Kinkakuji (Gold Temple)
Kinkakuji belongs to the Shokokuji Rinzai School of Buddhism. Its original name was Rokuonji but changed to Kinkakuji (Gold Temple) after the pavilion’s characteristic gold finish. It is located in the northwest section of Kyoto and easily accessible by #101 (main) bus from Kyoto Station and taxi. Also, it is about a twenty-minute walk to Ryoanji (famous Zen rock garden).
Hours of Operation
Open Year Round 9:00-17:00
Adult 400 Yen (15 yrs. & over)
Child 300 Yen (14 yrs. & under)
View Kinkakuji (Gold Temple) & Ryoanji in a larger map
Saionnji Kitsune (Family name-Saionnji; First name-Kitsune) belonged to the noble Fujiwara clan and built a mountain retreat on the Kinkakuji complex in 1224. In accordance with Japanese custom, the mountain retreat was passed down to descendents of the Saionnji family, however it stopped at Saionnji Kinmune because he was involved in a plot to assassinate emperor Godaigo around the year 1338. As punishment for this grave act, all land and title was stripped from the Saionnji family and confiscated.
Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu
For a considerable amount of time, the property appears to have been left vacant, and gradually the buildings became dilapidated. However, in 1397 the rights to the land and title were transferred to the 3rd Shogun (military leader) of the Ashikaga clan. (Family name-Ashikaga; First name-Yoshimitsu) The lavishly designed present-day Gold Pavilion stems from Yoshimitsu’s apparent preoccupation with power. From his point of view, the Gold Pavilion was a symbol of his actual power, analogous to that of an emperor.
Aside: To better understand this concept, it is important to keep in mind one essential idea. Throughout most of Japan’s history, Japan’s ruling establishment was characterized by the emperor being a figurehead while the Shogun was the actual ruler.
Origin of Gold Pavilion (Shariden)
After Yoshimitsu took possession of the property in 1397, he moved from his previous northern palace, changed the mountain retreat’s name to Kitayamaden, and expanded the compound. This was in an effort to establish Kitayamaden as the new palace from which the Ashikaga clan’s power would be concentrated. As a symbol of his actual power Yoshimitsu commissioned construction of the Gold Pavilion (Shariden) at Kitayamaden (present-day Kinkakuji).
The Shariden was common to most temples. It was a building that housed Buddhist statues, artifacts and ashes of priests. At this point in time, the Shariden was not as lavishly decorated as the Gold Pavilion presently is. However, at the time, the Shariden was reputed to be the most valuable building in Kyoto, and the building had a unique lacquer base covered in gold leaf. While the Shariden and gardens remained intact at Kitayamaden, the other buildings and sections of the mountain retreat encountered a different fate.
Design and Architecture of Gold Pavilion
Kinkakuji’s Gold Pavilion is made up of three levels. It is located near the Mirror Lake pond. The first level was the most important room, and accordingly decorated in a noble manner. It also housed the principle image of the Buddha and other precious Buddhist artifacts. Concerning the interior of the second level, although there is conjecture about the design, it is decorated in a samurai style and reflects the devotion to Buddhism, and more specifically the Kannon (God of Mercy). Finally, the third level consists of a multi-purpose room also decorated with Buddhist images.
Kitayama culture originated from the construction of the Kitayamaden and was heavily influenced by trade between both Japan and the Ming dynasty (1368−1644) of China. More specifically, the Kitayama period saw the imperial culture of the court blended with the burgeoning samurai class and elements of Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhist writings, famous paintings and pottery from China were brought back by Japanese Zen Monks and found their way to the Ashikaga clan. It was Yoshimitsu in particular who was involved in dealings with Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhist monks. These exchanges appear to have heavily influenced Yoshimitsu and these various elements are reflected in the architecture of the Shariden. As a result. it became the symbol of Kitayamaden Culture.
