I am not a big fan of Kinkaku-ji Temple. There are several reasons for that.
- Kinkaku-ji Temple is a really popular place to visit among tourists, and it is always packed with huge crowd of people – I do not like heavily crowded spots.
- Kinkaku-ji Temple is one of the UNESCO World Heritages (registered in 1994), but it is not designated a national treasure of Japan. It was burnt down in 1950 and restored in 1955, which means the temple we see now is still new.
- Not many things to see in Kinkaku-ji Temple. Highlights there are Kinkaku-ji Main Hall (Golden Pavilion), a pond and a tea ceremony house. The rest is a lot of walking in a huge garden (beautiful, though). Also, visitors are not allowed to come inside the Golden Pavilion.
I might there on occasion, though, to see the magnificent view of the Golden Pavilion covered with Gold foils reflecting the sunlight.
Background History of Kinkaku-ji Temple
Originally, Kintsune Saionji, an influential court noble in Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), built a mountain villa in 1224 in the precinct where the present Kinkaku-ji Temple stands. From there on, the villa had been owned by the offspring of Saionji family. But after the downfall of Kamakura Shogunate government, the authority of Saionji family was weakened. To reinstate the family’s authority, Kinmune Saionji, an offspring of Kintsune Saionji, plotted an assassination of Emperor Godaigo, the ruler at the time, by inviting the Emperor to the villa. The attempt failed and Kinmune was captured and executed. The villa was then confiscated and abandoned for some time.
In 1397, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, the 3rd Shogun of Muromachi Shogunate government, was granted the entire land of the villa and built “Kitayama-dono” as his detached residence. Yoshimitsu retired in 1394 and handed over the position of Shogun to his son (Yoshimochi). But Yoshimochi was just a nominal Shogun and Yoshimitsu continued to rule the cloistered government, living in the detached residence.
In 1408, Yoshimitsu died and his wife, Yasuko Hino, succeeded Kitayama-dono and lived there until she passed away. In 1420, a year after Yasuko died, Kitayama-dono was renamed to “Rokuon-ji” Temple and began serving as a Zen Buddhist temple, following the will of Yoshimitsu.
During Onin War, a civil war which lasted for 10 years from 1467 to 1477, Rokuon-ji Temple was used as a camp for Western Army, during which time most of the buildings were reduced to ashes. Restorations of the buildings started in Edo Period, and in 1649 the restoration of Main Hall was completed. It was 1894 when the temple became open for public, when the popular name “Kinkaku-ji” (Golden Pavilion) was given to the Main Hall. The reason why people started calling it Kinkaku-ji is that the Main Hall was covered with Gold foils (“Kin” = Gold, in Japanese).
The Main Hall was intended for reliquary hall (“Shari-den” in Japanese) to enshrine bones of Buddha, and each level of the three-story building has a different architectural style. Style of the ground level architecture is “Shinden” style (representing a court-noble residence of Heian Period). Second level architecture is “Buke” style which represents Samurai residence of Kamakura Period and the top level architecture is “Zenshu-Butsuden” style representing a Buddhist temple of Chinese Zen sect. Exterior walls of the ground level are not gold-foiled. Gold-foiled are 2nd and top level exterior walls, using about 44 pounds of Gold.
Relationship with Ginkaku-ji Temple
Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are sister temples, both of which belong to “Shokoku-ji” Temple which stands near north-end of Kyoto Imperial Garden. Shokoku-ji is the head temple of Shokoku-ji school of Rinzai Buddhist sect, and Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are the sub-temples of it. Head priesthood of Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji has been traditionally assumed by the principal priest of Shokoku-ji Temple.
Unlike gold foiled exterior walls of Kinkaku-ji, the walls of Ginkaku-ji are just bare wood. “Gin” of Ginkaku-ji means Silver in Japanese, and those who are visiting Ginkaku-ji expect the Main Hall would be Silver foiled, but it is not. Ginkaku-ji Temple was founded by Yoshimasa Ashikaga, the 8th Shogun of Muromachi Shogunate government, as his retreat. He thought Zen temple was supposed to be simple and plain, unlike Golden Pavilion, so no Silver foils were applied to the exterior walls.
Arson to the Main Hall in 1950
Kinkaku-ji Temple was set on fire by a scholar monk in 1950. His name was “Yoken”. His father was a head priest of a small temple in northern town of Kyoto, but he had a serious tuberculosis and he was in bed most of the time. He wrote a letter to the head priest of Kinkaku-ji Temple and asked him to adopt his son as an apprentice. The head priest of Kinkaku-ji Temple accepted Yoken, and his new life started there. In 1950, though, he set fire to the Main Hall (Golden Pavilion) and it was completely burnt down. It is said that Yoken was struggled with a dilemma that most of his daily tasks had to do with making money from the worshipers and the visitors to the temple instead of devoting himself to pure religious services. With the dilemma and his inferiority complex (he had a stammering symptom), he may have been mentally collapsed over the years and that made him set fire on the temple.
Yoken was arrested by the police and was imprisoned for 7 years. In the following year of his discharge from the prison, he died of tuberculosis like his father. His mother – she killed herself soon after Yoken was arrested, by jumping from the train in motion. Really tragic consequences.
In 1955, Kinkaku-ji Temple was restored and it looked much more beautiful than ever, but the status of National Treasure was lost. To be designated a national treasure in Japan, the structure is supposed to remain as is for at least 200 years…