Kinkakuji occupies the top spot on so many lists of top attractions in Kyoto. Websites and guidebooks present it as a must-see, citing its status as an icon of the city. Time Magazine have it at the top of their list. It is, after Kiyomizudera, the second most-visited temple in the area.
Kinkakuji gives the impression of floating over a lake, the gold catching the light and forcing a more vibrant reflection than another building might. The lack of paint on the lowest floor emphasises this effect.
Unlike Ginkakuji, which was purpose-built, Kinkakuji was originally a statesman’s personal residence. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu purchased it from the Saionji family in 1397 and transformed the site into his own villa. As was reasonably customary at the time, Ashikaga bequeathed the site to become a Buddhist temple after his death. Although officially named Rokuonji (Deer Garden Temple), it is far more widely known as Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion Temple).
The pavilion is set in a traditional Muromachi period strolling garden. The path leads toward and then beyond the pavilion and circles the edge of the lake to bring you back to the start, and a teahouse which was added in the Edo period.
Having survived the ravages of the Ōnin war, despite all other temple buildings succumbing to fire at that time, the pavilion was then rather ignominiously razed to the ground in 1950 by Hayashi Yoken, a novice monk who attempted suicide on the spot and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Alas poor Hayashi subsequently died of Tuberculosis in 1956, only a year after being released from prison. The Pavilion was rebuilt in 1955, and has survived since then without further incident.
The stroll around the lake is peaceful and relaxing, and you may begin to see Kinkakuji as a bit of a sore thumb, intruding in true brash Muromachi style on this otherwise serene setting. All in all it takes little more than an hour to visit, and when you leave you’re only a few minutes’ walk from the excellent Ryōanji.
I can’t in all conscience tell you that Kinkakuji is something you absolutely must make time in your schedule for, but it is a unique sight, and it would be a shame to miss it. What I will say is that there’s little to keep you here for more than an hour. Arrive early to avoid the majority of the crowds, snap your must-have photos, then head out into the surrounding area for nearby sights.
From Kyoto Station, take bus 100 or 205 to Kinkakuji-mae bus stop. The temple is signposted.