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.Kinkaku-ji closeup

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.abbot's quarters

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.kinkakuji mirrored in the pond

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.gardens at kinkaku-ji


When the capital of Japan was transferred to Kyoto in 794 (then known as Heian-kyo), the emperor’s living quarters were called the Dairi imperial residence. When the Dairi was destroyed by fire, the emperor moved his private residence to the palaces of other noble families in the city. Clearly, it must have been a great honour for those families, and the number of imperial (ex-) residences (or Sato-dairi) in Kyoto makes it easy to believe that the emperor was rather forthcoming with this kind of favour. From the latter half of the Heian period (794 – 1185), the original imperial residence fell into disuse, and the emperor moved for good into the Sato-dairi. In 1331, emperor Kogen was crowned in a Sato-dairi called Tsuchi-Mikado-Higashi-no-Toin-Dono, and subsequently, it became the new imperial palace, the starting point of today’s imperial palace or gosho. It remained the residence of the emperor until 1869, when the imperial household left Kyoto and moved to Tokyo after the Meiji restoration.

The imperial palace, like many parts of Kyoto, was destroyed by fire several times in its 500 year history, it was often reconstructed, but also new buildings were added throughout. So, when you visit the palace, there are many different architectural styles to be seen, starting from the bright red buildings with endless corridors of the Heian time to the Otsunegoten, the emperor’s private residence in the Shoin-style of 1590. The latest addition to the palace, however, is the Shinmikurumayose – a new entrance for carriages that was built for the 1915 enthronement ceremony of emperor Taisho.

newest part of gosho seen through a gate of the oldestWhen you enter the palace grounds through the Gishumon gate, you first pass the Okurumayose entrance for dignitaries and then you see the Shodaibu-no-ma, a waiting room, or, rather, three adjacent waiting rooms, decorated according to the rank of the people who would have to wait there for their audience. panel with cherryblossoms in the Shodaibunoma waiting room

Other than those visitors of old, you have to take a more roundabout way: You pass the Shinmikuru-mayose and the red Heian-style corridors to get to the Nikkamon Gate leading to the Shishinden, the most important building of the palace. It was used for enthronement ceremonies for example, and there is the Chrysanthemum throne in the centre and the smaller empress’s throne to the right of it. Sitting on the throne (no, you’re not allowed to enter any of the buildings), you behold to the South a large Japanese Zen-style “garden” of raked white gravel, the only living things in there are a cherry and a mandarin tree.The chrysanthemum throne of the Japanese emperors

You then move past the Shishinden to the Seiryoden, a reconstruction of the emperor’s residence built in the 8th century, where the emperor would receive visitors. Opposite the Kogosho and Ogakumonjo-buildings (for meetings with lower ranking people and lesser ceremonies in general), there is a beautiful Japanese garden called the Oikeniwa. Keyakibridge in Oikeniwa Garden

Its pond is meant to resemble the sea, pebble beach included, but the red koi do not quite fit that image. Finally, you get a glimpse at the Otsunegoten, the private residence of the emperor. It is the largest structure of the palace grounds with 15 rooms and faces the Gonatei, the emperor’s private garden. This is the end of the tour and you exit through the Seishomon gate.Omima building with wandpanels

The Imperial Palace covers an area of about 110.000 square metres. It is enclosed by a wall, and lies inside the Kyoto National Gardens, which covers more than 900.000 square metres and is enclosed by another wall. To visit the palace, you must first register with the Imperial Household Agency. You can do this either online or in person in their office in the garden. You can go as late as 20 minutes before a tour, but it’s better to be early. There are currently two free tours in English from Monday to Friday. Don’t forget your passport! Check out the homepage of the Imperial Household Agency for more details.