Located in Kyoto’s foothills, the ideal way to visit Ginkakuji is on foot via the Philosopher’s Path. Turning right at the end of the path, the final leg is uphill between rows of souvenir shops and food outlets, well placed to cater for hungry visitors on the way in or out or both.
Ginkakuji dates back to around 1480 and is a most significant temple. Originally built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasu, a shogun dedicated to the arts, Ginkakuji became a centre for contemporary culture that was to become known as Higashiyama Culture. Arts that developed and flourished during this time include arts that are seen today as synonymous not just with Japanese art, but with Japan. Imagine being at the centre of a culture developing the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, Noh theatre, garden design and architecture and one gets an idea of life around Ginkakuji at that time. Of even more significance is that the culture extended beyond the enjoyment of the aristocratic circles and filtered through to impact more broadly on the whole of Japan.
Ginkakuji is visually impressive in a rather uncomplicated way in that it relies on relatively few elements to deliver a serene environment for those who have lived there and for those of us able to visit only fleetingly. In this post I wish to draw attention to three key elements.
The best-known building is the Silver Pavilion (pics 1 and 2), named after an intention to cover the building in silver to both imitate and contrast with Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) built by Yoshimasu’s grandfather. Despite the original plan never being carried out, the building has aged gracefully and its survival through many fires and earthquakes since is a tribute to its architects and builders.
Also dating back to the temple’s foundation, Togo-du (pics 3 to 5) is the oldest example of Shoin architecture in Japan, the architectural style still governing how most contemporary tatami rooms are designed today. Within the building was the Dojinsai tearoom where Yoshimasu would often take tea and which many scholars consider to be the predecessor of the Tea Pavilion.
The Sea of Silver Sand (pics 6 to 9 and 11 to 13) is impossible to miss upon entering the grounds and when viewed from the higher reaches of the garden. It is, of course, a lovingly cared for dry sand garden that commands the eye, drawing one’s gaze towards the Silver Pavilion and the large sand cone named “Moon Viewing Platform” reminiscent of Mount Fuji.
A key element featured here only incidentally, is Ginkakuji’s magnificent gardens – an absolute must see in autumn. One of the many features is the moss garden, glimpses of which can be seen in pics 2 and 5. From there, one follows a path that meanders around the hillside overlooking the temple buildings and where even the fencing (pic 10) is impressive. The meandering path invites one to stop frequently to enjoy the views over the temple grounds and beyond to Kyoto (pics 11 to 13), a view that I always found delightful.
Ginkakuji is one of those places that make one relax and slow down. It is serene; it is tranquil; it invites contemplation and meditation; and this is largely due to the vision of a Shogun interested in arts and culture who, despite reigning in bloody war torn times, set in place the foundation for arts that came to be defining elements of Japan.
(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)
March 1, 2015 at 10:44 am
Although people seem to prefer Kinkakuji to Ginkakuji (Is it because people prefer gold to silver, or simply because Kinkakuji is easier to access, I wonder?), I really found Ginkakuji unique and I highly recommend visiting it! And the most impressive is, to my humble opinion, the Sea of Silver Sand, which I was explained is typical of Zen Buddhism. It must take a lot of effort and time to maintain it!
Thank you for your beautiful pictures and detailed explanations of the history of the temple.
Looking forward to new posts!
March 1, 2015 at 5:55 pm
I agree about the Sea of Silver Sand being very impressive and thanks for drawing attention to the Zen influence – I should have mentioned that. What you say about Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji is also interesting. I certainly found Ginkakuji the more impressive of the two and would definitely include it in my list of the top 5 places to visit in Kyoto if I was asked. I’ve visited there in different weather conditions and always enjoyed the visits, whereas I think Kinkakuji is very weather dependent. One really needs to visit Kinkakuji on sunny wind free days to enjoy the reflection in the water and unfortunately, the only time I visited the weather was dreadful. Being close to Ryoanji probably does make it easier to access Kinkakuji. However, a near perfect day in Kyoto would be visiting Nanzenji and Ginkakuji, with a delightful walk along the Philosopher’s Path joining the two. Great sites plus exercise – hard to beat :). Thanks again for your kind words.
March 8, 2015 at 2:01 pm
Beautiful shots! Ginkakuji is my favourite temple in Kyoto because of its moss garden. And in autumn it is extra gorgeous! Even though I’ve been to Kyoto a few times, I’ve never taken the time to do the Philosopher’s Path… maybe I’ll try to make it for the sakura this year!
March 8, 2015 at 5:57 pm
The Philosopher’s Path is well worth walking at least once and is very popular when the Sakura is in flower. It’s almost that time of year again. Cheers ….
April 5, 2015 at 4:34 am
John, thank you for this absolute treat of a post, which evokes so many wonderful memories of a gorgeous place dear to mine heart I know not where to begin.
Domo arigatou gozaimasu tomodachi.
Love, love Ginkakuji for so many reasons and especially for being my absolute fave place in Kyoto where I am sure I left a little part of my heart behind (the other being a smaller but equally serene and contemplative temple, with its lovely moss garden [and tale of suffering and heartbreak of those who struggled in its time]).. Would you like to have a guess?
Before I step away from this dream of a post, do know that one could live in these gorgeous captures of Kyoto.. “frozen moments” of immortalized beauty, as they are♥
Take care, my friend
April 5, 2015 at 8:32 pm
Thank you and it’s nice to hear the shots stimulated some precious memories. Whilst it is a temple I have not visited (unfortunately), my guess of your second favourite would be Saiho-ji, though Ginkakuji also has some nice moss garden areas. Take care.
April 5, 2015 at 8:46 pm
It feels really cool to catch your comment whiz my way as I dropped by WordPress for a bit. 🙂
I have not been to Saiho-ji, which looks like yet another (and perhaps more popular) yet equally gorgeous place in Kyoto, from a quick search online.
We’d made a very quick stop at Gio-ji temple (once a nunnery, if I remember rightly) and I remember that the light drizzle at the time did add quite a bit of magic to the already enchanting moss gardens alongside the serene walking paths.
Take good care, too