Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺)

During our fourth trip to Japan in April 2013, we made the most of staying in the house on the Eastern side of Kyoto, and visited a number of different places around Higashiyama. One of the places we went to was Ginkaku-ji – the Silver Pavilion.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a shogun in the 15th century, commissioned the building for his retirement. Originally designed as a villa in which Yoshimasa could live out his later years, the plan was allegedly for the building to be covered in silver leaf as a counterpoint to Yoshimasa’s grandfather’s villa at Kinkaku-ji, however as the villa did not become popularly known as Ginkaku-ji until the Edo period, some 120 years after the villa was built, I suspect that this tale might be apocryphal! Another theory behind its popular name is that, when the moon shone on the original black lacquered exterior of the villa, it shone as though made from silver.

Construction work began in the 1460s, around the time Yoshimasa was involved in the Onin War. In 1465, with an eye on his retirement to his yet to be built silver pavilion, Yoshimasa had named his brother, Yoshimi, as his heir to the role of shogun. The very same year, Yoshimasa’s wife gave birth to a son. Keen to have her son take on the role of shogun, Yoshimasa’s wife enlisted the help of Yamana Mochitoyo, a powerful landowner. Yoshimasa’s brother, meanwhile, had formed an alliance with Yoshimasa’s prime minister, Hosokawa Katsumoto. It wasn’t long before Hosokawa and Yamana were at war, bringing a ten year period of destruction to Kyoto and civil disturbance that continued on for a century after Hosokawa gained control of the government in 1477. The resulting instability within Japan’s governing structure only ended when Oda Nobunaga began and Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the process of unifying Japan under one feudal lord in the 16th century.

While all of this unrest was going on, with Kyoto largely burnt to the ground, work continued on Ginkaku-ji. Ashikaga Yoshimasa stepped down from his position as shogun in 1474 and devoted his time to designing his villa, following Zen Buddhist principles of design. The villa was eventually completed around 1482, and Yoshimasa moved in during 1484. He designed around a dozen of the buildings in the villa’s complex, with the aim of pursuing the good life through romance, moon gazing, and tea ceremony. In fact, Yoshimasa was among those who helped to develop tea ceremony into the high art it is today. Yoshimasa became a proponent of what was known as Higashiyama Culture (Higashiyama Bunka/東山文化). This was a movement to develop and refine the arts in Japan, freeing them from their exclusivity as the preserve of the aristocracy. Ginkaku-ji became a centre for Higashiyama Culture.

Yoshimasa died in 1490. He had requested that the villa be converted into a Buddhist temple on his death. The official name of Ginkaku-ji is Jisho-ji (慈照寺), the Temple of Shining Mercy, and it is now a temple within the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.

We visited on a Sunday afternoon, after our long awaited visit to Chion-In. We caught the bus from the stop opposite the Gion entrance to Maruyama Koen. I was busy concentrating on the Bus Navi map, and we almost missed the stop for Ginkaku-ji. The bus driver wasn’t best pleased! We walked up a broad, sloping street towards a wooden gate. Along the way were food stalls and souvenir shops. I was delighted by a very dapper young man in a 1920s-style outfit, who was flamboyantly taking photographs of anything and everything, walking slightly ahead of us up the street.

When we reached the gate, we paid our entry fee and were given a white ticket printed with two red seals and some black kanji. Very elegant. Inside the gate, the temple grounds were rammed with people, and yet it still felt quite peaceful. Everyone wanted a photographic piece of the Ginkaku-ji action! The viewing point just in front of the Silver Pavilion itself was very busy, so I hung back and took some photographs of the dry garden known as Sea and Mountain.


Gradually the crowds in front of the Silver Pavilion thinned out, and I retraced my steps to take a photograph.

As I turned to go, the delightfully flamboyant young man appeared beside me. “Would you take my photograph?” he asked me in Japanese. I was happy to oblige, but then was flustered by his serious Canon digital SLR. He had to tell me to look through the viewfinder, and not at the digital screen to see what I was photographing. What a fool I am! After I’d taken his picture, he asked whether I would like him to take mine. I graciously declined, explaining that I was there with my husband, gesturing behind me in the belief that Mr. Hicks was there. The man thanked me again for taking his picture and carried on with his day. I turned around to ask Mr. Hicks to take my photograph, and he had cleared off to another part of the temple. A missed opportunity!

I wandered on and took a photograph looking across Sea and Mountain to the Silver Pavilion.

The mountain part of Sea and Mountain is known as the Moon Viewing Platform, and is a stylised representation of Mount Fuji. The dry garden is beautifully raked and sculpted to represent waves on the sea. This element is also known as the Sea of Silver Sand, so called because of the way it glitters in the moonlight.

As I walked on, following the path around the dry garden, I came upon a temple employee keeping another part of the garden tidy, using a traditional hand held besom broom. A little further on was his basket and a long handled besom.

I liked the juxtaposition of old craft in the form of the besom and the basket and modernity in the form of the plastic dustpan and the plastic lining to the basket.

I headed up some steps, behind the Togudo, where Ashikaga Yoshimasa is believed to have lived. At the back of the Togudo is the Dojinsai, which is thought to have been the tea ceremony room during Yoshimasa’s residence. Its layout became the standard for traditional tea ceremony pavilions during the 16th century.

I enjoyed the views down from the mountain side across the temple buildings, particularly the roof of the Silver Pavilion peeping up above the trees.

When I descended from the mountain side, I emerged at the opposite side of the green pond garden that is the setting for the Silver Pavilion. I finally caught up with my husband, whom I hadn’t seen since we first entered the temple grounds, and pressed him into having his photograph taken with the villa behind him.

At the end of our wander around the grounds, we decided to partake of some matcha and tea ceremony sweet in the café adjacent to the gift shop. As well as a bowl of frothy bitter matcha, we had a senbei rice cracker and a delicious crumbly sweet in the shape of the Moon Viewing Platform from the garden.

It was really delicious, and so pleasant to sit and look out across the café garden towards a red parasol against a bamboo background.

After our refreshing tea, we had a look around the gift shop, choosing pretty things to take home as presents for friends and family, then strolled back down the main street towards the bus stop.

The theme of our bus travel that day was overcrowded, and the bus journey home was the pinnacle of this. The bus was so full that at a couple of the stops, the driver couldn’t get the doors to close. It made it really difficult for disembarking passengers to make their way to the front of the bus to get off. It’s one of the things that fascinates me about Japan – the way that people cram themselves onto public transport as though they might never see another bus or train again. At home in the UK, if a bus driver thinks there isn’t any more room for passengers, s/he either won’t stop to pick new passengers up or, if someone needs to get off, s/he will close the doors on any prospective passengers.

We eventually made it back to Gion where, partly inspired by my view of a red parasol in the café garden, we made our way to Kasagen to buy a traditional Kyoto umbrella.

Ginkaku-ji is open every day of the year and only costs 500円 to get in. It’s well worth a visit. Although not as striking as Kinkaku-ji, it is a peaceful space even on busy days. One day, my plan is to walk from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji along the Philosopher’s Path. Maybe next time we are in Kyoto.


One response to this post.

  1. […] Things didn’t work out so well with the kami, as the 15th century Onin war started in the forest around the shrine, and the shrine itself was burned to the ground during the decade long battle. (We’d learnt a little about the Onin war as a result of our visit to Ginkakuji.) […]


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