsu are kept.

•    The second floor (The Tower of Sound Waves) was designed under the influence of the Buke- Zukuri style. This was the style most identifiable with samurais. Here is where the important dignitaries communed and socialized. It has sliding wooden doors and latticed windows. Also found here is a seated Kannon Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy) with the Four Heavenly Kings.

•    The third floor, a much smaller area, is more associated with Chinese Zen temples (Zenshu-butsuden-Zukuri) used by the Shogun to meet up with friends and enjoy tea ceremonies with them. Also known as the Cupola of the Ultimate (究竟頂, Kukkyou-chou) it is where a reliquary holds some of the ashes of Buddha.

•    At the very top of the temple is a golden Phoenix located on top of a shingled -lined pyramid styled roof.  By the Temple’s side, there is a quaint fishing porch that extends to the pond and another side of the temple stands by the edge of a pond.

Watching all the lotus flowers blooming on this pond and all the meaning of its rocks and stones is a hit among tourists, as it is evident how its creator tried to blend the elements of nature, beauty, death, and religion and connect them all into one beautiful flow of life and history.

Where is the Exact Location of Kinkakuji?

Kinkakuji is located exactly at the address of 1Kinkaku-ji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Situated right below Kinugasa Hill. It is in the north part of Kyoto, it also is a short distance walk north from Hirano Shrine and Waratenjin Shrine. Kinkaku-ji is accessible from Kyoto Station by taking bus numbers 101 or 205. In approximately 30 minute intervals, the buses will stop at the Kinkaku-ji Michi bus stop.

Take a Stroll in the Glorious Garden of Kinkakuji

The Golden Pavilion is surrounded by a Japanese strolling garden (Kaiyu-Shiki-Teien). Here, it is quiet and conducive for meditation or a serene walk. The Zen typology can be appreciated through the positions of the rocks, the bridges, and the plants wherein Chinese and Japanese literature are represented.


The promenade garden is designed as such that it has a path that goes around a pond or lake. It is an art where the best angles and ways to plant the trees, grass, and plants are taken into consideration to bring out their beauty and make the view breathtakingly peaceful.

In Kinkaku-ji, the landscape of the garden extends the views from the pavilion, making it like a continuation of a vision. The pavilion site was built according to the methods of the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amida, which must express a blending and harmony of heaven and of the earth.

The pond where the pavilion extends out to has 10 smaller islands. The largest island in the pond represents the Japanese islands. The four stones stand for sailboats docked at night bound for the Isle of Eternal Life.

The garden of Kinkaku-ji is a typical design of the Muromachi period, wherein there is a blending of energy from the building or temple to the garden and there is a continuation of view that extends from the structure to the landscape.

Is It Okay to Go to the Kinkakuji Temple During Winter?

The good news is, Kinkaku-ji is open to tourists even in winter. Its temple and grounds get enveloped and covered in virgin white snow and for some, it becomes a beautiful sight. The contrast of the glorious yellow temple and the pure white snow is a feast to behold. You will still have to go around the walkway around to appreciate the temple even if it is freezing cold.

How to Get from Arashiyama to Kinkakuji

You can walk it for one hour and 26 minutes, or go a bit faster by bicycle. There is no direct bus, but you have the following route choices:

•    Take the Randen tram from Randen Arashiyama Terminal to Kitano Hakubaicho via Katabira no Tsuji, followed by a bus to Kinkakuji-michi.

•    JR Sagano Line from Saga Arashiyama to Enmachi, then bus to Kinkakuji-michi.

•    Taxi direct trip from Arashiyama straight to Kinkakuji

•    Ride the Randen tram at Arashiyama Terminal and change bus at Katabiranotsuji Station onto the Randen Kitano Line. Get off at Omuro-Ninnaji Station and walk up to Ninnaji Temple. Cross the road and take the number 59 bus (headed for Shijo Kawaramachi) from the Omuro-Ninnaji bus stop outside the temple entrance. Disembark at Kinkakuji-mae. It takes around 40 minutes overall and this is the most scenic and most recommended way to get from Arashiyama to Kinkakuji.

