Kyoto (Northwest)

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November 13th 2019
Published: February 24th 2020
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Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto's famed 'Golden Pavilion', is one of Japan's best-known sights. The main hall, covered in brilliant gold leaf, shining above its reflecting pond is spectacular. Arrive on a weekday as soon as it opens and still expect to be rubbing shoulders with tour groups.

The original building dates from 1397 and was a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. His son converted it into a Zen Buddhist temple. In 1950 a young monk consummated his obsession with the temple by burning it to the ground. In 1955 a full reconstruction was completed that followed the original design, but the gold-foil covering was extended to the lower floors. The gold employed was intended to mitigate and purify any pollution or negative thoughts and feelings towards death. Each floor represents a different style of architecture. Although it is not possible to enter the pavilion, statues of Shaka Buddha and Yoshimitsu can often be viewed from across the pond if you look closely, as the front windows of the first floor are usually kept open. Inside the second floor is a seated Kannon Bodhisattva. The third floor is built in the style of a Chinese Zen Hall, is gilded inside and out, and is capped with a golden phoenix.

Continuing through the garden there are teahouses for you to enjoy a bit of a rest after the crowds. On the way out you can purchase gold-flecked sake, the same as is served during celebrations at Kinkaku-ji, which is a treat, but beware that the gold leaf is all the excitement you'll receive. It's the quietest, purest sake ever.

For all its fame Kinkaku-ji isn't particularly large, and most of our day was spent at Daitoku-ji, which is a complex of some twenty-two subtemples, with usually only a few open to the public. We were fortunate that three additional subtemples were open during our visit, Korin-in, Obai-in and Soken-in, and we visited nearly everything that was open. The gardens were each different yet amazingly beautiful, with their own stories, histories and styles, including several superb carefully raked dry landscape gardens. Daitoku-ji is one of the best places in Japan to see a wide variety of Zen gardens and to experience Zen culture and architecture. Daitoku-ji is also an historic center of the tea ceremony and associated with tea master Sen no Rikyu, as well as the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, both of whom were fond tea ceremony practitioners.

The most celebrated subtemple at Daitoku-ji is Daisen-in. Founded in 1509, it incorporates the oldest surviving example of an alcove, an important architectural feature still found in contemporary tatami rooms today. Daisen-in also features beautiful rock gardens, which wrap around the temple building and are considered among the best examples of their kind.

Ryogenin's main Zen style building is said to be the oldest building in Daitokuji. Ryogenin features five different dry landscape gardens, the largest consisting of a field of raked white gravel representing the universe, and islands of rocks and moss representing a crane and a turtle, common Japanese symbols of longevity and health. The temple also displays sliding doors painted with dragons and hermits, as well as the oldest gun in Japan, a Tanegashima Musket made in 1583.

Zuihoin, though small, has a particularly rich and interesting history. The temple was built in 1535 by a warlord from Kyushu who later converted to Christianity and became known as a Christian Daimyo (Warlord). The temple's main garden features gravel raked in distinct, high peaked patterns evoking the image of rough seas, and is set with islands of sharp stones and moss. The garden to the rear of the main building has stones laid out in the pattern of a crucifix.

The gorgeous garden of the Koto-in subtemple is well worth a special trip. It’s located within a beautiful bamboo grove that you cross via a moss-lined stone path. Once inside there is a small garden that leads to a rectangle of moss and maple trees, backed by bamboo, which you can enjoy from the veranda.

If you can spare the time, make a visit to Taizō-in, a small Zen Buddhist subtemple is in the southwestern corner of the grounds of Myōshin-ji. It has a beautiful garden and treasures of Japanese art, and there is a tatami-mat tearoom where you can enjoy a cup of matcha. It's a very peaceful spot.

If you're curious about sake, an excellent evening can be spent at Sake Bar Yoramu in the Ponto-Cho neighborhood, named for Yoramu, the Israeli sake expert who runs it and who can give you a real education in sake. It's not the most inexpensive sake destination but if you put yourself in his capable hands Yoramu should have you pegged by the third glass. Good luck finding it elsewhere, though. Well worth a visit for the student of sake.

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