Whether you’re a Zen enthusiast or simply looking for one of the best all around temples, Ginkakuji or Silver temple is sure to captivate your senses with its incredible garden and simple, yet enlightening pavilion.
Ginkakuji Temple Overview
Silver Pavilion (Kannonden)
Design and Architecture
Dry Landscape Garden
Ginkakuji was originally the villa of Yoshimasa, the 8th shogun of the Ashikaga family and it was referred to as Higashiyama-den. Yoshimasa insisted Higashiyama-den become a temple upon his death and it became known as Jishoji, the Buddhist name he took when he became a monk.
In relation to Kinkakuji (Golden temple) the name appears to have changed to Ginkakuji or Silver temple some time in the Edo Period (1600-1868). Also, due to its cultural significance it was registered as a National Treasure and later as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1994
Looking at the pavilion, one is left wondering why it is called Ginkakuji (Silver temple) when there is actually no silver adorning it. Yoshimasa built the silver pavilion using Kinkakuji’s Gold pavilion as inspiration. However, he apparently envisioned adorning the outside with silver instead of gold.
During his reign, Yoshimasa was uninterested in states affairs. Instead, his wife appears to have been very influential in political affairs along with other powerful families named Hosokawa and Yamana. They figured prominently in the political and economic affairs of the day. They turned out to be poor magistrates, and combined with the destruction of the Onin war (1466-67), wracked up lots of debt, leaving the state coffers next to empty. This was a big reason Yoshimasa was unable to adorn the pavilion in silver.
In spite of the destruction and destitution of the people, Yoshimasa still demanded the people to be taxed and the money support his pursuit of the arts. In this regard, Yoshimasa is considered along the lines of a Nero, where he ignored the plight and harsh conditions of his people, to further his own ambitions.
Today, the Silver pavilion and Togudo (Yoshimasa’s living quarters) are the only buildings still left from the original premises. Originally, Yoshimasa built the Silver temple as a villa but unfortunately died before completion of the entire complex in 1489. The Silver pavilion and Togudo, survive as enduring symbols of the Higashiyama era with features of their design and structure even noticeable in residential houses and temples throughout Japan today. For example, tokonoma-alcove, shoji-thin paper sliding doors, and fusuma-sliding doors are all said to be traced back to Ginkakuji, and more specifically these two buildings.
The garden is said to have been originally created by Saomi, a very distinguished landscape garden curator, but Yoshimasa apparently was also heavily involved. Some of Saomi’s other major gardens consisted of Saihoji (Moss temple) and Ryogenin (inside Daitokuji temple complex). However, similar to Kinkakuji it underwent considerable remodeling sometime in the late Edo Period. It is reputed to have changed very much from its original design. In general, dry-landscape gardens are meant for the observer to recognize the existence of an infinite worldview. Looking over an expanse of rock and sand has somewhat of a calming effect on the thinking mind, allowing one to access the wisdom mind or state where meditative practice happens.
Many people are often struck by the odd shaped cone object made out of sand. I’ve heard a different stories as to its meaning. The first coincides with the general land and water dichotomy underpinning many dry-landscape gardens. This explanation fits because one of the gardeners actually told me it represented Mount Fuji. Another idea I heard was it used to be a place for moon viewing, however a raised platform similar to the moon viewing platform at Katsura Villa originally stood in place of the “sand cone”. The Chinese characters in the name Kogetsudai, support this as they roughly translate into “platform facing the moon.”
The other uniquely shaped sand object represents a great expanse of water such as the ocean. The white sand included in both was meant for more than just ascetic purposes. The sand has a unique property that makes it highly reflective. For example, snow is considered to be one of the most reflective substances and this white sand is fairly comparable. Sunlight reflects off of the sand during the day and moonlight in the evening. Since electricity and modern day lighting were unavailable, the sand functioned as a natural form of lighting as light reflected off the sand and into the main hall.
Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa was the 8th descendent of the Ashikaga Shogunate (military government). He encountered much opposition to his rule as shogun. In 1441, his father Yoshinori was assassinated by Shugo warlords (powerful warlords) and this event shook the foundations of the shogunate. After this event the Shugo warlords attempted to take power from the Ashikaga clan. Yoshimasa was only eight years old at this time.
Many within his personal circle and beyond had self-directed interests, and deceit and betrayal ran rampant during his reign. This along with an internal dispute concerning the next heir to Yoshimasa sparked the Onin war (1467-77) and conflict continued on into the Warring States period (1493-1590). This period was characterized by conflict between warlords vying for the title of shogun. Despite this destructive and turbulent period, Yoshimasa’s interest and sponsorship of arts greatly advanced the development of Japanese arts and created a new culture.
It appears exchanges with Zen monks of the Enrakuji Temple located on Mt. Hiezan, left an indelible mark on Yoshimasa’s life. These exchanges focused mainly on culture and the arts. During this period the precursors to many of the contemporary traditional Japanese arts were formed.
Tea ceremony, ikebana, renga poetry (mother of haiku), dry landscape gardens, and architecture of traditional houses. In contrast to Kitayama culture characterized by extravagant works and other treasures, Higashiyama culture espoused beauty through simplicity and stillness. Characteristics embodied in the concept now referred to as wabi sabi.
Yoshihisa the 9th descendent of the Ashikaga clan and son of Yoshimasa, inherited the title of shogun in 1473. He served as shogun until 1489, the year he died from a brain hemorrhage. It is said he was a heavy drinker and couldn’t get enough of women. This overindulgence appears to be one of the main factors in his death. Yoshimasa decided to honour his son’s spirit by sending it off in grand fashion on the final day of the annual Obon festival on August 16thth. He wanted to be able to see it from the Togudo so stacks of wood were arranged in the shape of the “big” character and lit on the side of Daimonjiyama mountain. This appears to be the genesis of the Daimonji festival
Ginkakuji lies at the foot of Daimonji mountain where the conspicuous “big” 「大」character is visible. This character is one of a total of six ensconced into the hills surrounding Kyoto and are lit up to mark the end of Obon お盆 (period observing the souls of ancestors).
Hours of Operation
Open Year Round
Winter (December 1〜End of February) 9:00-16:30
Other (March 1〜November 30) 8:30-17:00
Adult 500 Yen
Child 300 Yen (14 yrs. & under)
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