Explore the Iconic Silver Pavilion Temple: A Tourist Guide to Ginkaku-ji, Symbol of Higashiyama Culture!

Ginkaku-ji is a temple located in Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture.

Its formal name is Jisho-ji Temple, and it’s one of the sub-temples of the Rinzai sect’s Shokoku-ji Temple. The name “Ginkaku-ji” originated from being called the “Silver Pavilion Temple” in contrast to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion Temple in Kyoto.

Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ginkaku-ji is renowned as one of Kyoto’s three renowned temples, alongside Kinkaku-ji and the Byodo-in’s Phoenix Hall. We’ll delve into the history and highlights of Ginkaku-ji, including its designated national treasure Kannon Hall, eye-catching features like the sand garden and the Moon-Viewing Platform within the garden.

What is Ginkaku-ji?

Ginkaku-ji, located in Ginkakuji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City, is a Zen temple belonging to the Rinzai sect of the Shokoku-ji branch.

As a sub-temple of the prestigious Shokoku-ji, Ginkaku-ji holds historical significance, particularly associated with the Ashikaga shogunate era, symbolizing the flourishing Higashiyama culture of the late Muromachi period. Formally known as Jisho-ji Temple, it earned the name Ginkaku-ji, meaning “Silver Pavilion Temple,” in contrast to the opulent Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, reflecting the subdued elegance of the temple.

Within its premises lie treasures such as the designated national treasure Kannon Hall, the scenic Moon-Viewing Platform nestled in the beautiful garden, and an observation deck offering panoramic views. Its architecture and garden design embody the essence of Japanese aesthetics, reflecting simplicity, strength, and the beauty of wabi-sabi. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Ginkaku-ji remains a popular tourist destination in Kyoto, attracting visitors with its serene ambiance and cultural significance.

The History of Ginkaku-ji

In 1482, the beginning of Ginkaku-ji can be traced back to the construction of a mountain villa called “Higashiyama Palace” by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate.

Ginkaku-ji was erected on the site of Jodo-ji Temple, which had been destroyed during the Onin War, a conflict that turned Kyoto into a battlefield. Compared to the lavish architecture of the Higashiyama culture period, Ginkaku-ji was built in a more modest style, reflecting the economic hardships Kyoto faced due to the war.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa relocated to this area without waiting for Ginkaku-ji’s completion. In 1485, he built the Zen meditation room, Shisendo, followed by the Takagamine Pavilion in 1486 and the Higashiyama Palace Assembly Hall and the Izumidono Pavilion in 1487, one after another.

Although Yoshimasa himself passed away before the completion of the Kannon Hall, also known as the Ginkaku, in 1490, Ginkaku-ji has remained as a historical monument since its completion. As of 2019, only two buildings, the Ginkaku and the Togudo, remain standing.

Originally established as a villa, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in 1490 to honor Yoshimasa and was designated as an affiliate temple of the Shokoku-ji Temple, named Jisho-ji Temple. During a major renovation in 1615, the temple underwent significant changes, adopting Zen Buddhist architectural elements similar to its current appearance.

Let’s enjoy exploring this historic temple, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1994 as part of Kyoto’s cultural assets.

Tourist Information for Ginkaku-ji

  • Address: 2 Ginkakuji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Phone Number: 075-771-5725
  • Admission Fee: Adults and high school students: 500 yen, Elementary and middle school students: 300 yen, Children under elementary school age: Free
  • Closed: Open every day
  • Opening Hours: Summer: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM, Winter: 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM
  • Official Website: Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a popular destination for tourists throughout the year.

Its grounds offer various experiences, from vibrant autumn foliage to the serene beauty of winter snowfall. Highlights include the Hojo Hall, where the main statue of Shaka Nyorai is enshrined, and the Kannon Hall, symbolizing Jisho-ji Temple.

Visitors typically spend around 30 minutes exploring, and most pathways are wheelchair-accessible. During spring and autumn, special access is granted to the interiors of buildings like the Togudo Hall and Hojo Hall, offering unique experiences for those interested. Make sure to plan your visit accordingly!

