The Ginkaku-ji temple is in the north east Higashiyama district of Kyoto, which means it’s nestled into the eastern hills at the northern end of the Philosophers path. As we were staying at the Hotel Granvia in Kyoto station on this trip and the station is about a 7.5km walk from the temple so we caught the bus from the depot out the front directly to the temple and then made our way back in the direction of the hotel via the Philosophers path.
We rarely use taxi’s in Japan unless we’re dealing with luggage and while buses aren’t my favourite mode of local transport they are easy enough to navigate and the subway just isn’t a convenient option to use to get to some of Kyoto’s highlights. We jumped on the Raku 100 bus which is one of the loop buses around Kyoto, the benefit of getting these once or twice early in your trip is that they are aimed at visitors to the city and the announcements are in English so you can quickly get a feel for your way around. Local buses 3 or 5 will also get you there. I think it took around 40 minutes so it’s not a quick trip for the relatively short distance but it only costs a flat Y230 to go anywhere on the route.
From the bus stop you walk past the usual street of shops and food stalls at the start of the philosophers path and leading up to the temple. If you’re a lover of street food you might want to grab a snack and sit down as we did under the sakura trees to eat it before continuing on to the temple. Japan isn’t big on street food like most of the rest of Asia is but what they do have is generally delicious.
Ginkaku-ji was built in 1482 by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as his rural home and was modeled on the style of his Grandfathers villa Kinkaku-ju (the Golden Pavilion) at the foot of Kyotos northern mountains. It wasn’t until after Ashikagas death in 1490 that Ginkaku-ji became a Zen Buddhist temple in line with his final wishes.
Ashikaga Yoshimasa isn’t remembered as a great Shogun and ruler, in fact his rule is generally referenced in the literature as being weak and contributing to a period of significant unrest in Japans history. He was however a great lover of the arts and his gift to Japan is perhaps better appreciated today than it would have been at the time. The Higashiyama culture fostered through the temple after his death was for the people not just the aristocracy. It was a time when many of the arts we associate with Japan were developed and fine tuned, the tea ceremony, noh theatre, ikebana flower arranging, exquisite garden design and architecture.
When you arrive at the temple you enter through a modest traditional wooden gate then follow a path lined with a tall hedge on either side that feels more European in style than Japanese. The area is almost like a palate cleanser so that when you exit the hedged path two uniquely Japanese art forms strike you with their full force, the silver pavilion and the exceptional attention to detail in the expansive and perfectly maintained sand gardens.
Two buildings in the Ginkaku-ji complex today date back to the original build. The first is the silver pavilion itself which is known as Kannondon or the Kannon Hall. It’s two levels follow two different architectural styles and inside it houses a Kannon statue, the goddess of mercy. Despite its name the silver pavilion has never been silver clad and possibly it was never intended to be, the name originated significantly later and may have been intended to both differentiate it from and align it to Kinkaku-ji. While the golden pavilion is unique and striking, the aged wood of Ginkaku-ji is definitely more in keeping with the simple and classic aesthetic that Higashiyama culture has become synonymous with. The silver pavilion embodies the Japanese concept of wabi – sabi; the beauty of the ever-changing and impermanent nature of all things.
The second original building is the Togudo that you see here in the right of this photo. It’s a smaller building and contains a study room 4.5 tatami mats in size which is a traditional Japanese measure equating to around 4 square metres. This is one of the oldest examples of Shoin architecture still existing and is the style predominantly in use today for tatami matted rooms.
The gardens and vistas from the hillside over the complex are beautiful but it’s the sand gardens that most stood out to me. The sand garden is called the Ginshadan which means the sea of silver sands, it’s beautifully maintained and really sets off the buildings, lake and gardens.
A few people have said to me that the ‘silver pavilion’ was a disappointment given that it’s not actually silver but personally it was a garden and temple that I really enjoyed in Kyoto. This was our starting point for the day, from here we walked back south along the Philosophers path, exclaiming over the beauty of the sakura blooms and exploring the shops and temples along the way. There were a few other gems along this trail that you don’t want to miss so I’ll cover those in a subsequent post.
Please leave a message in the comments if you’ve been to Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto and tell us what your thought on it are.