April 12, 2004

by Yusuke Shimizu

Kinkakuji Temple’s Golden Pavilion

One Pavilion, Three Styles

Kyoto’s golden pavilion was originally built in 1397 by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. It was covered with gold to show Yoshimitsu’s great authority. But ever since then, there is one thing that even some Japanese people have misunderstood. It is that the first floor of Kinkakuji isn’t covered with gold. This is because each floor was built in a different architectural style. The first floor is in the Japanese palace style and was used for Noh plays or Japanese classical dance drama. The second floor is in the samurai style and was used for composing poetry. The third floor is in the old Chinese style and was used for meditation. The reason why there’s no gold on the first floor is simply that its architectural style doesn’t go with the gold. Moreover it is impossible to perform dances on a slick golden surface.


I’ll tell you about a special place within Kinkakuji’s grounds which is connected with a meaningful Japanese word. That spot is ‘Toryumon,’ and its name means the gateway to success. We use that word when we try to overcome some difficult obstacle in life. The idea is based on a Chinese legend. In the old days, no fish other than a carp could swim up a waterfall, and by doing so the carp became a dragon. In other words, although it is difficult to overcome some great trouble or challenge, if you do overcome it, you will be successful in life. In the Toryumon at Kinkakuji, we can see a small waterfall and a big stone. That boulder symbolizes a carp which is struggling to swim upstream. In turn, the carp symbolizes a samurai because of its strength. On the other hand, the dragon, which we imagine, symbolizes a general like Yoshimitsu, since he had been successful in life.


In the pond of Kinkakuji there’s a knoll called White Snake Mound. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who was the third Shogun in the Muromachi era, had many mistresses, and it is said that one of them was deeply jealous of the others and threw herself into the pond, becoming a white snake. So Yoshimitsu built the White Snake Mound to console her soul. That is why some people say that a white snake is the symbol of jealousy. But actually, it was built because the legendary creature was the guardian deity of the Hosokawa family, who had owned this area before.

A hiding place

There is a spot many people pass by without noticing. It is a pine tree which is more than 600 years old and was cherished by Yoshimitsu. Actually, for a pine tree, 600 years old is not so old. But the shape of this tree is unusual for its age. It is formed into a dwarf pine tree. It is very hard to train a tree into that shape.

Finally, it may surprise you to learn that the present pavilion is not the original. That structure burned down in 1950. A monk who often visited Kinkakuji Temple set fire to the building because, in a sense, he put too high a value on the golden pavilion. At that time, even though it was called the Golden Pavilion it was tattered and run down, so this monk felt let down. After he destroyed the pavilion, it was rebuilt in 1955. Later, when it was repaired in 1987, five times the amount of golden leaves were used compared with before, for endurance. Also, the roof was restored from late 2003 until April of 2004. So Kinkakuji looks more beautiful than ever before. Please go and see it!

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