Access to Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji is a tourist spot located relatively far from Kyoto Station, which serves as a hub for tourists. It takes over 15 minutes on foot from the nearest train station, so it’s advisable to use Kyoto City buses for access. From Kyoto Station to the bus stop near Ginkaku-ji, it takes approximately 30 to 40 minutes by bus.

Access by Bus:

From JR Kyoto Station:

  • Take City Bus 32 or Rapid 100 to “Ginkakuji-mae” bus stop, then walk for 6 minutes.
  • Take City Bus 5, 17, 32, Rapid 100, Rapid 102, 203, or 204 to “Ginkakuji-michi” bus stop, then walk for 10 minutes.

From the Shokoku-ji Temple area:

  • Take Rapid 102 from “Karasuma-Imadegawa” or 203 from “Doshisha-mae” to “Ginkakuji-michi” bus stop, then walk for 10 minutes.

From the Kinkaku-ji Temple area:

  • Take Rapid 102 or 204 from “Kinkakuji-michi” to “Ginkakuji-michi” bus stop, then walk for 10 minutes.

Access to Kyoto Station from Various Locations:

From JR Tokyo Station:

  • Take the Nozomi Shinkansen for approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes.

From Kansai International Airport:

  • Take the JR Airport Express “Haruka” for approximately 75 minutes.

From JR Osaka Station:

  • Take the Sanyo Main Line on the New Rapid Service for approximately 30 minutes.

From Itami Airport:

  • Take a limousine bus for approximately 50 minutes.

From JR Nara Station:

  • Take the Miyakokaisoku (rapid) train for approximately 50 minutes.

From JR Wakayama Station:

  • Take the Limited Express Super Kuroshio for approximately 92 minutes.

Discovering the Highlights of Ginkaku-ji

Let’s explore the highlights of Ginkaku-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can truly experience the essence of wabi-sabi unique to Higashiyama culture. From must-see classics to hidden gems, I’ve handpicked recommendations from my perspective as a frequent visitor.

The National Treasure “Kannon Hall,” Symbolizing Ginkaku-ji

Kannon Hall

The iconic building symbolizing Ginkaku-ji is the National Treasure “Kannon Hall,” also known as the “Silver Pavilion.”

Inside the structure, representing Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s religious beliefs, the first floor is called the “Shinku-do” and the second floor is known as the “Sho-on-in.” Modeled after the Shariden (reliquary hall) of Rokuon-ji Temple, also known as Kinkaku-ji, it is often compared to its counterpart, the Golden Pavilion.

As a representative example of Muromachi-period architecture and garden design, it’s famous for its elegant beauty.

While the Golden Pavilion shines with gold leaf, the Silver Pavilion’s exterior is adorned with black lacquer, embodying the wabi-sabi aesthetic of Higashiyama culture. Treasured as a symbol of Higashiyama culture, the Silver Pavilion captivates visitors with its understated elegance amidst the lavishness of its surroundings.

The Kannon Hall is strategically positioned facing east, with the Nishiki Mirror Pond and the Higashiyama Mountains in the background.

It is said to have been intentionally oriented away from the western side of Kyoto, which was the political center at the time. The reason for the first-floor veranda facing east is believed to represent the sentiment of Yoshimasa, who retired from politics and withdrew due to the decline of his political power during the Onin War.

The Nishiki Mirror Pond in front of the veranda offers beautiful views that change with the seasons. Beside the Kannon Hall, you’ll find attractions such as a waterfall that channels water from the Yamabusa Hill and the Ginkaku Hill into the garden and pond, as well as the Benzaiten Shrine.

The Pond Garden “Ginsara, Gazing Moon Platform, and Nishiki Mirror Pond” in Front of Ginkakuji

Ginsara

One of the major highlights of Ginkaku-ji is the garden centered around the Nishiki Mirror Pond, located in front of the Silver Pavilion and Kannon Hall. Designated as a Special Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty in 1952, this pond garden offers numerous attractions.

The current garden’s appearance dates back to renovations carried out in the late Edo period, rather than the original design of Ginkaku-ji.

The distinctive patterned garden, known as “Ginsadan,” features raised white sand in stepped formations. It’s believed that Ginsadan was created to reflect the moonlight, adding to the allure of Ginkaku-ji. Appreciate this unique garden motif, which is both innovative and unlike any other temple garden you’ll find in Kyoto.

