Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion)

Travel period Feb 2014

Kinkaku-ji (literally meaning “Temple of the Golden Pavillion”) is a Zen Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto, formally known as Rokuon-ji. The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will, it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408.

A Brief History of Kinkaku-ji

We arrived at the pond and were greeted by this view! Photos will never do it justice. Never!

The story of Kinkaku-ji dates back to the late 14th century and the rule of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Yoshimitsu was a shogun, a military warlord who basically ruled Japan in the Emperor’s name. In 1397, Yoshimitsu retired as shogun, and had Kinkaku-ji built as his private estate overlooking Kyoto.

Right before Yoshimitsu died in 1408, he instructed his son to turn over the Kinkaku-ji estate to the Zen Buddhist monks. For decades, Kinkaku-ji served as a place for the monks to meditate in tranquility, pursuing enlightenment in this peaceful and isolated place.

The building was so well preserved and maintained that it looked as if new! However, just like many ancient places in Japan, this temple was not spared from fire destruction. It was burned to the ground in 1950 by a fanatic monk, and the current structure was rebuilt in 1955. In addition, in 1994, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with 16 other locations in Kyoto.

The Architecture of Kinkaku-ji

The Golden Pavilion is something of an architectural wonder, but not just for its opulent finishing. Each of the three stories of Kinkaku-ji have a specific meaning to them, and were designed in a unique architectural style. Not to mention, the top two stories are plated with gold leaf.

The first floor was built in the Shinden style, which was designed for elite mansions in the 11th century. Its natural wood pillars and white plaster walls contrasts with, yet complements, the gilded upper stories of the pavilion. This was the public meeting and entertaining space of Yoshimitsu. Statues of the Shaka Buddha (historical Buddha) and Yoshimitsu are stored in the first floor.

Statues of the Shaka Buddha (historical Buddha) and Yoshimitsu seen through the first floor front windows

The second floor was built in the style of a Samurai house, reflecting the homeowners’ role as shogun. The Buddhists would later use it as a Buddha Hall to house an icon of the Bodhisattva Kannon, surrounded by statues of the Four Heavenly Kings. However, the statues are not shown to the public. This floor opens up to incredible views of the gardens, that were designed to be seen from this height.

The top floor was built in the Zen Buddhist style of architecture; gilded inside and out, and capped with a golden phoenix. There are twenty five Boddhisattvas and an Amida Triad now depicted on this floor.

Exploring the Kinkaku-ji

Once we arrived and passed through the gates, the moment becomes surreal. We followed the path through dense woods, and felt as if we were far from civilization. Once we caught a glimpse of Kinkaku-ji’s beauty, it’s hard to look away. We spent a lot of time just standing there in the crowd, captivated by the Golden Pavilion. The temple’s reflection, and that of the surrounding trees, were mesmerizing, somehow even distracting me from the mass tourism that surrounded us.

Hojo House

Hojo House is the Head Priest’s living quarters that is a few steps away from Kinkaku-ji. It is well known for the paintings on its sliding doors (fusuma). Along the way, there was also a group of statues where people can toss their coins for good luck.

Wouldn’t hurt to toss a coin at these statues for luck!

As we kept walking through the garden, it takes us to the Sekkatei Teahouse, added to Kinkakuji during the Edo Period, and Fudo Hall. The air smells of incense and green tea, the aura of the whole area is so memorable. 

Fudo Hall

Fudo Hall houses Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings that also protects Buddhism. The statue is special in that it was carved by Kobo Daishi, one of the most important figures in Japanese religious history.

We couldn’t deal with the blinding beauty; this was the moment we realized how lucky we were to see this with our own eyes!

Among the many places that we visited in Kyoto, this was one of our favorites. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in all its majesty is something you must see with your own eyes to believe. Even seeing it in person feels almost unreal, so whether you’re staying in town for a day or a week, this is one sight that you absolutely must visit.

Getting to Kinkakuji

From Kyoto Station: By direct Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205 (40 minutes, 230 yen). Alternatively, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes, 260 yen) then take a bus #101, 102, 204 or 205 to Kinkaku-ji (10 minutes, 230 yen).

Operating Hours: Daily 09:00 – 17:00
Admission Fee: JPY 400

Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.