The Golden Pavillion Temple Kinkaku-ji is the most striking of all the famous sights in Kyoto and should be on the very top of your must-see list when coming here. The Golden Pavillion is the main building of a zen temple – officially known as Rokuon-ji, Deer Garden temple – in Northern Kyoto and it is golden indeed: The two top floors of the three story building which stands in a large lake with several islands are covered in gold leaf on laquer and a golden phoenix crowns the centre of the roof. If you look closely you may notice that each floor is representative of a different architectural style: The ground floor is typical of the Heian period style palace buildings called shinden, the first floor is a guilded version of the bukke style of samurai residences, and the top floor – covered in gold leaf in- and outside – is built in the style of a Chinese zen hall. The pavillion houses Buddha statues and similar relics, but it is not open to the public.
The pavillion and the garden date back to the late 14th century, when the third shogun of the Muramachi period, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, bought the property from another statesman and built his own villa there. After his death, according to his wishes, the whole estate was turned into a Buddhist temple. The golden pavillion is the only “original” structure left from that period; I use the quotes because the building has burnt down and been restored several times in its history, the last time it was destroyed by arson in 1950 and rebuilt five years later. Below are the old abbot’s quarters, with beautiful screen paintings – but it’s not open to the public either.
The large garden surrounding Kinkaku-ji is truly original though, and considered an especially fine example of garden design from the Muromachi period. The garden was meant to represent the pure land of Buddha in this world. The pavillion lies in a pond with ten small islands, and on a clear day the impression of the golden building is heightened by its reflection in the water.
The one-way path leads you along the pond to the back of the pavillion and from there into the garden, where a number of little springs can be seen and several places where people throw coins for luck. The second floor of the garden on top of the hill contains another little pond called Anmintaku that allegedly never dries up, and the Sekkatei, an Edo-period tea house that has been specifically built to enjoy the view on Kinkaku-ji during the afternoon – the best hours to view it.