Gazing Moon Platform

Adjacent to Ginsadan is the grand sand mound known as the “Gazing Moon Platform.”

As you stroll through the grounds of Ginkaku-ji, you’ll notice the strikingly large sand mound, believed to have been built atop a hill for observing the moon. The unique sand arrangements of Ginsadan and the Gazing Moon Platform contribute to the distinctive scenery of Ginkaku-ji, setting it apart from other temples.

During autumn, the trees surrounding the Gazing Moon Platform and the Higashiyama Mountains in the background become beautifully adorned with vibrant foliage, adding to the charm of the area.

Nishiki Mirror Pond

At the heart of the garden designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty lies the “Nishiki Mirror Pond.”

When exploring the grounds of Ginkaku-ji, be sure to take a leisurely stroll around the Nishiki Mirror Pond. On sunny days, the Kannon Hall reflecting in the Nishiki Mirror Pond is one of the most popular viewpoints within the temple grounds.

Remnants from the Construction of Higashiyama Palace: “Hojo and Tozudo”

Hojo

The Hojo, which serves as the main hall of Ginkaku-ji, dates back to the mid-Edo period.

In front of the Hojo, where the main Buddha statue is enshrined, stretches the iconic scenery that symbolizes Ginkaku-ji, including the garden and the Ginsadan. Usually, the interior, which is not open to the public, houses sliding door paintings by eminent artists of the Edo period such as Yosa Buson and Ike no Taiga.

While the interior of the Hojo is not accessible to the public, simply gazing at its exterior allows you to feel the historical ambiance.

Near the Hojo, there is a small window where you can peek through and catch a glimpse of the Ginsadan and the hand garden. This spot is a popular photo spot where many visitors enjoy taking pictures, whether it’s capturing the scenery or posing for a commemorative photo in front of the window.

Tozudo

The Tozudo is one of the remaining structures from the initial construction of Ginkakuji Temple in 1486.

With its single-story hip-roofed design and cypress bark roofing, it exudes a sense of historical charm. Despite being built as a hall to enshrine the Amida Buddha, it notably incorporates elements of residential architecture.

Facing south, the hall has a square shape with each side measuring 6.9 meters, typical of its time. Inside, the Amida Buddha is enshrined on the Shumidan altar at the rear, while a statue of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the patron, is placed towards the south.

The Tozudo is divided into four rooms, with the Soin-sai serving as Yoshimasa’s favored study. Its architectural style, centered around a study, is considered the precursor to the Shoin-zukuri style seen from the Muromachi period to the modern era.

The interior is only open to the public twice a year, in spring and autumn, for two months each. If you wish to see the inside, be sure to visit during those times.

Enjoying the View of Ginkakuji Temple from the Observation Deck

At the back of Ginkakuji Temple, there is a staircase leading up to a spot resembling an observation deck.

Located away from the main attractions, it’s an easily overlooked hidden gem. Since you’ll be climbing stairs for a while to reach the top, it’s advisable to wear comfortable shoes.

The staircase leading up to the observation deck is well-maintained, surrounded by trees and moss-covered gardens. With fewer visitors compared to the main spots, take your time to enjoy the scenery and this hidden gem.

On the way to the observation deck, you’ll come across the remains of a tea well and garden, said to have been favored by Yoshimasa.

Discovered in the 1930s, the Tea Well Garden was modeled after the gardens of Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto. Around the tea well, you’ll find trees and stone arrangements, preserving the garden’s original form.

As of 2019, water still springs from the tea well.

The clear water from the tea well, still used for tea ceremonies today, reflects the historical charm of the site. Don’t miss the chance to visit this garden with its intact stone arrangements and the gentle sound of flowing water from the tea well.

Further up from the tea well lies an observation deck where you can overlook the entire temple.

From the observation deck, you can enjoy panoramic views of not only the iconic spots of Ginkakuji, such as the Ginkaku and the Kannon Hall, but also the cityscape of Kyoto. On clear days, you’ll be treated to a clear blue sky, vibrant autumn foliage in fall, and a snow-covered Ginkakuji in winter. Take in the changing scenery depending on the season.