Irreplaceable National Treasures: Up in Flames
After the fires and other mishaps Kitayamaden incurred, it appears the Shariden and gardens did not undergo much change until the mid-twentieth century. In 1950, the Shariden along with other National treasures: wooden statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu; Statue of Kannon; and the Amitabha (Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism) statue were all lost in a mysterious fire. The fire was arson, and it was actually set by a young disgruntled monk.
Rebuilding a Lost Treasure
In 1955, the rebuilding project of Kinkakuji was completed. Using models and pictures from the previous Gold Pavilion, designers and craftsmen meticulously replicated the older pavilion but also made some improvements. In 1987, the outside of the Gold Pavilion was adorned with 20 kilograms of solid gold. Financially, this elaborate restoration project was carried out by varying levels of government and other organizations.
Land Boat Pine Tree
The propped up and uniquely shaped pine tree to the right of the Gold Pavilion is the Land Boat Pine Tree. This evergreen pine tree was originally a bonsai (miniature pine tree) of Yoshimatsu. Over the centuries it has been transformed into the shape of a land boat you now see today. The longer section pointing outwards toward the pond represents the bow of the boat. It signifies the western direction one takes to the pure land and serves as one of the major symbols of this Pure Land Buddhist Temple.
Gardens and Ponds
In addition to the original Gold Pavillion, gardens and the Anmintaku pond were left relatively intact.
Mirror Lake Pond and Chisen Garden
The stroll-type landscape garden that surrounds the Golden Pavilion originates from the Kitayamaden period but the pond and garden have both been improved upon. Based on the pre-existing garden, the little islands and other various sized rocks are supplemental additions. The rocks are actually from different countries. They are meant to symbolize the world based on a traditional Indian text’s representation of the world that consisted of nine mountain ranges and eight seas. In addition, aspects of the garden strongly emphasize the natural characteristics of the pure land garden style. The garden has been designated as one of Japan’s special historic and scenic spots.
Yoshimitsu’s Green Spring
Just after the Gold Pavilion, you will come across a little hut. It sells talismans and other trinkets. Then you will arrive at a small structure that was Yoshimitsu’s freshwater spring. It is said he used this water for tea ceremony. Today however, the spring is no longer used.
Dragon Gate Waterfall
This waterfall is based on a Chinese folktale Yoshimitsu apparently liked. It envisioned carp that scale a waterfall, then change into dragons. To help the carp in their ascent, steppingstones were provided at the base.
Anmintaku pond appears to stem all the way back to the original Saionnji Family. In the middle of the pond lies a mound in the shape of a white snake motif; moreover, this serves as a guardian spirit over the Saionnji Family.
Sekatei Tea Room: Oldest Building
Sekatei is a tearoom constructed during the Edo Period. Its name means ‘Gold temple in the twilight of the setting sun.’ Today, it’s the oldest building left since Kinkakuji burnt down in 1950. If you look closely there is a characteristic that distinguishes it from typical tearooms. The shelf to the side of the bamboo columns is made from bush clover.
Yoshimasa’s Stone Lantern & Washbasin
In front of the tearoom and in the corner lies a washbasin and stone garden lantern. Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth descendent of the Ashikaga clan and founder of Ginkakuji, habitually used these. The washbasin is in the shape of Mount Fuji and the hollow opening was of course used for washing, but it is now used for coin offerings.
Matcha with a Sweet
Here you are able to enjoy a refreshing bowl of matcha (hot water and green powder tea) along with a Japanese sweet (usually filled with anko-sweet bean paste).
The last building you see before you leave the temple grounds is Fudodo. An image of the monk Kouboudai (Heian Period 774-835) is inside. Usually, the statue is not on display to the public, but it is on special display every August 16th. People can make offerings and prayers.
There are also some Fortune Telling vending machines on the side. Try if you dare!
◊ Pictures taken by Greg Koch and from Wikipedia Commons
◊ Information referenced from Wikipedia and 京都の辞典