Beyond TokyoKyotoTourist SpotsViewing Spots

Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion in Kyoto


Temple of the Silver Pavilion

Official Name:
Temple of Shining Mercy

  • Website:
  • Address: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8402, Japan
  • Nearest Stations: Mototanaka Station (28 min by foot)
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Ginkakuji-michi Stop
  • Bus Routes: 4, 17, 100, 203, 204
  • Entrance Fee: ¥500
  • Hours: 8:30 – 17:00 (Spring, Summer, Fall), 9:00 – 16:30 (Winter)

While not actually covered in silver leaf, Ginkaku-ji embodies grace in the form of a temple set in a wondrously lush landscape at the foot of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. No matter where you decide to stop and take in the view, you cannot help but let the delicate details and serene beauty sink deeply into your heart.

Sengetsusen – A waterfall at the north end of the pond

Ginkaku-ji History

Beneath the Ginkaku-ji’s ornate buildings, mossy under-growths, and handsomely lush trees, is a history spanning a thousand years. Long before the Ashikaga shogunate, the area around Ginkaku-ji was and is considered “as possessing a feminine gentleness” with numerous poems citing its natural and ancient beauties. Seeing this innate splendor, Buddhists in the 800s built a temple complex, but it fell into disuse after roughly 70 years. By the 11th century, it caught the eye of a grandson of an emperor, who rebuilt the temple and used it as a residence to live out his life as an abbot. This started off a trend in the Kyoto area to install royal descendants (both imperials and shogunates) as the head of heads of temples for the centuries that followed, including Jishō temple.

The Jishō-ji that we see today is a 1600s recreation of the 1480s version built by Yoshimasa, the prior version was destroyed in a fire during the Onin civil war. Back then, it was officially named Higashiyama-den and was built as Yoshimasa’s golden-year artistic retreat. It took roughly a decade to fully build the Jishō-ji complex, and Yoshimasa died before he could see its completion in 1490. Following his death, the Higashiyama villa was converted into the Zen temple and officially named Jishō-ji.

In 1550, a battle between the fifteenth Ashikaga shogun and an ambitious daimyo destroyed nearly all of Jisho-ji’s buildings in a fire — only the Silver Pavilion and Togudo survived. In 1615, the beginning of the Edo period saw the large-scale restoration of the temple which created much of the present Ginkaku-ji.

Finally, in 2008, Ginkaku-ji underwent major restorations. Modern preservation techniques were used to ensure what remains of the 1615 structures are enshrined for generations to come.

Kannonden Ginkaku from across Kinkyo-chi (Brocade Mirror Pond)

How to Visit Ginkaku-ji

Stay at a local Ryokan – Ginkaku-ji sits on the southern half of Sakyo Ward, neighboring Higashiyama Ward is home to several beautiful traditional Japanese inns. Do not pass up the opportunity to have the full cultural experience that Kyoto has to offer. If you stay for at least a night or two, you have will access to several temples and gardens. You will also save a few yens in transportation costs.

If you Must, Take the Bus – You can get to Ginkaku-ji by direct bus numbers 100, 17, and 4 from Kyoto Station in about 35-40 minutes and for 230-yen one way. You can also take the Karasuma Line (green line) north to Imadegawa Station, then take bus numbers 203 or 204 for 490-yen one way.

Go early, Go Mid-week – Due to Ginkaku-ji’s popularity, I suggest visiting early on a weekday. The temple grounds open at 8:30 AM during spring through fall, and at 9:00 AM in winter.

Stunning Autumn Colors – Some of the best autumn leaf spots in Kyoto are found around Ginkakuji Temple and Nanzenji Temple. One could spend 3 to 4 hours or more leaf-peeping.

Go Beyond – Ginkaku-ji is one of a few stops to see in the area. I suggest visiting other temples and gardens nearby.

