There’s a place in Kyoto which is world-famous. It graces thousands of magazines, guidebooks and websites. A golden pavilion floating over a glass-like lake, Kinkakuji is undoubtedly beautiful, but it inspired another building which those same magazines, guidebooks, and websites seem to pass over as little more than a footnote: Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion.
Officially named Jishōji (Temple of Shining Mercy), Ginkakuji isn’t gleaming with silver, but rumour has it that this was the original plan. Ashikaga Yoshimasa wished for a retirement villa to rival that of his grandfather’s – the aforementioned Kinkakuji – and his idea was to coat it in silver foil. He felt that Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s gold foil was egotistical and brash. The problem was the Ōnin War, and as it raged on all work on the villa was halted and many of the buildings burned down. The pavilion was never completed before Ashikaga’s death in 1490, and as he’d become a Buddhist after starting the project, the villa became a Zen temple after he passed away.
I love Ginkakuji. Really, really adore it. I will go out of my way whenever I’m in Kyoto to visit it, because its gardens are perfect. It’s claimed that they were designed by Sōami, an artist in the Ashikaga Shogunate’s employ who was very highly regarded, but there’s no evidence to support this claim. It doesn’t matter. The gardens are phenomenal, a flawless balance of meticulously-raked sand and carefully-tended moss nestled among trees as old as the site itself.
Both the pavilion and the Togudo here are the only two buildings remaining on the temple site to have survived since the villa was first built in 1482. They have survived war and earthquakes and remain standing – albeit with infrequent restoration work. The Togudo is the oldest surviving example of Shoin architecture, a style which most tatami rooms are still modelled on today.
After the site fell into disrepair in the late 1500’s, there was a massive effort to renovate them, undertaken by Miyagi Toyomori and his grandson Miyagi Toyotsugu at the behest of the Konoe family, who had purchased the disused site. With subsequent excavations and restoration work funded both privately and municipally, it was finally ready for visitors.
Past the buildings and silvery sands is Sengetusen, a small waterfall. Visitors toss coins into the water to make a wish, but the traditional ema plaques are also available at the end of the circular trail.
It’s a very gentle stroll, leading up a hill and past grave markers before descending just as idly back down to the temple grounds.
Sometimes you lose sight of the pavilion, and at other times there it is, nestled among the trees and sand, unobtrusive and subtle. I’m quite glad it was never coated in silver foil; I think this is one of Kyoto’s most sublime sights, and it wouldn’t be the same if it glinted in the sunlight.
From Kyoto Station, take bus 5, 7 or 100 to Ginkakuji-mae bus stop. The temple is a five minute walk along a pedestrianised street.