One of Kyoto’s most popular attractions is the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), a three-story pavilion covered in gold leaf, glittering in the waters of a calm pond. The visitor’s brochure for Kinkaku-ji is almost entirely in Japanese (though it does include numerous photos and a watercolor map with legend in English and Japanese). From the English portion of the brochure (and other sources), the following can be gleaned:
Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion) is the popular name for one of the main buildings of this temple, which is properly called Rokuon-ji (Deer Park Temple, a temple dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kannon). The land was first developed as the kitayamaden (mountain getaway) of Kintsune Saionji (1171–1244) and included both a temple and a villa.
The site became the property of Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), the third shogun of Ashikaga, who abdicated the throne in 1394. In 1397 he began construction of his retirement estate, and he made a special effort to make it a breathtaking site. He indulged in his peaceful life in this serene setting. After his death in 1408, the pavilion was made into a temple for the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in accordance with his will; the name Rokuon comes from Yoshimitsu’s Buddhist name. All the buildings of those days came to ruin except Kinkaku. The garden, however, remains as it was in former days and can be enjoyed as it was hundreds of years ago. The Rokuon-ji Temple was registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1994.
The pavilion as a shariden, a square reliquary hall used to enshrine relics of the Buddha. Each of its three floors is designed in a different style, yet the three harmonize well and create a spectacular architectural effect.
The first floor, called the Hō-sui-in (Chamber of Dharma Waters) is in the shinden-zukuri palace style developed in the Heian period. It contains a large room and a veranda. In the days of Yoshimitsu, this floor was used as a reception hall for welcoming guests.
The second floor was built in the style of samurai houses, buke-zukuri style, and is called Chō-on-dō (Hall of Roaring Waves). This is where Yoshimitsu held his private meetings with honored guests. This floor is decorated with paintings by Kano Masanobu (1434–1530) and holds an image of the Bodhisattva Kannon with Shitenno images on both sides.
The final floor, known as the Kukkyō-chō (Firmament Top), is only a few square meters (about 23 square feet) and was used for intimate meetings with friends and tea ceremonies. It is built in the karayō, or Zen temple, style, inspired by the architecture of the Sung Chinese style. It has bell-shaped windows and three Amida images. On the shingled roof is a bronze statue of a phoenix just over a meter tall and covered with gold leaf.
The second and third floors are covered with gold leaf on Japanese lacquer. In the late 1980s, the coating of Japanese lacquer was found to be a little decayed, and a new coating as well as gilding with gold leaf was applied; this renovation was completed in 1987. Today it is covered in gold leaf five times thicker than the original coating, and presents an awesome sight. Furthermore, the beautiful painting on the ceiling and the statue of Yoshimitsu were restored, with utmost care, to their original splendor. Finally, the roof was restored in the spring of 2003.
Like many structures in Kyoto that have been repaired or repainted, the Golden Pavilion has also been completely rebuilt. Yoshimitsu’s pavilion survived centuries of fires and earthquakes only to be the target of an act of arson. Early in the morning of July 2, 1950, a 21-year-old student from Otani University, who also happened to be a monk, set fire to the pavilion. It was reduced to ashes, and upon his arrest the young man stated that he had wished to die in the flames. Newspaper reports of his trial state that because of the student’s “self-hate and self-detestation he hated anything beautiful.”
Points of Interest
The pavilion and the pond on which it stands were designed to resemble the image of the Seven Treasure Pond in scenes of the Buddhist Paradise. The pond is even filled with lotus plants, symbolizing the flower of truth rising from the mud of the mundane world. Also placed in the pond are several stones and islands, representing the eight oceans and nine mountains of the Buddhist creation story.
The name of the pond is Kyōko-chi (Mirror Pond). The pond contains many large and small islands. Climbing a few steps, you stand on the edge of another small pond, An-min-taku. The small stone pagoda on the island is called Hakuja-no-tsuka (“the mound in memory of the white snake”).
The classic teahouse is called Sekka-tei. Inside, the teahouse is quite modest but contains a celebrated, crooked pillar supporting the alcove. The pillar is made from the wood of the nandin, a very slow-growing tree, so that to reach this size is very rare. The house burned down in a fire in 1874 and was reconstructed in 1884; it was most recently restored in 1997. On the way to the exit of the temple, you will find the small Fudōdō shrine (dedicated to the God of Fire) where the stone Fudō-myōō (Acara) is enshrined as a guardian.
Our tour of this site was somewhat rushed since it is quite time-consuming just to walk from the entrance, through the gardens, to a point from which the Golden Pavilion can be viewed, and the site was mobbed with tourists, including a number of school groups. If it is even permitted to go inside the pavilion, we were not offered the opportunity. As usual, we either were not given the brochures until we were leaving or did not have time to refer to them as we sprinted from one photo op to the next. (Click on thumbnails to see larger photos.)
photo illustrates how the garden of Rokuon-ji surrounds Kinkaku-ji to provide a
sense of pastoral isolation. Even though the temple is on the outskirts of Kyoto,
it is still not as far from civilization as it appears in this picture.
Sekka-tei teahouse at Rokuon-ji. The lighting did not permit me to get a photo
that would properly show what I considered its most interesting feature: the
thickness of the thatched roof (about half a meter).