Popular Spring – Everyone including locals loves Higashiyama’s temple area in spring. Bright greens and fluffy pink cherry blossoms are truly idyllic but be prepared for tourist crowds

Ginsyadan – a zen garden made of sand with the Silver Pavilion

Highlights of Ginkaku-ji

Kannonden Ginkaku – 観音殿 銀閣 – “Silver Pavilion”

The symbol of Jisho-ji. Though not really covered in silver-leaf, the Silver Pavilion is the central focus of this temple complex. Truly a photogenic building when framed by lush greens and the reflective pond.

Ginsyadan – 銀沙灘 – “Silver Beach”

In front of the abbot’s chamber are waves of white sand. Traditional Japanese Zen gardens use selectively combed rocks with sand to represent islands and seas. Ginkaku-ji’s Ginsyadan uses only sand, forsaking rocks completely. Why? Legends say that it was built to mimic the reflection of moonlight being held atop by Higashiyama.

Ginkaku-ji from the Upper Garden

Path to the Upper Garden

Just past the southeastern end of Nishiki Kagami Ike pond, and beyond the waterfall, is a path that leads up to the back garden. Here you will find mossy panoramas shaded by delicate trees. The path also leads to one of the best photography spots overlooking Ginkaku-ji.

Kinkyo-chi – 錦鏡池 – “Brocade Mirror Pond”

The tiny waterfall near the north end sends ripples along the pond’s surface, supposedly to “wash away the moonlight” when gazing on a clear night. During the day, the pond reflects the dark Silver Pavilion and the surrounding trees. At the south end of the pond, is a particularly lovely spot to view the Silver Pavilion nestled among the greenery. I am particularly fond of the view in the fall when the maple leaves turn bright red.

Lush beautiful moss

Get Out There and See More

Honestly, it does not take that long to view Ginkaku-ji and her gardens. If you walk at a fast pace, you could see all of it within 30 minutes. Therefore, I suggest that this temple be one of many stops of you tour in the area. For more details on what to see, read my Philosopher’s Walk article.

KyotoLocal FavoritesShrinesTourist SpotsViewing Spots

Philosopher’s Walk

Ojizo-sama on Along the Philosopher's WalkOjizo-sama on Along the Philosopher's Walk

Walk Like a Philosopher Among Shrines & Temples

“Path of Philosophy”
  • Distance: 4 km (2.4 miles)
  • Start: Jisho-ji (aka Ginkaku-ji, “Temple of the Silver Pavilion”)
  • End: Nejiri-mampo (Spiral Brick Tunnel)
  • Google Route Map:

The Philosopher’s Walk is a pedestrian path that follows a cherry-tree-lined canal in Kyoto, between Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji. Named after Philosophy Professor Nishida Kitaro who walked the path for daily meditation, you can use this route to some very charming shrines and tranquil gardens. It passes several temples and shrines including well-known ones such as Hōnen-in (法然院), Ōtoyo Shrine (大豊神社), and Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (永観堂禅林寺).

Tetsugaku-no-michi or Philosopher’s Walk in early spring

It took me a whole day to complete this course at a leisurely pace. During Hanami or cherry blossom viewing in spring, both tourists and locals crowd the path. If you want to avoid the crowds, try visiting during fall on a weekday and start early in the morning.  Most temples open at around 8:30 AM or 9:00 AM, and close around 4:00 PM or 5:00 PM.

Stop 1 – Ginkaku-ji, “Temple of the Silver Pavilion”

Officially named Jishō-ji (慈照寺, “Temple of Shining Mercy”), Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa originally constructed the temple grounds of Ginkaku-ji as a place of rest and solitude, much like Kinkaku-ji. The Jishō-ji really deserves its own blog post, so I’ll go into detail later. But in short, I found the wooded grounds covered with a variety of mosses superbly beautiful. Here nature doesn’t just surround the Silver Pavilion – leaf, wood, stone, and water provide a serene context for the composition of the structure.

