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Kinkaku-ji Temple: History & Golden Pavilion

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Kinkaku-ji Temple is one of the most enduring symbols of Kyoto. In this lesson, we'll explore the architecture and history of this stunning temple and its expansive grounds.

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Monks are supposed to give up worldly possessions and material wealth in pursuit of spiritual perfection, right? So, how do they always end up with such incredible temples? Somebody has to pay for those!

While we associate temples with the sects that use them, the actual financing generally falls on private donors. One place where we can appreciate the marriage of wealth and devotion is at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto (formally called Rokoun-ji). This 14th-century structure is a Zen Buddhist temple, but looks like it was built for a king. Why? Because it basically was.

Kinkaku-ji
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History of Kinkaku-ji

The story of Kinkaku-ji dates back to the late 14th century and the rule of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Yoshimitsu was a shogun, a military warlord who basically ruled Japan in the Emperor's name. In 1397, Yoshimitsu retired as shogun, and had Kinkaku-ji built as his private estate overlooking Kyoto. So, the original purpose of Kinkaku-ji was to be a place of tranquility for a powerful and educated warlord, featuring several large buildings as well as massive gardens. It was supposed to reflect his power and affluence, but also his intellectual sophistication and dedication to Japanese cultural and religious norms.

Right before Yoshimitsu died in 1408, he instructed his son to turn over the Kinkaku-ji estate to the Zen Buddhist monks. For decades, Kinkaku-ji served as a place for the monks to meditate in tranquility, pursuing enlightenment in this peaceful and isolated place.

Unfortunately, disaster would strike Kinkaku-ji at multiple points in its history. In the Onin War (1467-77), most of Kyoto was burned down. All of Kinkaku-ji suffered the same fate, with the exception of the main pavilion, which survived. That pavilion would guard the grounds for almost 500 years, until an arsonist destroyed it in 1950. It was restored as closely to the original as possible in 1955, and improved in 1987 to reflect its former grandeur. Today, it is recognized as a UNESCO site and is one of the most enduring symbols of Kyoto.

Architecture and the Golden Pavilion

While most of Kinkaku-ji was destroyed in the Onin War, one pavilion survived to become the symbol of the temple and its most famous component. We call it the Golden Pavilion. No, that's not a metaphor for something; this building is literally coated in gold leaf. Restorations in 1987 fully restored this gold, and now the building shines brighter than ever.

The Golden Pavilion
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The Golden Pavilion is something of an architectural wonder, but not just for its opulent finishing. Each of the three stories was built in a different architectural style. The first floor was built in the Shinden style, which was designed for elite mansions in the 11th century. It is basically a large, white-walled, open room that opens onto the lake. This was the public meeting and entertaining space of Yoshimitsu.

The second level was used for private meetings between Yoshimitsu and special guests. It was built in the style of a Samurai house, reflecting the homeowners' role as shogun. The Buddhists would later use it as a Buddha Hall to house an icon of the Bodhisattva Kannon. This floor opens up to incredible views of the gardens, which were designed to be seen from this height.

Finally, the top floor was Yoshimitsu's private residence and retreat. It was built in the Zen Buddhist style of architecture, reflecting Yoshimitsu's devotion. There are 25 Bodhisattvas and an Amida Triad now depicted on this floor.

The Gardens

This was an elite Japanese estate, and later a Zen Buddhist temple, so we cannot forget to talk about the garden. Japanese gardens were not just places to grow pretty plants; they were reflections of Zen practices and Shinto reverence of nature. So, just how important were gardens in Japanese architecture? The entire site covers roughly 132,000 square meters; 70% of that is gardens.

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