The Best of Kyoto: Kinkaku-ji Temple

by Feb 22, 2019Japan

“Beauty is truth, truth is beauty”

Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is one of the three most stunning and unforgettable sites in Kyoto. Like two other famous Kyoto places, Fushimi Inari and the Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-Ji’s photos are iconic. Luckily for you, you can get an amazing even in bad lighting.

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Kinkaku-ji Temple  

English Name: Golden Temple

Cost:  ¥400 ($3.60 / €3.18 / £2.77)

OPEN: 9:00 – 5:00 pm

Type of Temple: Zen Buddhism of the Rinzai school

Founded: 1408

Main Features: a three-story temple, pond, garden, and teahouse

Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto Japan

What is Kinkaku-ji Temple?

Kinaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) is a Zen Buddhist temple, but it looks nothing like the other Zen Buddhist temples with their well-manicured gardens and their halls for silent contemplation. It’s basically just a temple sitting on a little island in the middle of a pond. Since its purpose is for storing important sacred Buddhist relics and not for worship or meditation, you can look at it, but you can’t enter it.

Kinkaku-ji used to be the retirement villa of the Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. When he died, his son turned it into a temple.

It’s actually part of a larger temple complex officially called Rokuon-ji. Unfortunately, the other buildings burned down around 600 years ago leaving the Golden Pavilion as the only remaining structure.  There’s also a forgettable garden that tourists are herded through during their visit.  People come pretty much only for the site of this beautiful temple covered in gold.

The temple burned down again most recently in 1950. The how and why it burned down is rather interesting.  In 1950 an insane Buddhist monk became so obsessed with Kinkaku-ji’s beauty that he burned it to the ground. After burning it down, the monk tried to kill himself. He lived and was sent to prison. However, he was found to be schizophrenic and was released to a mental hospital where he died shortly thereafter.

The temple needed to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. You can learn more about the story in Yukio Mishima’s novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilionor in the movie, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

How to get there?

The best thing to do is to download the app for Japan’s transportation system called Navitime. It usually tells you the correct bus or subway to take. You can find out how to get the app in this terrific article, 13 Things You Need to Know Before Going to Japan.

  • Kyoto Station: Take buses 101 or 205
  • Downtown Kyoto (Kawaramachi Sanjo): Take buses 59 or 205. 
  • Ryon-Ji Temple: Take bus 59. This is the closest famous temple to Kinkaku-ji.
  • The Bamboo Forest: Take bus #11 to its last stop, and then switch to bus #59. It’s easier than it sounds. Just follow the other tourists.

What to see and do at Kinkakuji?

After you pay your ticket fee, you’ll walk along a path with the other tourists to a viewing area where you can see the Golden Pavilion across from a pond. As I mentioned before, you cannot enter the temple. This is pretty much as close as you are going to get to the pavilion and this is going to be the best chance to get a good photo of it. So spend some time here.

The pavilion is a single three-story temple structure. The first floor is made of simple white plaster and unpainted wooden beams and pillars. It’s designed in the court style of the 11th century Heian period. The first floor is open and there is a veranda overlooking the pond. If you look real closely, you can see statues inside.

The second and third floors are what make Kinkaku-ji so unforgettable. While the first floor is simple, the second is anything but. It’s covered in this stunning gold leaf that seems so out of place in Kyoto with all its other minimalist Zen temples.

The second floor is designed in the Samurai style. Inside is a Buddha Hall with a Goddess of Mercy statue (Bhoddisatva). Unfortunately, you can’t see it.

The third floor is in the Zen style. I haven’t been able to find out what’s inside.

On top of the temple is a statue of a phoenix.

After taking a million photos of the temple from across the pond, walk around the pond toward the back of the pavilion. On your way, you’ll see the former head priest’s living quarters, which you can’t go into, so keep on walking. Towards the back of the temple is a deck jutting out into the water where one can moor/park a boat.

To tell you the truth, I kind of felt like I was part of a herd of cattle being led by some imaginary force around the pond and through the garden. Don’t expect a leisurely stroll. However, there are lots of other temples in Kyoto where you have the chance to go at a slower and more contemplative pace.

After seeing the back of the temple, you’ll walk through a garden that will take you gradually up hill. You can see the top of the temple. The garden isn’t very memorable.

The only other place of importance is a tea house. I didn’t go inside as I’d already experienced a Japanese tea house twice before.

When I was there, it was really, really hot. At the end of the path, all the other tourists and I turned insane when we all got to the vending machines and it turned out they were all empty. The vending machine guy was there replenishing the machine with water, but I didn’t think he could work fast enough. I was so sure people were going to turn into zombies and tear his head off

What time to visit Kinkaku-ji?

I went in the afternoon and sure the crowds were bad, but they didn’t get in the way of my photos because all anyone does is look at the Pavilion from across the pond.

How long to spend there?

Because there’s just the one structure to see, it’s a super quick trip. You could do it in an hour only because the walk to and from the pavilion takes time.

Conclusion

What is your favorite site in Kyoto? If you’re planning a trip there, what are you most looking forward to seeing?

Much of the historical, religious, and architectural information in this article came from Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto: A Guide to Kyoto’s Most Important Sites by John Dougill.

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Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto Japan
Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto Japan

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About the Bamboo Traveler

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore Asia’s history, heritage, and culture. Fun facts about me: I’m from a town so small that if you blink, you might miss it. I once owned my own language school in China.

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