We’ve been to the Golden Pavilion temple during spring time and in winter and thoroughly enjoyed both visits. It’s another location on our ‘must do’ list of things to do in Kyoto city. The temple itself is a stunning and iconic sight with it’s gleaming gold leaf reflected back in the mirror pond. The temple garden is a traditional design and has remained consistent for centuries, for garden lovers and those with an interest in the Japanese arts it’s well worth a visit too.
Like many Japanese temples it goes by several names which can be confusing. In English it’s generally the golden pavilion temple. In Japanese that translates as Kinkaku-ji which is what it is usually identified as on tourist maps. The official name though is Rokuon-ji which literally means the deer garden temple although we’ve not seen deer in the garden here, Miyajima or Nara are good spots if you specifically want to see that.
The history of the Golden Pavilion temple
The site has a very long history. During the 1220’s (the Kamakura period) a powerful statesman named Kintsune Saionji built his villa there. It’s history as a temple began in 1397 when it was purchased by the Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga to be his retirement villa. On Ashikaga’s death, in accordance with his wishes, his son converted it to a Zen Buddhist temple.
The Golden Pavilion is just one of the major buildings within the temple complex. It was fortunate to escape fire during the Onin War (1467-1477) when the rest of the original buildings in the complex were destroyed. It wasn’t so fortunate in 1950 when a novice monk set it on fire destroying the building and an original statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. It was only the fast action by other monks that saved many of the other treasures inside. It was a tragedy on many levels as the young monk was suffering schizophrenia and attempted suicide the same night.
In 1955 the pavilion was rebuilt in the original position and style although there is some debate on whether the original gold leaf work was quite as extensive as it is now.
The design of Kinkaku-ji
The structure of the golden pavilion brings together 3 architectural styles in harmony, one on each of the three tiers. You can’t enter the pavilion but you can see some of the icons in the bottom level through the open shutters. It’s built on the edge of Kyoko-chi (the mirror pond) and from many angles appears to float on the pond. In the right light the temple has a perfect mirror reflection in the lake. We saw this on our spring visit but in winter the ice floating in the pond broke up the reflection.
The bottom story is called the chamber of dharma waters (Ho-sui-in) based on a style common with the aristocracy in Kyoto during the Heian period. It’s a single large room with partially shuttered windows that allow air and light inside. The room is surrounded by an open verandah. From a distance you can see some of the relics through the shutters including a wooden statue of the Buddha and the restored statue of Ashikaga.
The second story called the tower of sound waves (Cho-on-do) is based on the style of samurai residences and functions as a Buddha hall. The sacred icon in this space is a statue of the Boddhisatva Kannon, the Goddess of mercy. This level is fully lacquered in gold leaf.
The top level is in the zen temple style and is called cupola of the ultimate (Kukkyo-cho). This level houses an Amida Buddha triad and 25 Boddhisatvas. It is clad in gold leaf and topped with a thatched roof. On top of the roof a phoenix perches in the Chinese style.
Other features of the temple buildings and grounds
After viewing the golden pavilion across the pond we passed the Hojo on the left, this is the head priests former living quarters and features a meditation platform overlooking a beautifully kept sand garden that prior to the crowds would have been a very serene spot for morning contemplation.
A 600 year old pine tree
In reality that’s not really so old for a pine tree but this one is special. It was a favourite of Yoshimitsu back in the 14th century and it takes a tremendous amount of skill and continual training and maintenance over the centuries to create a dwarf pine with a raft like this. Anyone with an interest in bonsai techniques is going to be impressed and on our first visit we were fortunate to see a craftsman working on it. The scaffold is only there while the work is undertaken and isn’t a support for the tree, on our other visits that hasn’t been there.
White Snake Pagoda and the Toryumon dragon waterfall
Continue to follow the path around the golden pavilion and up a few steps you will see the ‘Shirohebi no Tsuka’ pagoda on an island in the Anmintaku Pond. It’s name means the mound of the white snake. I’d heard a few stories about this pagoda but I believe it is there because the legendary white snake was a protective talisman of a family who previously owned the land.
The lovely Toryumon or dragon waterfall does have a story behind it though. It’s based on a legend that any fish that can swim up a waterfall will turn into a dragon, a proverb that I take to mean something along the lines that the greatest effort will bring greatest rewards. The boulder symbolises the carp, the only fish at the time believed to swim up a waterfall. The waterfall may also be a tribute to Yoshimitsu, for his success and becoming the dragon (shogun).
Sekkatei and Fudo Hall
As you continue through the gardens you come to the original tea hut which was added during the Edo period designed by tea master Kanamori Sowa (1584-1657) but the current hut dates to 1874 when it was rebuilt. The dominant feature is the very thick thatched roof. Unfortunately I don’t have a good photo, a badly timed shower of rain and position of the sun created a terrible photo setting but it is a gorgeous building.
You then come to the Fudo Hall. This building houses a statue of Fudo Myoo (Acala in Sanscrit) who was one of the 5 wisdom kings and protectors of Buddhism. His statue at Kinkaku-ji is said to have been carved by Kobo Daishi.
After this as you approach the exit is the souvenir shop and public tearooms with lovely outdoor tables and red umbrellas where you can have a matcha tea and sweet for Y500.
Golden Pavilion Temple Visitor Information
Getting to Kinkaku-ji temple
The north of Kyoto isn’t a particularly convenient location to get to unfortunately with most accommodation based either centrally or near the station. It’s not difficult though, just a little more time consuming than you would probably expect for the distance, it’s only 9 km from the station.
I would suggest using the bus to get here even though it’s almost never my preferred transport in Japan. Catch the Raku 205 bus from Kyoto station, or any other stops on it’s route. As a tourist bus it’s often slightly less crowded than the local buses due to it’s less convenient route for day to day transit. It also has announcements in English which helps you get your bearings along the way and ensures you find the right stop to get off. It’ll take about 35 minutes. You can also use the 101 local bus.
The Raku 205 is also a good choice for Nijo Castle and other sites in north Kyoto like Ryoan-ji if you want to combine your visit with other things nearby.
Entry fees and facilities
A small entry fee of Y400 is charged for entry. You will be given an attractive scripted entrance ticket and a brochure which includes a map of the grounds and some history on the temple in English.
Onsite there is a gift shop, toilet facilities and a public tearoom. If you completing a Goshiun chou (temple stamp book) you can get it stamped and the calligraphy added at the gift shop.
Things to do near the Golden Pavilion Temple
While in northern Kyoto there are a few other spots you might want to stop in on.
Ryoan-ji – A zen temple with a famous and very impressive rock garden.
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – A popular shrine that is particularly impressive during the ume and sakura season
Kamashichiken hanamachi – One of Kyoto’s 5 geisha districts. It is the oldest and currently has around 25 geiko and maiko working across 11 tea houses. You can read more about Kyotos geisha districts in this post.
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