Jishō-ji or Ginkaku-ji or Temple of the Silver Pavilion

Stop 2 – Hōnen-in Temple

Just a five-minute walk from Ginkaku-ji, Hōnen-in offers a cozy atmosphere when compared to the grand towering shrines of Kyoto.  The moss-covered gateway and the two purifying sand mounds patiently welcome visitors. Humble dirt paths lead through trees to parts of the temple grounds and a cemetery. Lovers of Japanese literature will often stop at the lonely grave marker of illustrious Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.

Hōnen-in Temple’s purifying sand mounds

Stop 3 – Otoyo Shrine

Tread slowly or you’ll miss the entrance to Otoyo Shrine, a perfect hidden refuge from the crowds found at Ginkaku-ji. Two mice statue guard the entrance along with other quirky figures scattered throughout the grounds. The mice are supposedly related to an ancient story about Okuninushi, the god of marriage.  Okuninushi fell in love with a princess, but the god Susanoo became envious and ensnared Okuninushi in a fire. A courageous mouse helped Okuninushi escape, and in the end, he and his princess happily eloped.

Calming Refuge of Otoyo Shrine

Stop 4 – Kumano Nyakuoji-jinja

Kumano Nyakuoji-jinja enshrines the god of academic success and business prosperity. According to legends, Yatagarasu, the 3-Legged Mythical Raven, resides within the temple serving the god as a messenger. If you look carefully you’ll be able to find tri-legged raven symbols in the roof tiles, as well as in the “Kumanogongen” lettering of the main shrine. Since other stories also call Yatagarasu the God of Victory, sports teams will put his symbol on jerseys or in their logos.

Can you spot the the 3-legged crow? Kumano Nyakuoji-jinja

Stop 5 – Eikan-do Zenrin-ji

Tourists flock to Eikan-do Zenrin-ji for the autumn splendor, but I suggest visiting during any season for its fantastic gardens. Nearly every local can recognize the profile of Eikando’s poised Tahoto Pagoda, even when partially sheltered among the trees on a hillside above other buildings.

A tahōtō is a form of Japanese pagoda with an even number of stories.

I also found Hojo Pond wonderfully picturesque, especially when framed in the vivid colors of fall. The best time to visit is the second half of November when the temple is opened in the evening for special illuminations.

The dreamy Hojo Pond in fall.

Stop 6 – Nanzen-ji Temple

Nanzen-ji is more of a complex rather than a singular temple, but the whole area is named after the largest temple found there.  The central temple grounds are open to the public free of charge, but separate fees apply for entering temple buildings and sub-shrines. Before the grounds became a religious complex, it was a retirement villa for the 90th Emperor of Japan. One could spend the whole day wandering the grounds of Nanzen-ji, but the worthiest stops are the Sanmon Gate, Tenjuan’s rock garden, Konchi-in Temple, and an aqueduct built in the Meji era.

One of many temples at Nanzen-ji Temple

Stop 7 – Keage Incline

During the Meji era, there was a need to transport water, freight, and passengers from Lake Biwa to the city of Kyoto and the result was the Lake Biwa Canal. Not only did it provide much needed waterworks, but also provided Japan’s first public hydroelectric power generator.

To get to Keage Incline from Nanzen-ji Temple, there are several routes, but the way I took was a narrow path along parts of the Lake Biwa Canal. It starts near the Suirokaku Water Bridge and follows along a waterway toward the south. I would suggest taking an alternate route during the rainy season because the path can get muddy.

During the cherry blossom season, the Keage Incline is a place of magnificent scenery.  Gorgeous rows of cherry blossom trees on both sides of the railroad tracks. From late March to early April, roughly 90 cherry trees explode in floriferous clouds of pink.

Early Morning Spring at Keage Incline

Stop 8 – Nejirimanpo (Spiral Brick Tunnel)

The Nejirimanpo provided easy access routes to various points along the Lake Biwa Canal. This quick stop provides a whimsical Instagram post — especially if you use your imagination and have enough light to capture the spirally laid bricks.

