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What I Wish I Knew About Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion)

by Jessica Hutchison
For a few months, I lived about ten minutes away from Kyoto Station. And man, I missed a lot of experiences there.
But one place I made sure to go to was Kinkakuji. If you know even a little bit about Japan, you’ve probably heard of this place. It’s a Zen Buddhist temple that is almost entirely covered in gold leaf. A lot of people probably had it as their computer background, because some computers had it as a preloaded desktop picture. In any case, you’ve likely seen it. I had too.
So my friends and I picked a day to visit it, and off we went. Ten minutes to Kyoto, then about 45 minutes on a ridiculously hot bus.
Finally we arrived. We paid 400¥ to get in, so my expectations were high. They even gave us these cool tickets that looked like paper talismans. I knew we couldn’t go inside, but I was way excited for this temple.
We walked along the path until we got to the main viewing area. And it was pretty packed with people. The crowd was actually small though, mostly because it was kind of a gloomy day. It’s just a small viewing area.
So in this area, they encourage you to take pictures. Probably because it has the lake and everything right there. It is the most aesthetically pleasing view of the temple. Japanese people are all about the aesthetics. Anyways, I stood in that spot and took the same picture of Kinkakuji that everyone who has visited has taken. Here it is.
If you look up images of Kinkakuji, you’ll see they all pretty much look like this. I had to cut out the lake and part of the first floor though because there were too many people crowded along the rail.
So I took my pictures, and then we walked along the path. It takes you behind the temple, and then up to this rock. We would have totally ignored the rock if we hadn’t overheard the group in front of us.
There was a Japanese businessman who was clearly trying to impress an American businessman on his trip to Kyoto. They stopped at the rock, and the Japanese man explained that the rock was meant for royalty to sit and enjoy another aesthetically pleasing view of the temple. The American man laughed awkwardly and politely refused.
Of course, the moment they moved on, we took pictures sitting on the rock. The view was pretty nice, I have to admit. I felt very special.
So then we moved to the end of the path and found all the mochi vendors. I bought mochi and I highly recommend it. Kyoto has the best mochi, hands down.
Then we left. And I found myself mildly disappointed. All I got out of the trip was some mochi I could have bought anywhere in Kyoto, and a stock photo.
Overall, the best part of the trip was the mochi. I couldn’t really figure out why I was so bummed out about it.
But here’s what I wish I had known about Kinkakuji.
First off, Kinkakuji is not just about the building. One major part of Japanese architecture is emphasizing the nature around it. The importance of nature is probably a combination of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, but you can really see it in all Japanese design.
If you ever go to a Japanese garden, it is amazing how much care is put into making sure everything looks perfect. I even went to one where they had purchased the mountain behind the garden so they could shape the trees in the background as well. Talk about dedication.
Kinkakuji is a pavilion that is surrounded by a carefully manicured Muromachi style garden. It’s very minimalistic, and I totally missed it. I wish I had stopped and spent some time to enjoy the path, as it is part of the experience just as much as the pavilion itself.
Even the lake in front of the temple was designed to reflect the temple perfectly. Looking back at my pictures, I can even see how the trees around the temple are meant to frame it. Nothing is a coincidence in a place like this.
When looking at other examples of Japanese architecture, it’s a bit easier to see that the building is not always the center of attention. Japanese buildings use a lot of natural wood and white walls. The plainness emphasizes how the building is part of the nature around it.
In that way, I now find Kinkakuji a little funny. It’s so ostentatious compared to other Japanese buildings. Of course, there’s a lot of bright red Japanese structures, especially when they are related to Shintoism, but pure gold? Someone is showing off here.
Another thing I wish I had known is how varied the architecture of the pavilion actually is. The first floor is done in a classical Heian style (11th century). The second floor is more of an aristocratic samurai style from a bit later (probably 13th century). The third floor is a more Chinese-influenced Muromachi style (14th Century). When you look at each floor carefully, it is pretty obvious that they are different. But if you don’t know that, you might not be able to tell. I certainly couldn’t. The structure itself takes you on a little trip through Japanese history.
I also wish I had known the history of the pavilion. Knowing the history of a place can really change your perspective on it.
The pavilion actually wasn’t a temple when it was first built. Like Ginkakuji, it was built as a sort of retreat for a wealthy family. It was so nice, the shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (the guy in the painting), bought it and used it as his retreat. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their summer sipping tea in a gold house?
Can’t you see this guy hanging out in his super fancy pavilion? It was definitely a place for him to relax.
This fits when you look at the temple and the surrounding garden. The whole area seems more focused on aesthetic appeal than meditative qualities (even though they’ll tell you that it’s supposed to be meditative).
Yoshimitsu’s son is the one who turned it into a Buddhist temple, and it is still an active temple today. There are shrines for bodhisattvas inside and it contains some of Buddha’s ashes. If you visit, you can’t go inside. Partially because it is an active temple, but mostly because that would just be too much traffic for the pavilion to handle.
The fact that this is a Zen Buddhist temple amuses me a bit. Buddhism is all about not being attached to worldly things. In my mind, gold is pretty worldly. But the gold is said to purify the area and cleanse the thoughts of those meditating. I can’t argue that it isn’t pretty.
The pavilion also isn’t original. In the 15th century, during the Onin War (when everything in Kyoto was burned down) everything in the complex except the pavilion was burned down. It was pretty cool that it survived until a monk burned it down in 1950. It was rebuilt in 1955, and the gold leafing is said to be even more absurd than it would have originally been.
Now the pavilion is kept up regularly because a lot of people go see it and they want to keep it looking nice.
When I went to Kinkakuji, I was so focused on seeing a gold building that I ended up disappointing myself. I didn’t take the time to enjoy the entire experience, and I feel like I missed out on most of it, to be perfectly honest. When I left, I was a bit annoyed that I had spent so much money to take a picture I had already seen.
But if I went back today with more knowledge of the history and what experiencing Kinkakuji is really supposed to be, I’m sure I would enjoy it a lot more.