Kinkaku-ji temple, the temple of the Golden pavillion, is one of Japan’s most treasured temples. Its unique architecture, gold-plated exterior and careful placement on the edge of a meticulously laid out, pine studded pond make it a must-see temple in Kyoto. It is designated as a National Special Landscape, a National Special Historic Site and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
All of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites are places of beauty. In some of them, the architecture and craftsmanship of the buildings dominates the gardens, and in others, natural beauty and the skillful placement of garden details over shadow the architecture. At Kinkaku-ji, architecture and nature play off each other in perfect harmony.
Architecture and Nature in Harmony
My first visit to Kinkaku-ji Temple was late on an autumn afternoon. Small clouds rolled over the mountaintops and it began to rain a fine mist. The setting sun shone through the sparkling mist, bounced off of the golden upper stories of the Pavilion and reflected back to me off the still water of the pond.
Reddish-brown pine bark glowed in the sunlight, blending with the golden hue of scattered maple trees and the golden glow of the Pavilion. All of this golden light contrasted with the deep green pine needles and the tumbling black-gray-white clouds. It was a magical 15-minute light show that I will never forget. Exquisite architecture in complete harmony with nature, this is Kinkaku-ji.
The official name of the temple is Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺), the “Deer Garden Temple”. The gardens at here were designed during the Muromachi Period, which is known for its gardens that incorporate the natural elements outside of the garden, and the structures within it, into the overall design.
The mountain behind the temple is as much a part of the design as are the manmade islands in the pond. The pond, islands and the Pavilion are laid out so that the shapes are enhanced as the viewing angle changes while you walk through the garden. The gardens at Kinkaku-ji are one of the finest examples of Maromachi Period garden design.
In 1397, retiring Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu bought the villa known as Kitayama-dai from a local statesman. He improved the property and developed it into its present state. He arranged for his private villa to become a Zen temple when he died. His son oversaw the transition.
Many years later, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, also a shogun, would build Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, in eastern Kyoto’s Higahiyama area, in a style reminiscent of Kinkaku-ji. It too, served as the retirement villa of a shogun that became a Zen temple after his death.
Kinkaku-ji Temple is a blend of three different architectural styles tied together seamlessly by fine craftsmen. The first floor is built in the residential style of the Heian Period (11th century). The second floor is reminiscent of the construction used by aristocratic warriors. The third floor is based on traditional Zen Buddhist style.
Ancient Conflict and Modern Tragedy
Kinkaku-ji, as with most all of Kyoto, was destroyed by the fires of the Onin War (1467–1477). It was rebuilt and survived for centuries until 1950, when a disturbed young monk set it on fire. The temple was once again destroyed. The temple replica seen today was built in 1955.
Getting to Kinkaku-ji Temple
From JR Kyoto Station (25 minutes)
Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station
Taxi from Kitaoji Station
(Approximately 1,000 yen)
From JR Kyoto Station
Kyoto City Bus #101, #205 to Kinkaku-ji-mae or Kingaku-ji-michi bus stops (40 minutes)
Walk 3 minutes
From Karasuma Subway Line Kitaoji Station
Kyoto City Bus #101, #102, #204, #205 to Kinkaku-ji
Walk 3 minutes
9:00 – 17:00
Open all year
Adults: 400 yen
Junior High and Elementary School students: 300 yen
1 Kinkakuji-cho Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto