Walk the Philosopher’s Path at this Kyoto temple that proves all that glitters truly isn’t gold. The brother temple to Kyoto’s famous Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) doesn’t actually have any silver applied to its exterior. It’s precisely this lack of adornment that makes it special. In its understated elegance, Ginkaku-ji embodies the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi—the art of finding beauty in imperfection.
Once a shogun’s retirement villa, now a classic Zen temple.
Originally built as a retirement villa for a 15th-century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Ginkakuji is one of Japan’s most classic Zen temples and a prime example of the wabi-sabi aesthetic of beauty in imperfection. Before it became a temple, the shogun’s villa was the center of Higashiyama culture. From which flowered the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, and Noh theater. Today, Ginkakuji is one of the best-known temples in Kyoto. Despite its name—which translates as Silver Pavilion—Ginkakuji is missing something, namely silver. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa originally planned to cover the building exterior in silver foil but never did.
An homage to Kinkakuji
This compound was initially built by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa in 1460 in eastern Kyoto. He designed the building to look like a smaller, more humble Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), which his grandfather, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, had commissioned. He added the structure now known as the Silver Pavilion in 1482 as a hall dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon.
In place of gold, Ginkaku was supposed to be covered in a silver foil overlay. That was never done and with its unfinished look. It’s believed that the structure looks as it did the last time Yoshimasa saw it. This perfectly embodies the Buddhist idea of wabi-sabi. In 1485, Yoshimasa became a monk and took the name Jisho (meaning “Radiant Mercy”). Hence the temple’s official name of Jishoji. After Yoshimasa died in 1490, it was turned into a temple upon his request.
The Togudo, built-in 1468, and to the left of the Silver Pavilion as you enter, is the second most important building of the compound. It is also a Buddhist hall but built in the style of a residence. The Togudo was a radical piece of architecture and influenced elite military architecture for generations afterward. It also influenced the style of modern Japanese houses. Notable features unique include a built-in desk (shoin), staggered shelving, a tokonoma (recessed display space), and painted sliding screens. All of these features are still typically found in traditional Japanese homes. It is said that this is the first example of a 4.5 tatami mat tea room, which became the fundamental size for a tea ceremony.
A desire for peace
Yoshimasa’s time as a shogun was marked by strife and war, particularly the Onin War of 1467-77. He wasn’t a capable ruler and wanted to relax in retirement. He was a great patron of the arts and brought painters and poets into his home.
Culture that spread throughout the nation
Ginkakuji was the center of Higashiyama culture, which influenced nobles and commoners alike. Many of the universally known arts as typically Japanese were developed during this time, including the tea ceremony, garden design, poetry, Noh theater, ikebana (flower arrangement), and Japanese architecture.
Buried in the shadows of Higashiyama’s mountain range, Ginkaku-ji oozes wabi-sabi everywhere from its faded, wooden panels once varnished in black lacquer to its stone garden that invokes a feeling of cleansing and renewal.
The dry garden known as the “Sea of Silver Sand,” is one of the temple’s most interesting features. Raked white sand leads to a towering cone that was landscaped to be a perfect spot for moon gazing.
The dry garden is modeled after a celebrated lake near Hangzhou, China while the sand pyramid is the mirror image of Mount Fuji. Both sand shapes are religious metaphors for enlightenment, with the moon and its reflection symbolizing an illumination of consciousness. Ginkaku-ji’s moss garden reflects beauty in the inevitable aging process, otherwise known in Zen as impermanence.
The Philosopher’s Path
Embodying that feeling of zen even further is the attached Philosopher’s Path, a two-kilometer-long stone walkway leading to the Nanzen-ji neighborhood. During spring, cherry blossoms bloom along the path covering it in soft pink and white petals. Ironically, this brings hoards of people clamoring for a glimpse of the fleeting flowers—the complete opposite of zen. However, it’s still worth visiting as a serene stroll here removes you from the chaos of big city life, just for a moment.
How to Get There
Ginkakuji Temple is in the Northern Higashiyama section of Kyoto city. It is in the heart of old Kyoto, next to the old Kyoto Imperial Palace area. From Kyoto Station, take bus #5 or #17 to Ginkakuji-michi bus stop. It’s a 10-minute walk from there