The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in all its majesty is something you must see with your own eyes to believe. Even seeing it in person feels almost unreal, as if you are just viewing a famous painting for the first time. But it is so much more than just art, it is a piece of history that now simply rests in this peaceful pond in Kyoto.
Seeing a crowd of people flocking to a site in Japan is quite common, especially at famous sightseeing locations. As you travel the country you become used to this phenomenon, and come to expect it to occur when you’re at a famous place. Visiting Kinkaku-ji will feel very much the same, but what is to come at the end of the crowd is unlike any other sight in Japan.
The Golden Pavilion History
Just like many ancient places in Japan, Kinkaku-ji 「金閣寺」 dates far back in history, to the 14th century A.D. It has been given the official name “Rokuon-ji,”「鹿苑寺」but remains to be called “Kinkaku-ji” by most because of its meaning, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” Sadly, it was burned to the ground in 1950 by a crazed monk, but because this temple was too magnificent to disappear, it was rebuild shortly thereafter in all its glory you see today. In addition, in 1994 it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with 16 other locations in Kyoto.
Adhering to the Japanese tradition of attaching meaning to every detail, especially in religious buildings, each of the 3 stories of Kinkaku-ji have a specific meaning to them and were designed in a unique style. Not to mention, the top two layers are plated with gold leaf. In short, the bottom level represents the Heian period, the second embodies the samurai warrior spirit in its details, and the third is the Zen floor. Each of these contains minute details that you can’t see by looking from the pathway, but add to its significance upon learning all of the features of the temple.
What to Expect
One aspect to be prepared for is the fact that there is also a silver temple located nearby called “Ginkaku-ji”[銀閣寺]. That’s right; only one English letter (k) distinguishes Kinkaku-ji from this totally separate location. I’m sure the silver temple was beautiful, but our goal was to find “kinkaku-ji,” and I quickly became confused. When you’re navigating which bus and train to take, it’s not easy to remember “kin” or “gin,” especially if you have a limited knowledge of kanji such as I do.
After arriving, as you walk up the long pathway to the gate you will see a crowd as I mentioned, but also a ticket booth. The cost is ¥400 for adults and ¥300 for children, and just like most places in Japan, they only accept cash. Don’t be like us and find this out the hard way, because there are no ATM’s within a long walk of this gate.
Once you’ve paid you will be given a pamphlet and a ticket, but there will be no narrator or guide, you simply follow the crowd along the pathway. So, if you can keep this information about the history and significance, you’ll enjoy it even more.
I’ve mentioned there will be crowds, but really you have no idea how many people will be packed into the small pathways until you’re there. I saw people from India, China, Korea, America, England, and Australia, just to name a few. Not to mention the Japanese junior high school groups on field trips as well. Everyone wanted a picture with this gorgeous temple. Because of this, it was very difficult to get the pictures I wanted, but it was possible with a little patience. Just be ready to face an international crowd of people in love with Japanese history when you visit.
Once you arrive and pass through the gates, though, the moment becomes surreal. You follow the path through dense woods, and feel as if you are far from civilization. Once you catch a glimpse of Kinkaku-ji’s beauty, it’s hard to look away. The temple sits alone on stilts by a large pond, and if you’re lucky you can see the white birds swimming by the lily pads in the warm sunlight. Despite any distractions, it’s easy to get lost in the moment taking in all there is to see.
While you can’t actually go inside the temple, there is more to see after passing it along the pathway. You will see statues that designate a coin toss to gain luck and good fortune. Then you will reach a large open teashop, where you can sit and sip traditional-style. The air smells of incense and green tea, the aura of the whole area is so memorable.
You’ll also see more shops for food and souvenirs and a smaller temple for praying, and I highly recommend the flavored peanuts if they are still selling them. They had every flavor from curry to wasabi, and they give free samples of course! The coolest sample I had, though, was definitely the gold-infused green tea. I couldn’t believe I actually got a free cup of tea with drinkable gold flakes.
Wherever you go in the world, you need to visit Japan. And wherever you go in Japan you should visit Kyoto; but wherever you go in Kyoto, you must visit Kinkaku-ji. I would have to say this is a must-see based on its beauty, history, and excitement for everyone.
From Kyoto Station:
Slowest and easiest route:
Bus #101 or #205 from Kyoto station, about 40 minutes, ¥230.
Karasuma line train to Kitaoji, 13 minutes, ¥260. Then take bus #101, 102, 204, or 205 to Kinkaku-ji, 10 minutes, ¥230.
You will then see a signs in English and Japanese as well as a crowd leading to the gate; approx. 5-10 minute walk. Taxi from Kitaoji station, 10 minutes, ¥1000-1200.