Located amidst the lush greenery of the Higashiyama area, the observation deck offers a panoramic view that captures both the natural beauty and historical architecture unique to Ginkakuji. It’s only a 5-minute walk from the bottom of the stairs to the observation deck, so if you have some spare time, be sure to stop by.

Exploring Nearby Attractions of Ginkakuji Temple

Ginkakuji Temple, where you can visit the main attractions in about 30 minutes.

While sightseeing, consider stopping by other nearby attractions as well. There are many charming spots to explore, such as the Philosopher’s Path, which stretches straight along the Lake Biwa Canal, and the captivating Heian Shrine with its vermilion-colored main hall modeled after the ancient capital of Heian-kyo.

Scenic Path Loved by Scholars: “The Philosopher’s Path”

The Philosopher’s Path

The Philosopher’s Path is a road that stretches for about 2 kilometers along the Biwa Canal, near Ginkaku-ji Temple.

During the Meiji era, philosophers like Nishida Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime lived in the area, and it became known as the Path of Scholars. Originally called by various names like the Path of Philosophy or the Strolling Path, it was eventually named the “Philosopher’s Path” after discussions among locals.

The gravel path was improved for walking, and in 1987, the disused tram tracks were replaced, making it easier for visitors to stroll along. The scenic Philosopher’s Path has been recognized as one of Japan’s Top 100 Roads by the Road Day Executive Committee.

Along the Philosopher’s Path, there flows a water canal, and beside the stone-paved walkway, trees and flowers are planted.

The Philosopher’s Path, where you can enjoy the changing scenery throughout the four seasons, is also known for its beautiful autumn leaves and cherry blossoms. The rows of cherry trees lining the pathway are said to have originated from a donation of 300 trees by the Japanese painter Hashimoto Kansetsu and his wife, Yone, to the city of Kyoto.

Along the Philosopher’s Path, there are attractions such as the “Yoheiya Cafe Ginkaku-ji Store,” run by Yoheiya known for its cosmetics, and the “Koufuku Jizo,” a beloved guardian deity of children. Near the Yoheiya Cafe, there is also a “Love Fulfillment Phone Booth,” believed to bring romantic success when calling a loved one.

Philosopher’s Path Visitor Information

  • Address: Along the Canal from Ginkaku-ji Temple Area to Wakaoji-cho Area, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access: A short walk from the “Ginkaku-ji Mae” bus stop, 5 minutes on foot from Ginkaku-ji Temple
  • Closed: Always open
  • Operating Hours: Free to stroll at any time
  • Admission: Free
  • Official Website: Philosopher’s Path

The Elegant Shrine Built to Commemorate the 1,100th Anniversary of the Heian Capital

The Heian Shrine was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the establishment of the Heian Capital.

Featuring architectural replicas representing one-fifth of the former capital’s size, the shrine is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government. Located near the heart of Kyoto, the Heian Shrine is also known as a spot representing the “Four Guardian Deities of Kyoto,” protecting the city.

The towering torii gate, standing at a height of 24 meters, welcomes visitors and serves as a symbol of the city. Within the precincts, there are numerous buildings boasting a history of over 100 years since their construction.

The “Soryu-ro,” constructed by blending ancient architecture with Kyoto’s building techniques, is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government.

Featuring a “Shiho-nagare” roof with slopes on all sides and a double-layered gabled roof, the Soryu-ro derives its name from the Azure Dragon, said to guard the eastern part of Kyoto.

One of the major attractions of Heian Shrine is its expansive garden, boasting an area of over 10,000 tsubo (about 33,000 square meters).

Designed by Ogawa Jihei, a pioneer of modern Japanese gardens, this garden from the Meiji era is designated as a national scenic spot. Featuring a “pond and strolling garden” centered around a large pond that utilizes the Lake Biwa Canal, visitors can enjoy the changing scenery throughout the four seasons.

Divided into four sections: East, Central, West, and South, the garden offers a captivating stroll that takes about 30 minutes to complete.

In the Western Garden, don’t miss the opportunity to admire approximately 2,000 iris plants in full bloom in early summer. During iris season, there is a special day when admission is free, but only for one day each year.

