Ginkaku-ji Temple, the Home of Wabi-sabi

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Many people could argue that the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji is the most iconic and photogenic place in Kyoto. However, on the other side of the city is the silver pavilion of the Ginkaku-ji [銀閣寺].Unlike the Kinkaku-ji, the Ginakaku-ji is a national treasure because the Kinkaku-ji burned down once. Moreover, the Ginkakuji, embodies Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

The History of Ginkaku-ji Temple

By 1477 the Onin War destroyed the entirety of Kyoto City. Fire burnt down many temples including Jyodo-ji, the former temple where the Ginkaku-ji stands today. The shogun of the time, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, ignored the war and instead choose to indulge himself in culture and the traditional arts. After the war finally came to an ended, he began construction of the Ginkaku-ji. He then decided to live there spending the rest of his day enjoying Noh and tea ceremony. Unfortunately, Yoshimasa died before the Ginkaku-ji was totally complete. The original temple grounds were at one time massive, but due to the turmoil of the Sengoku Period, only two of Yoshimasa’s original buildings still standing are the temple’s silver pavilion and Togu-do.

The Silver Pavilion

Although commonly known Ginkaku-ji, the temple’s actual name is Jisho-ji. The name Jisho-ji is derived from Jisho-in the name Yoshima received after his death. However, how the famed silver pavilion got the name “Ginkaku” is not unclear. There are several theories where it came from. Some people say it is because seemed silver when in the sun, or the original plan was to cover it in silver leaves but they didn’t have money. One fact is clear though; there is no trace of silver anywhere on this pavilion at this or any moment in history.

Phoenix of the silver pavillion.

Wabi-Sabi

As stated, Ashikaga Yoshimasa is responsible for being complaisant during the Onin War. This is because Yoshimasa’s reputation as a politician was pretty bad– some people say he is the worst shogun. However, his contribution to Japanese culture were profound. He found beauty in simple things such as ink painting, rock garden and tea ceremony. That is, he founded the concept of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi is one of the most well-known ideas about Japanese traditional culture outside of Japan. The world wabi is the sense of beauty found in imperfect objts, while sabi is a feeling that beauty. Wabi-sabi can be found in many traditional arts in Japan and the Ginkaku-ji, as a building, embodies these ideas.

Temple Grounds

Ginkaku-ji is located in the Higashiyama region, where there are many other famous region.

long path leading to the entrance of the Ginkaku-ji
Entrance of the Ginkaku-ji

Once you purchase a tickets and get in the temple grounds, you will immediately see the Ginkaku. The first floor is the Shinku-den [心空殿], built in the Shoinzukuri style (residential style) and the second floor, the Choonkaku [潮音閣], is in the Zenshuyo style (temple style). Restoration work has been done, but it basically retrains its original form, making it a Japanese National Treasure.

The ginkaku-ji with tourists and the famous rock garden in front
The silver pavilion and rock garden.
the pavilion currently enshrines a Buddha statue.

As you can see, Ginkaku-ji is not flashy like Kinkaku-ji. However, the simplicity of its design is the very essence of wabi-sabi attracts and moves many Japanese people.

kogetsudai of the ginkaku-ji in kyoto
Kogetsudai: Literally translates to “moon viewing platform” because according to rumor if one looks are it from the second floor of the Ginkaku-ji it resembles the full moon rising in Higashiyama. Built in the Edo Period.
Ginshadai rock garden in the ginkaku-ji temple in kyoto
Ginshadan, the “sea of silver sand” that reflects the light of the moon on the Ginkaku-ji. Also built in the Edo Period.

Togu-do, the Origin of Tea Ceremony

The other important thing to see is the Togu-do [東求堂]. Built by Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1486 built Togu-do as his study. Inside of Togu-do is the Dojinsai. It was in this small room that the practice of tea ceremony originated. Togu-do is open to public only in certain period in spring and fall, so you should go in if it is open.

Ginkaku-ji's togu-do, the origin of he Japanese tea ceremony
Togu-do

Gingakuji’s Garden

ginkaku-ji behind a kinkyochi pond
Kinkyochi Pond

An additional perk of the Ginkaku-ji is the garden surrounding Gingaku and the trail leading to the top of the hill. The view from the hill is one of the best of the temple grounds so it’s really worth the short hike 20 minute hike.

The current garden is dates back to the Edo Period as a recreation of Ahsikaga Yoshimitsu’s original design.

moss gardens of the ginkaku-ji in kyoto

ocha no i well used by Yoshimasa for making tea in the Ginkaku-ji
Ocha no i: Same water Yoshimasa used for making tea. It is still drinkable.

Ginkaku-ji Temple

2 thoughts on “Ginkaku-ji Temple, the Home of Wabi-sabi

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  • May 18, 2020 at 11:24 pm
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    I have visited Ginkaku-ji twice; once in 1992 and once in 2019. Both times I thought it is my favourite temple in all of Japan. I understand why people like Kinkaku-ji and agree it is a must-see, but for me Ginkaku-ji is much more aesthetically pleasing. The muted colours and design of the pond, temple and gardens seem perfect to me.

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