The tunnel is right near the entrance to Keage Station, which you can take the Tōzai Line back into downtown Kyoto just in time for a nice dinner.

Nejirimanpo – Look at those spiral-layered bricks!
KyotoMatsuri & MoreParks & GardensTourist SpotsViewing Spots

Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Golden PavilionKinkaku-ji in Kyoto

Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Official Name:
Deer Garden Temple

  • Website:
  • Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan
  • Nearest Stations: Kita-Oji Station, Kitanohakubaicho Station
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Kinkakuji-michi
  • Bus Routes: Kyoto City Bus Routes #205 or #101
  • Entrance Fee: ¥400
  • Hours: 9:00-17:00

I’ve been told countless times, that a visit to Kinkaku-ji is a requisite when in Kyoto. Before visiting, I thought it was hype: something said to just snag the typical tourist. I did my research as I always do before a trip by reading over its current information and its history. Interestingly enough, I even found a fictionalized account written in the first-person perspective of the man who burned Kinkaku-ji into a charred husk in 1950. (Give The Temple of the Golden Pavilion a read if you’re interested in true-crime novels.)

I’m happy to report, that I was pleasantly surprised by the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I expected thick crowds and an overpriced venue with overrated souvenirs.  Instead, I found a beautiful Zen garden with iconic Japanese structures. The entry fee was the low price of ¥400 ($3.80 USD) per person. Plus, showing up a few minutes before the gates open at 9:00 AM proved to be a good idea — the tourist crowds that I was apprehensive about were nearly non-existent.

 Shariden Kinkaku – 舎利殿 金閣 – “Golden Reliquary Hall” that gives Kinkaku-ji its name
Shariden Kinkaku – 舎利殿 金閣 – “Golden Reliquary Hall”

Kinkaku-ji History

Although the Golden Pavilion is over 600 years old, the land upon it has ties to religious traditions over 800 years. There are records and remains to date back to the Heian period (794 -1185 CE) indicating a temple complex with tombs, burials and cremation sites.

In the Kamakura period (1185–1333 CE), the wealthy aristocrat Saionji clan built a luxurious villa and named it Kitayama-dai (North Mountain Residence?). Although no documents remain of its design and construction, there are personal accounts boasting of a magnificent clan temple upon a land designed for “Taoist Immortals” along with an amusing “a forty-five-foot waterfall and a beautiful pond as blue as lapis lazuli.” Sadly, by the end of the Kamakura period, the Saionji Clan fell out of wealth and the villa into disrepair.

The land caught the eye of shōgun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, who bought and then converted the villa into his palatial retirement residence in 1397 CE. Yoshimitsu designed the Golden Pavilion as a relic’s hall and the garden as “a paradise on earth.” Much of the garden’s design uses various elements of Ming Dynastic aesthetics. He planned to coat the outer surface of the Shariden Kinkaku with gold leaf, but only managed to coat the ceiling of the third floor before dying. Yoshimitsu requested that the residence be converted into a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple upon his death and following his internment in 1408 CE, the complex was officially renamed to Rokuon-ji. Today Yoshimitsu is considered the founder of Kinkaku-ji.

Much of what you see at Kinkaku-ji today isn’t of the original construction. The Golden Pavilion barely survived a war and fire in the 1470s but was burned a husk in 1950. The buildings and gardens have been faithfully rebuilt and restored over time. The latest restoration being in 2003 with extensive work done on the interior of the Golden Pavilion and roof.

View of the Golden Pavilion across Kyoko-Ike Pond in Kinkaku-ji
View of the Golden Pavilion across Kyoko-Ike Pond in Kinkaku-ji

How to Visit Kinkaku-ji

Go Early, Go Midweek – Kinkaku-ji is a very popular tourist spot, I expected crowds when I set out even on a weekday morning. I felt rather lucky when I showed up a few minutes before 9:00 AM and there were only five people going in by the time the gate opened. But by around 11:00 AM the tour buses had dropped off more than four dozen tourists.