Additionally, explore the other sections of the garden: the Eastern Garden, which offers views of natural scenery centered around stone lanterns and the Setsubun Pond, and the Southern Garden, which spans 1,700 tsubo and features over 170 varieties of plants.

Heian Shrine Visitor Information

  • Address: 97 Okazaki Nishitennocho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access: 5-minute walk from bus stop “Okazaki Koen Bijutsukan/Heian Jingu-mae” served by City Bus Route 5 and Kyoto Bus Routes 100/110, or a 10-minute walk from Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Subway Line
  • Phone: 075-761-0221
  • Closed: Open year-round
  • Hours: 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM (may vary depending on the season)
  • Admission: Free (Heian Shrine Garden: Adults 600 yen, Children 300 yen)
  • Official Website: Heian Shrine

Savor Stunning Views and Historical Architecture at Nanzen-ji Temple

Nanzen-ji Temple is a temple of the Rinzai sect’s Nanzen-ji school located in Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City. Situated in a lush, natural area away from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto’s urban center, it can be reached by walking about 20 minutes along the Philosopher’s Path from Ginkaku-ji Temple.

Founded by the wishes of emperors and retired emperors to pray for the peace of the nation, Nanzen-ji is the first Zen temple established by imperial decree in Japan.

Ranked among the top Zen temples in Japan, it is positioned above the Kyoto Gozan and Kamakura Gozan, representing the highest status among Japanese Zen temples. Within its grounds, visitors can admire numerous highlights, including the Sanmon gate famously praised by the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro V as having a “superb view,” and the Hojo (Abbot’s Quarters), designated as a national treasure.

The Sanmon gate, designated as an Important Cultural Property, symbolizes the three stages—emptiness, formlessness, and non-action—necessary to achieve enlightenment. From the Sanmon gate, which serves as the main entrance to Nanzen-ji, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape and natural scenery from the elevated vantage point.

Within the precincts of Nanzen-ji Temple, there is a brick aqueduct bridge called the “Suirokaku,” which is part of the Biwako Sosui canal system.

This brick aqueduct, reminiscent of ancient Roman aqueducts, offers a picturesque scene that seems more like a piece of art than a part of a temple’s grounds. Due to its frequent appearances in movies and dramas set in Kyoto, it has become a popular tourist spot.

Blending into the serene landscape of Higashiyama, the Suirokaku is also a favorite spot for photography.

Under the arch-shaped bridge, with the solid brick structure as a backdrop, it’s an ideal location for memorable photoshoots. In autumn, the surrounding trees turn red, adding to the charming scenery.

Nanzen-ji Temple Visitor Information

  • Address: Fukuchicho, Nanzenji, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture
  • Map: Google Maps
  • Access:
    • 8-minute walk from Kyoto City Bus Route 5, “Nanzen-ji/Eikando-michi” bus stop
    • 5-minute walk from Kyoto Municipal Subway Tozai Line, “Keage Station”
  • Phone Number: 075-771-0365
  • Closed: Closed for visitation at the end of the year (December 28th to 31st)
  • Hours:
    • December 1st to February 28th: 8:40 AM to 4:30 PM
    • March 1st to November 30th: 8:40 AM to 5:00 PM
  • Admission Fee:
    • Hojo Garden: Adults 600 yen, High School Students 500 yen, Elementary/Middle School Students 400 yen
    • Sanmon Gate: Adults 600 yen, High School Students 500 yen, Elementary/Middle School Students 400 yen
    • Nanzen-in Temple: Adults 400 yen, High School Students 350 yen, Elementary/Middle School Students 250 yen
  • Official URL: Nanzen-ji Temple

I introduced the highlights of Ginkaku-ji Temple, which symbolizes the culture of Higashiyama. Different from its counterpart, Kinkaku-ji Temple, Ginkaku-ji embodies the spirit of wabi-sabi, which can be felt through its architecture and gardens. In addition to the main Kannon Hall, Hojo, and Togudo, I also introduced selected highlights chosen by the author who has visited multiple times. Please use this as a reference for your travel plans, along with other nearby tourist spots.

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