Kyoto is brimming with temples of all shapes and sizes but one of the visual stand-outs is Kinkaku-ji, also known as The Golden Temple. The official name is Rokuon-ji (‘ji’ Means temple) but hardly anyone calls it that. ‘Kinkaku-Ji’ translates directly as ‘Golden Temple’ and once you’ve visited it’s easy to see why the name sticks.
It’s a Buddhist Temple situated in fabulous gardens with sculpted paths and traditional gardens. You could easily be stepping back in time as you walk through the grounds and, as is usual for a temple, there’s a great feeling of serenity and peace about the place that gradually seeps into your bones as you stroll around.
There’s a lot of history to the main golden pavilion – it dates from before 1400 and survived intact until it 1950 when it was burnt to the ground by a monk. It was rebuilt (obviously) but the episode shocked Japan and was explored by Yukio Mishima in his novel ‘金閣寺’….. which is usually translated as ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’. (See Note 1 below).
Back to The Temple…..
I got there very late in the day and just managed to squeeze in before the gates closed at 17:00. I was pushed for time getting there so took a taxi as the temple itself isn’t very close to any of the metro stations. There are good bus connections – but i can recommend taking a taxi there to save energy and stress then simply taking a bus or metro home – especially on a hot humid day in summer when you really want to conserve energy in getting to where you want to be.
When you arrive and get through the paying gates you’re quickly presented with the Temple in all its glory. It sits to one side of a central lake known as Kyōko-chi (鏡湖池) – or ‘Mirror Lake’.
I figure i wasn’t there at the best time for photography since the view across the lake at this late hour now took in the setting sun and blew the sky out considerably. I guess if i had a tripod i could have used a reduced exposure on one frame to then brush in later. Tripods are not allowed here though…. and these pictures are single exposures with very little post production.
The Temple looks surreal enough as it is without some kind of hideous HDR treatment … and foliage never responds well to high dynamic ranges. In short the pictures look surreal enough without any processing so here is The Temple and the Grounds in all its single exposure glory.
Admission is 400 Yen (about £2.50 ) which is very reasonable when compared to similar attractions in Europe and especially The UK where the National Trust charges an arm and a leg to visit old country houses just so its directors can fly around in helicopters, take first class trains tickets and eat croissant all day.
Back to Japan….. Getting to the Temple from Kyoto Centre is not rocket science – From the main Kyoto Rail Station there are plenty of well sign-posted buses that will bring you here. Kyoto is surrounded on all sides by large hills / mountains and Kinkaku-ji Temple grounds and gardens are placed right at the edge of the north west of the city where it borders the mountains.
Metro stations ‘Kitano Hakubai-Cho’, ‘Tojiin’, and ‘Omuro Ninnaji’ are are all walkable and all on the same line – the Green ‘Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano’ Line. You can get to one of these stations via metro and either walk or hail a taxi to the Temple. Every taxi driver knows the big sights of Kyoto and will take you to Kinkaku-ji with ease.
In High season though it can get pretty busy as with many of the main attractions the place is popular with every nationality as well as Japanese folk. In particular you can expect to be competing for a view with coach loads of Chinese tourists hell-bent on the perfect selfie with the Temple in the background. My advice is to let the coach party pass and then stroll around at your own pace in the gap between large tourists parties. After all being part of a massive throng is not conducive to that feeling of Buddhist serenity and peace you are hoping to experience.
Walking by the side of the lake and up to the rear of the Temple Pavilion you get a closer view. As you can see here the sun is still strong and in the west and blowing out the sky. It’s also lighting up the temple pretty spectacularly.
From here you walk through winding gravel paths that snake through the temple complex to reveal a variety of statues, steps, and smaller temples.
Coins litter the ground here in an offering to Buddha. There are many smaller such statues and a number of different viewpoints that take in the central lake. The paths and gardens are designed in such a way that new sights are offered up at intervals and the gardens reveal themselves to you gradually as you walk through them.
I was there at a late hour so the smaller temples were closed off – usually you can walk around the Temple pictured above and make an offering. In some ways it’s good to be there at closing time because it does calm down as people exit the complex… however it’s at the cost of some areas being shut. For my 400 Yen though the gardens and Main Temple were more than enough value.
Turn a corner and at the centre of the tranquility pond (Anmintaku), and framed by foliage, the stone White Snake Pagoda is revealed. It’s a shrine dedicated to ‘Hakuja’, (白蛇) the White Snake who controls the waters of the complex. At the base of the Pagoda there are four Buddhas – each carved into a face of the square – you can just about make them out here.
Walking through the shaded woodland is a real treat, especially early morning or late afternoon when the heat of the day has subsided. Cicadas buzz incessantly here and the humidity makes your clothes stick to your body….this is something photographs can never capture. As a rule Japan is best to visit ‘between the extremes of high summer and deep winter, but whatever time of year you choose – it’s just a matter of adapting your timing to fit the weather. In summer, although the temperature really doesn’t drop too far in the night, it’s still cooler in the mornings, and you can get a lot of walking in before things really heat up.
The exit of the temple gardens is an obvious place for Taxi drivers to pick up fares… and you can find a taxi at the exit pretty easily. jump in a cab and make your way back to the centre of town. Kyoto is flanked on both sides (East & West) by rivers; Kamo Gawa (鴨川) to the East and the broader, less channelled, Katsura Gawa (桂川) to the West.
I find that that Kamo Gawa and its bridges makes for a great reference point and I often ask to be dropped at a bridge from where i can stroll back downtown along the path that follows the banks of the river. On a hot summers eve you can dip your toes in the cooling waters and folks often have barbecues and picnics here. I can’t think of a better (or cheaper) way to end a day in Kyoto than by dangling your feet in the water and watching the world go by.
If the idea of The Golden temple interests you, there’s a live Picture feed here.
1 – Mishima was an interesting guy….. a bit of a hangover from a feudal / warrior way of thinking with some major hang-ups…. but then who’s perfect? He wrote a gazillion books and plays but I can easily recommend ‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea’ – it’s as fresh today as it was when first written and knocks the socks off some modern authors. If you think Ian McEwan invented a style – think again because Mishima was there 50 years before him. You may on the other hand find Mishimas masterpice tetralogy ‘Sea of Fertility’ to be heavy going…..
At least Mishima had the good grace to commit Seppuku after he thought he’d written everything he had to say….. instead of bothering us with crap novels and appearing on late night chat shows.