Stay in the Area – If you can I would suggest spending a night or two at a ryokan or hostel within walking distance. There are plenty of other things to do in addition to the Golden Pavilion. One of my few regrets while staying Kyoto was not taking my time to enjoy all the temples, gardens, and other cultural spots in Kita Ward.

Autumn Leaves – My first pick for which season to visit is when the leaves turn to fantastic hues red and gold. The season starts in mid-October and tends to peak in mid-November. November tends to be dryer than October, which is the tail end of the typhoons season.

Winter Snow Temples – Around January to February snow covers the temples, creating just a wonderful almost mystical landscape. Sadly, snow in Kyoto has been scarce in the last few years, and when it does the snow tends to melt quickly.

Spring Cherry Blossoms – From March to April is when Kyoto is splashed with the soft pinks and billowy whites of cherry blossoms. Its also jammed packed with tourists both domestic and international, such that driving or taking a taxi into any site let alone Kinkaku-ji is near impossible. Book your hotel months in advance area and rent a bike or walk.

View of  Shariden Kinkaku from the back garden of Kinkaku-ji
View of Shariden Kinkaku from the back garden of Kinkaku-ji

Highlights of Kinkaku-ji

Shariden Kinkaku – 舎利殿 金閣 – “Golden Reliquary Hall”

I’ll say this now: no one can visit inside this building, but you can marvel at the exterior. I personally think that the best spot is from across Kyoko-ike Pond, where the Golden Pavilion reflects off the water. The second spot is near it through the pines. Frankly, it’s a fantastic edifice to behold. Gold leaf gilds the third and second floors, contrasted to the cypress shingles of the roof. A brilliant bronze phoenix called Hō-ō, brings its benevolence as it descends from the heavens to its apex. The first story seems simple in comparison, due to the older architectural style known as shinden-zukuri, which was popular in 10th century Japan.

Rikushū-no-Matsu – 陸舟の松 – “Land Pine”

This pine is over 600 years old and is said to have been transplanted from a bonsai tree that Yoshimitsu himself trained.  If you look from a certain angle the tree is in the shape of a sailing boat with its bow pointing to the west. Most visitors overlook this tree without a second thought. As for myself, it gave me a bit of a tickle that Rikushū-no-Matsu is roughly two and a half times older than the United States is as a country.

Fudo-do – 不動堂 – “Fudo-do Hall”

This is the only building in Kinkaku-ji that looks like a temple. The original 1225 temple burnt down in the 1400s, but later rebuilt in the late 1500s. Technically it is the oldest existing building on the grounds of Kinkaku-ji, even older than the Golden Pavilion which was burnt down in the 1950s and later rebuilt in the 1980s. Fudo-do is an active temple and regularly holds service for holidays and festivals.

Anmin-taku – 安民沢 – “Peaceful Resting Marsh”

In the middle of this pond in the back of the garden, is a small island. A top the mound rests a five-ringed stone pagoda known as Hakuja-zuka, or White Snake Mound, and houses the Saionji family spirit deity. The island is a perfect birding spot and often hosts several waterfowl such as grey herons, spotted billed ducks, and great egrets.

Hakuja-zuka and a resting grey heron in one of two ponds in Kinkaku-ji.
Hakuja-zuka and a resting grey heron in one of two ponds in Kinkaku-ji.

More to See in Kyoto’s Temple District

Despite the hordes of tourists, Kinkaku-ji is assuredly worth the visit. Especially, if you take your time and include it in a multi-stop visit to the numerous temples and shrines in the Kinukake-no-michi area. Other locations I suggest visiting are Ryoan-ji, Ninna-ji, Myoshin-ji, Toji-in, Hirano Shrine, and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. All of which are easily enjoyed either on foot or by bike.