Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺), the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, formally known as Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺 “Deer Garden Temple”), is located in Kyōto’s Kita Ward and belongs to the Shōkokuji (相国寺) branch of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Kinkakuji is built on the site of an estate of the aristocrat Saionji no Kintsune (西園寺公経, 1171-1244) at the foot of the Kitayama Mountains. The third Muromachi shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利 義満, 1358-1408), took possession of the estate in 1397 with the intention of turning it into an elegant retreat. Over the next ten years several buildings, including a three-storied pagoda, were erected at an enormous cost. The entire complex, called Kitayama-dono or Kitayama-dai (Kitayama Palace), was the de facto centre of Ashikaga power at the time, since Yoshimitsu’s successor as a shōgun, Yoshimochi, was only eight years old when he succeeded to that office. After Yoshimitsu’s death in 1408, the Kitayama Palace was converted into a temple following his last will and given the name of Rokuonji, Rokuon (鹿苑) being Yoshimitsu’s posthumous religious title. The great Zen master Musō Soseki (夢窓疎石, 1275-1351) was designated the honorary first abbot. Successive abbots were generally selected from high-ranking military or aristocratic families.
The Kinkakuji suffered severe damage during the Ōnin War (応仁の乱, 1467-77), but was restored mainly by the ninth Muromachi shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshihisa (足利 義尚, 1465-1489). Only two of the original buildings, the Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion) and the Fudōdō (Fudō Hall) survived the firestorm that reduced the temple to ashes in 1565. Although some reconstruction took place subsequently, the Kinkakuji fell into disrepair owing to a decline in revenues during the Edo Period (1600-1868). With the advent of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the temple underwent extensive renovation. The Kinkaku, the sole vestige from Yoshimitsu’s time, was destroyed in 1950 in another fire set by a young novice monk who sought to protest the degradation and commercialisation of Buddhism. He survived his suicide attempt and was sentenced to prison, but later released due to mental illness. The writer Yukio Mishima fictionalised these events in his celebrated novel Kinkakuji (1956, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, translated 1959). An exact reproduction of the original Kinkaku building was completed in October 1955.
The Kinkaku is a gilded three-story structure. The ground floor (known as Hōsuiin) is built in the shinden-zukuri (寝殿造) architectural style and has at the rear altars with images of the Buddha Amida with two flanking bodhisattvas, Musō Soseki, and Yoshimitsu. The middle floor (called Chōonkaku) is representative of the buke-zukuri (武家造, “samurai-style”) and holds images of the bodhisattva Kannon and the Four Heavenly Kings (四天王 shitennō). The top floor (the Kukyōchō) followed the shariden (舎利殿, a reliquary hall used to enshrine the relics of Buddha) style and contained images of Amida with twenty-five attendant bodhisattvas, which were all lost during the sixteenth century.
More than half of the Kinkakuji precincts is taken up by a landscape garden, which has a large pond at its centre interspersed with rocks and islets. The temple is also renowned for its rich collection of art treasures.
Visiting hours and admission:
Daily 09:00 to 17:00. Adults 400 JPY, visitors under 18 years of age 300 JPY; pre-school children free.
Address and access:
1 Kinkakuji-chō, Kita-ku, Kyōto
Access: Kyoto City Bus 101, 204 or 205 from Kyoto Station to Kinkaku-ji-michi (35 minutes); 12 or 59 to Kinkaku-ji-mae
- Shokoku-ji Website (in Japanese and English)