Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion Kinkakuji: An Exploration Guide

For anyone traveling to Japan, Kyoto City is often one of the top places to visit on their list. Kyoto offers an array of sights to behold, with it being so rich in history and culture. One of the top destinations to see in Kyoto is the Golden Pavilion, known as Kinkakuji. 

The name “Golden Pavilion” comes from the fact that it is vividly decorated with gold foil. Gold is associated with Pure Land Buddhism, with the former being seen to convey spiritual purity. Furthermore, gilded pavilions are said to be contained in the Buddhist view of heaven.

The History Of Kinkakuji

Kinkakuji is now a Zen temple in northern Kyoto, but it wasn’t always a temple. It was first built in 1397 and belonged to Kintsune Salonji, a court noble. It was his villa until Ashikaga Yoshimitsu took ownership of it and made it into a retirement villa. 

Ashikaga was an esteemed shogun, also known as a military leader from that time period. In his will, Ashikaga stated he wanted his home to become a Zen temple after he passed away. At this point, it was known as Rokuonji. 

While the structure is a beautiful sight to see today, it has seen its fair share of destruction. The building has been burned down numerous times over the years. Most recently, a fanatic monk set fire to the building in the 1950s. Later, there was a novel written about this event and finally a movie in 1976, the book known as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Movie based on the events of The Golden Pavilion Burning via IMDB

During this fire, the original statue to commemorate Ashikaga was burned. However, it was later restored and still stands within the building today. The last rebuild of Kinkakuji was completed in 1955.

Designers and architects tried to keep the integral structure as close to the original as possible, with some upgrades. The gilded gold leaf surrounding the second and third floors was added in the 1980s.

About Kyoto

Kyoto, with its vast history, holds a lot of cultural significance for Japan. It is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture, in the Kansai region of Honshu island. Kyoto makes up part of the Keihanshin metropolis with Osaka and Kobe. 

Kyoto City Skyline

Kyoto is a very old city where emperors ruled for centuries. It has seen vast historical events and wars, and while it has seen some damage over the years, it has remained intact through repairs and restoration. 

The Unique Architecture of Kinkakuji 

When Kinkakuji was built in the 1300s, it took a lot of inspiration from Kitayama culture, which was popular among the wealthy at that time. There are multiple floors within the pavilion that pay homage to different aspects of Asian culture, which Ashikaga deeply admired. 

Despite all the fires, much of the original architecture of the temple has been either restored or repaired as close to the original design as possible. Even the contents of the temple, much of which isn’t seen very often by the public, have been restored to maintain their integrity. 

Kinkakuji has been deemed a National Special Historic Site, a National Special Landscape, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It sees thousands of visitors annually. 

The First Floor Of The Temple

The first floor of the temple is built with wooden pillars and white plaster walls, giving it a clean and classic look. There are statues depicting Buddha and Ashikaga that can be viewed on this floor. However, visitors can’t actually enter this floor, but they can be seen through a window if it is opened. 

The first floor is also known as The Chamber of Dharma Waters and represents the Shindin style of the Heian architecture of the 11th century. 

First Floor Shown Here Of The Golden Pavilion

The Second Floor Of The Temple

The second floor of the temple is modeled after Bukke samurai residences. It is now almost completely covered in gold leaf on the outside, although it wasn’t designed like that originally. There are more statues housed on this floor but they are not viewable by the public. 

This floor is also known as The Tower Of Sound Waves.

Second and Third Floors of The Golden Pavilion

The Third Floor Of The Temple

Lastly, the third floor is inspired by a Chinese Zen Hall and features a breathtaking gold phoenix. The interior and exterior feature golden gilded walls.

Gold phoenix atop the Golden Pavilion

When it was a villa, this room was used to house guests for tea ceremonies. Even though each floor has its differences, the decorative aspects all blend together to become a must-see destination full of historic wonder.  

The Garden

Kinkakuji is situated among a Japanese strolling garden. The garden was meticulously designed to emulate literary structures depicted in Chinese and Japanese literature.

The entirety of the garden was styled based on traditions from the Muromachi period, which held strong significance to the flow between the landscape and the building surrounding it. 

Taking A Tour Of Kinkakuji

Kinkakuji is located near a pond, and visitors will be able to take an expansive look at the temple from the outside across the pond. They will come up to the pavilion through Chumon Gate, which is aligned with stunning trees.

While the interior of the Golden Pavilion is not open to the public, there are some things that can be taken in from the outside. 

Visitors can catch a glimpse of the former priest’s living quarters through wooden sliding doors. There is also the garden that can be viewed by walking a path around Kinkakuji that still features a lot of the design elements from the original construction. There is a statue in the garden that people will commonly place coins by for good luck. 

Sekkatei Teahouse

After touring the exterior of the temple, visitors will come across the Sekkatei Teahouse. There are souvenirs available at the teahouse to commemorate the trip, as well as tea and snacks for visitors to purchase.

This is also where Fudo Hall is located, which features a famous statue of Fudo Myoo, a protector of Buddhism and one of five Wisdom Kings. 

Sekkatei Teahouse

When To Visit Kinkakuji

No matter which season you choose to visit Kyoto, Kinkakuji is open to visitors during the day. With the beautiful gold leaf glittering off the pond, each season brings out a different stunning element to Kinkakuji.  The temple is especially striking in winter in the snow.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) Official Website

Kinkakuji “Gold Pavilion” in snow

Other Attractions Near Kinkakuji

Thankfully, visitors don’t have to travel far from Kinkakuji to find more sights to explore. There are various other temples nearby, including Tojiin Temple and Ryoanji Temple.

Golden Pavilion Location Via Google Maps

Mount Kinugasa can actually be seen when traveling to the rear or Kinkakuji. There are also museums close by, including the Peace Museum and Insho Domoto Museum. 

Virtual Tour Of The Golden Pavilion

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.