Learn More About Mishima Yukio’s Written Piece Featuring the Kinkakuji

Yukio Mishima, (pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, 1925-1970) a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director got his inspiration from the story of Kinkaku-ji’s schizophrenic monk Hayashi Yoken, who burned the Golden Temple down in 1050.  His book, The Temple of The Golden Pavilion, written in 1956, depicts the story of a young boy Mizoguchi, who saw his mother making love to another man while his father lay ill and dying. The boy’s trauma extended well into his manhood even when he entered to become a monk in a temple in Kyoto. He tried to free himself from his obsession and trauma but he could not. The character ended up losing his grip on reality, set to destroy the epitome of beauty that was the temple.

Kinkakuji Versus Ginkakuji – Separate, However, Connected

Ginkakuji, named as The Temple of the Silver Pavilion, the second most famous temple in Kyoto and officially given the name of Jisho-ji (Temple of Shining Mercy) is presently a Zen temple in the Sakyo ward of the city of Kyoto, Japan.

In 1460, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), the 8th Shogun of the Ashikaga family and the grandson of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, started with a dream to build a place for him to retire. In 1482, he started turning his plans into reality. He built this temple at the foot of Kyoto’s eastern mountains.  His dream was to create something like Kinkaku-ji. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa introduced and promoted the Higashiyama Bunka, and that became the Higashiyama culture during the Muromachi period (1338-1573)

Basing it on the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism, he applied wabi-sabi (beauty in the simplicity and in the imperfect). Much of the Japanese artistic beauty of today was learned from the Higashiyama culture. The Japanese tea ceremony and the Ikebana (the art of flower arrangement) and examples of what came from that culture. The gentle Higashiyama Culture contrasted so much with the more extravagant and ostentatious Kitayama Culture, the culture of then under his grandfather Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.

The Silver Pavilion, a two-story Kannon Hall was converted into a Zen temple associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of the Rinzai-Zen after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490.  But during his lifetime, the shogun invited poets and intellectuals here to share their industrial, architectural, and artistic ideas and arts.

One area to note of Ginkaku-ji is the Hall of the Eastern Quest (Togudo), situated next to the Abbot’s Quarters (from the Edo Period) where the Dojinsai Tea Room is. The original structure of the Tea Pavilion became a mainstay in the Japanese architecture in the following century.

It was called the Temple of the Silver Pavilion because Yoshimasa intended to cover it with a silver foil. That never happened, and there never was never any silver added to it. Yoshimasa spent his days here meditating on the beauty of his moss and sand covered garden while the Onin war went on, and much of Kyoto was burned down.

His unique garden was made of white sand and structures like the Ginsyadan and the Mount Fuji inspired-Kuogetudai. The garden also has a pond where visitors throw in coins much like the Fountain of Trevi of Rome. There is also a waterfall and a spring where Yoshimasa got pure water for his tea.

When the red autumn leaves fall or cherry blossoms bloom and go in contrast of silvery reflection of the Temple, it makes this Temple a magnificent work of art.

A Description of a Map of Kinakuji

The entrance to the temple grounds starts at the Hondo (Main Hall) and then you can see the Kuri (Priests’Quarters) on the right side.  In front of the Kuri is a plant Camellia bush planted by Emperor Go-Mizuno-O. Going down the same path you will see trees all around and then you will pass the Chu-Mon (Middle Gate), the Shoro (Bell Tower) is to the left and then to the right is a big stone, shaped like a boat.

When you reach the end of this path, you will see Kara-Mon (Chinese Gate). Go through the gate and then through the Kyouko-chi (Mirror Pond) and the enchanting reflection of the Temple on its quiet waters.  Moving on with the tour, you will then climb some stairs to the Shinun Shrine, then after is the spring where Yoshimitsu scooped natural water for his tea ceremonies. Continuing down the path is the waterfall (Ryumon- Baku) where the Carp Stone is located.

After climbing some more, you will see another small pond (Anmin-Tuku) and within this pond is an islet called Hakuja-No-Tsuka.  Then come to the images of the Four Buddhas in a pagoda. Further on, you will see the simple Sekka- Tei tea house. Then continue to enjoy the moss garden and finally Fudo Myo-O (the God of Fire and Wisdom) where visitors tie papers to the bushes in the hope that their wishes will come true. From here you proceed to the exit.

Touring is allowed daily from 9 AM – 5 PM, though going inside the temple is not allowed. One report says that a tour here generally costs upwards of 5000 yen per adult, and upwards of 2000 yen for children. It’s still worth it to travel here and book a hotel to see one of the most beautiful temples in Japan; kinkaku-ji.