The Golden & Silver Pavilions of Kyoto

While staying in Kyoto, the former capital city of Japan, presently considered as the religious center of Japan, we visited several temples or temple complexes. Two of them were Zen Buddhist temples with small buildings called Pavilions at their focus – the Temple of the Silver Pavilion and the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Both Pavilions were commissioned ages ago by Japanese Shoguns of the Ashikaga shogunate: Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the late XIV century (Golden Pavilion) and one of his successors Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the mid-XV century (Silver Pavilion).

Some historical comment is probably needed here. Japan was for a thousand years an empire. Most of the time, however, from the late XII to the late XIX century, the actual rulers of the country were shoguns – the military dictators with absolute power. Emperors held only a ceremonial role. Ashikaga shogunate lasted from 1336 to 1573.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Kinkaku-Ji or Temple of the Golden Pavilion, also known as Rokuon-Ji or Deer Garden Temple, was initially built in the XIV century. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu bought this place at that time known as Kitayama-dono from a noble family and converted into his retirement villa, a place for contemplation and solitude. After his death, the pavilion and the surrounding buildings were converted into a Zen temple and renamed into Rokuon-Ji after his posthumous name Rokuon’in. The posthumous name was an honorary name given to nobles in Japan after they passed away.

The main feature of the pavilion is the golden leaf coat that gives it an outstanding look. The building we can admire today is not the original one. The Pavilion was torched in 1950 by a novice monk and fully restored in 1955. The golden leaf coat was restored in the eighties.

The building is surrounded by a garden of Japanese style with carefully cut trees, clean moss (means with no blades of grass), carefully laid stone formation, small waterfalls, and irises that seem to emerge from the water. The garden is dominated by a small lake (the Japanese call it pond). The pavilion is built just at its edge, so from far away, you are under the impression it is floating on water.

The Kinkaku-Ji gardens with carefully cut trees, clean moss, carefully laid stone formations, small waterfalls, and irises planted in the water.

Ginkaku-Ji, or Temple of the Silver Pavilion or Jishō-Ji or Temple of the Shining Mercy, was initially a villa with a garden that like the Kikaku-Ji, was used by a retired Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Like his grandfather, Ashikaga Yoshimasa made arrangements that, after his death, his villa becomes a Zen temple. Initially, the building was to be covered with silver foil. For different reasons, it was, however, never painted with silver. As his successor son died early, Yoshimasa had to reassume the power and responsibilities. He retired again after he arranged for his nephew to step in. Like in the case of Rokuon-Ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion was named by his posthumous name that was Jishōin.

The Temple of the Silver Pavilion

The temple is surrounded by a garden, laid out naturally Japanese style. In comparison to other gardens, we saw while traveling Japan, the majority of it was just a natural forest, bushes, and moss climbing a mountain. A small area of it was covered with a bamboo forest. The lower parts were more artificially taken care of with ponds surrounded by stone and moss arrangements, as well as pruned trees.

Japanese Garden arrangements around the Silver Pavilion

Already in other gardens, we saw paths of gravel or gravel raked to form water-like patterns. But here, the first time we saw a raked sand field and a heaped symmetric pile of sand (a small mound) built with much care. At first sight, I thought the gardeners prepared the soil for some plants. The sand arrangements are, however, the part of the garden’s permanent decoration. The pile is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. On the garden schematic, the sand arrangement was described as Ginshadan or the Silver Sand Sea and the sand pile as Kogetsudai or the Moon Viewing Sand Mound. I can only imagine that restored each time after it has rained.

A pond formed of raked sand that symbolizes a sea and a sand mound in the Silver Pavilion Gardens.

The sand and gravel arrangements are a feature of the so-called Japanese rock gardens.


The Golden & Silver Pavilions of Kyoto