Listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1994, Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is the popular name of Rokuon-ji (Deer Park Temple), a temple dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. The land was first a mountain getaway for Saionji Kitsune (1171-1244) and included both a temple and a villa. The estate withered away and became the property of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the third shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, who built Kitayamaden as a retirement estate in 1398. After his death in 1419, the grounds were turned into a Buddhist temple for the Rinzai sect and Muso Kokushi was appointed abbot as per Yoshimitsu's will. The name Rokuon comes from Yoshimitsu's Buddhist name.
During Yoshimitsu's life the grounds held several buildings including a replica of the imperial palace's Shishin-den Hall, complete with throne. After the Kitayamaden was changed into a temple the other buildings were eventually removed. The riches of the former shogun were no longer needed for the running of a temple. The only building to remain standing, of the original estate, was Kinkaku. However, the garden has remained the same for hundreds of years, allowing people for centuries to enjoy the same site as the shogun.
As you enter the temple grounds the Hondo (Main Hall) and Kuri (Priests' Quarters) are on the right. The camellia bush in the garden located in front of the Kuri was planted by Emperor Go-Mizuno-o. Continuing your walk down a tree-lined path you will see the Chu-mon (Middle Gate). To the right is a large boat-shaped stone and to the left is the Shoro (Bell Tower). At the end of the path is a Kara-mon (Chinese Gate), and as you walk through the gate the Kyouko-chi (Mirror Pond) becomes visable - and with it the beautiful Golden Pavilion and its reflection in the water.
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 the lotus plants, symbolizing the flower of truth rising from the mud of this mundane world. Also placed in the pond are several stones and islands, representing the eight oceans and nine mountains of the Buddhist creation story.
This brings us to the main attraction. In the autumn with the flaming red and orange leaves the pavilion's warm glow compliments the crisp atmosphere. In the winter the startling contrast against the pure white of the snow is breathtaking. The Golden Pavillion has three floors and stands 12.8 meters (42 feet) high, 10.0 meters (33 feet) wide, and 15.2 meters (40 feet) long. Each floor is designed in a different style yet the three harmonize well and create a spectacular architectural effect. Yoshimitsu was fascinated by Chinese culture and art and is credited with reopening trade between the two countries. His interest can be seen in the architecture of his pavilion.
The first floor, called the Hosui-in (Chamber of Dharma Waters), is in the shinden-zukuri style developed in the Heian Period. This early style of palace buildings contains a large room and a veranda. This floor was used as a reception hall for welcoming guests in the days of Yoshimitsu.
The second floor was built in the style of samurai houses, bukezukuri style, and is called the Cho-on-do (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 Kukyocho (Firmament Top), is only a few square meters (about 23 square feet) and was used for intimate meetings with friends and tea ceremonies. Inspired by the architecture of the Sung Chinese style there are bell-shaped windows and three Amida images. On the roof of the pavilion is just over a meter (3.7 feet) tall bronze statue of a phoenix that is also leafed in gold.
Yoshimitsu's design for the Golden Pavilion inspired other structures, particularly the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion Temple) built by another member of his family, Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the late 15th century. Yoshimasa used variations of the styles utilized at Kinkakuji.
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 his wish was to die in the flames.
A fictionalized account of the arson and the arsonist's thought process can be found in the Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Newpaper reports from the trial, highlighted in Mishima's book, state that because of the student's "self-hate and self-detestation he hated anything beautiful."
Though it is a truly wonderous sight (a lot of gold leaf is always a wonderous sight) try not to let the pavilion take your attention away from the fact that there are other things to see here. Moving behind the temple and away from the hustle and bustle of people snapping pictures like the papparazi, you will come to a flight of stone steps that lead up to the Shinun Shrine. This small shrine is dedicated to the god of the temple grounds.
Just after the shrine you will see where Yoshimitsu gathered water for his tea ceremonies at a natural spring. Farther down the path you can see a waterfall (Ryumon-baku) and underneath the falls is a rather large stone known as the Carp Stone, named to impress upon the viewer the image of carp swimming upstream when spawning.
Climbing another staircase will bring you to a rise where you will be able to see another small pond. Within Anmin-tuku is a small isle called Hakuja-no-tsuka. Cut into the sides of the base of the simple pagoda on the isle are the images of the four Buddhas. This pagoda is dedicated to the white snake or dragon that controls the water supply of the temple grounds.
A bit more walking will bring you to the Sekka-tei, a small tea house built in honor of a visit by Emperor Go-Mizuno-o in the 17th century. Here we see a stark contrast from Kinkaku down below. The simplicity of the tea house is meant to focus the attention of the guest on the tea ceremony itself, not the surroundings.
Sekka-tei burned down in a fire in 1874 and was reconstructed in 1884. The stone lantern and basin, along with a stool in front of the tea house all come from the Muromachi Period Hana-no-Gosho (Flower Palace). Inside, the teahouse is quite modest but contains a well noted, crooked pillar supporting the alcove. The pillar is made from rare Nandin wood, a very slow growing tree, and to reach this size is very rare indeed.
Taking leave of the teahouse you stroll through a moss garden and see the last site on the temple grounds, a small temple to Fudo Myo-o, the god of fire and wisdom. The images inside are of Fudo Myo-o and his servants. Around the temple you may notice bits of paper tied to the bushes. These are fortunes that people have tied in hopes that they will come true. You can get your own to tie on a bush in the vending machine right next to the temple.