Sunday, April 3, 2016

Tomb to Temple: a Visit to Ginkakuji

-- Susan, every other Sunday

During Japan's medieval period, many wealthy samurai sponsored construction of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and other structures, some of which began as something else entirely.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) was the eighth member of the Ashikaga family to become the Shogun (the military leader of Japan, and by the 15th century also de facto ruler of the nation). In 1460, Yoshimasa commissioned plans for construction of a massive retirement villa surrounded by gardens. He selected a site in the hills of northeastern Kyoto, and construction commenced in 1482.

Temple map of Ginkakuji
Yoshimasa based the plans for his retirement villa on Kinkakuji, the "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" built by his grandfather, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (the third Ashikaga shogun). Originally constructed as a retirement villa, the pavilion now functions as Yoshimitsu's tomb and the grounds as a Buddhist temple.

Most of Kinkakuji burned to the ground in the 1460s, but a reconstructed version of Kinkakuji (built from the original plans) exists today:

My son ("the Junior") at Kinkakuji

Because of its resemblance to the one built by his grandfather, Yoshimasa's villa came to be known as "Ginkakuji"--The Temple of the Silver Pavilion--because the original plans called for covering the entire roof of the massive pagoda in silver foil. Unfortunately, the cost proved prohibitive during Yoshimasa's lifetime.

The Silver Pavilion, now Yoshimasa's tomb.

After his death, the complex became a temple, and the temple was left in its unfinished state, partly in recognition of the Japanese Buddhist view that life is imperfect and incomplete, and more beautiful because of its transient state.

Bamboo garden, Ginkakuji

In addition to the pagoda, which also serves as Ashikaga Yoshimasa's tomb, the temple complex includes a famous hillside garden and a Zen dry garden with a pile of sand designed to represent sacred Mt. Fuji.

Zen garden. Mountain not included...

We visited in June, at the start of the summer rainy season, which made the steps up the hillside slick and dangerous.

Watch your step.

Undeterred, my son and I made the climb to the top--well worth it for the fantastic view:

Silver Pavilion, seen from the hill.

Despite its popularity, which often translates into summer crowds, Ginkakuji's gardens feel surprisingly private, especially if you take the trail that leads up into the mountains.

My son, a good sport for the camera.
Like so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the grounds of Ginkakuji are still, quiet, and beautiful, an oasis in the center of crowded, busy Kyoto.

Garden, Ginkakuji

It's easy to understand why the Japanese people love these sacred sites, preserve them, and visit them often. Their restorative beauty, different in every season, serves as a living reminder of history,  nature's transient beauty, and the Japanese awareness of (and respect for) sacred space.

From death to life, indeed.


  1. Absolutely beautiful, Susan, thanks for the trip!

    1. Thanks Everett! Thank you for going with me!

  2. I've been to Tokyo on business. Peripatetic as I am, I had never been drawn to touring Japan until I read your books. Now, and seeing these gorgeous blog posts of yours, I really want to go

    1. Yay! Japan is an amazing country. Someday, we should go together! I think you'd love it there as much as I do.

  3. Ah, the beauty of the land of the rising SON.