Two Glittering Temples and a One Thousand Gate Shrine; Kyoto, Days Two and Three

After yesterday’s wet and wintery weather I was grateful for a bright and sunny morning to visit our first temple of the day, Kinkaku-ji (or Temple of the Golden Pavilion). A golden morning for a golden temple so to speak – we just couldn’t resist posing for a few photos when we caught our first glimpse…
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Officially named Rokuon-ji (or ‘Deer Garden Temple’), Kinkaku-ji is today a designated National Special Historic Site, a National Special Landscape, and one of seventeen sites that form part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site. Needless to say it is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations!
Kinkaku-ji was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu but was later converted into a Zen Buddhist temple by his son. Sadly in 1950 the original pavilion was burnt down by a young monk who had developed an unquenchable obsession with it, and in 1955 it was reconstructed according to the original design. There was one major modification to the design though – where before the gold leaf bejewelled only the upper storey of the pavilion, now it was extended to the second storey too.
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All that glitters is not gold though, for Kinkaku-ji also has a beautiful and historic garden. The garden was created during the Muromachi period, an era in which harmony between the building(s) and it’s surroundings was greatly prioritised and gardens were generally miniaturised versions of the wider landscape, with the said landscape ‘borrowed’ to form a naturally beautiful backdrop for the garden. Like other gardens of the Muromachi period Kinkaku-ji is a ‘strolling garden’ with wooded paths circumnavigating a central pond replete with several smaller islands. Ten in Kinkaku-ji’s case. As the garden forms part of what is today a Zen Buddhist temple the arrangement of islands, rocks, bridges and plants is specific and these features are often suffused with symbolism and meaning. The row of four stones in the pond is said to represent the sailboats bound for the ‘Isle of Eternal Life’ in ancient Chinese mythology, while the largest of the ten islands symbolises the Japanese Isles.
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It turns out that the weather in Japan is as changeable as it is back home in England – despite today’s glorious start to the day by the time we arrived at Ginkaku-ji in the early afternoon it had started to snow!
Officially named Jisho-ji (or ‘Temple of Shining Mercy’) Ginkaku-ji was created by Shogun  Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482 as a retirement villa much like his grandfather had created at Kinkaku-ji ninety years previously. As Ginkaku-ji is popularly called the Silver Pavilion (the literal translation is ‘Temple of the Silver Pavilion’) and there is not an ounce of silver to be seen you may be wondering where it came upon its name. I know I was. Yoshimasa’s pavilion was modelled on that of his grandfather’s and while he had originally intended to emulate the gold leafed exterior at Kinkaku-ji with his own silver leaf embellishment, delays due to the Onin war meant that his plans were never realised. Extensive restoration work was carried out to the pavilion in the 2000s and there was some talk of finally realising Yoshimasa’s plans to add silver leaf to the upper storey but in the end the decision was made to preserve it in its ‘unfinished’ state.
While Kinkaku-ji is more famous for its pavilion than its garden, Ginkaku-ji is just the opposite. The gardens are similar in that they both stem from the Muromachi era and share the traditional features of the classical ‘strolling garden’ such as central pond and strategically arranged islands, bridges, rocks and plants. However, Ginkaku-ji also has the addition of a beautiful sand garden, for which it is most renowned. Here white sand has been artfully raked to create a simple yet stunning garden feature. The large cone is said to represent Mount Fuji.
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Snow fell overnight so that we awoke on Sunday morning to see the streets of Kyoto dusted with shimmering white powder. This got me wondering whether the Japanese make snowmen (or women?) and whether they are adorned with the same coal and carrot combination as back home in the UK. If this little snowman is anything to go by then they obviously do exist, so I must try to find out what their usual attire is…


Thankfully the snow didn’t thwart our plans to visit Fushimi-inari Taisha in the morning before travelling back home to Awaji, so Phil and I made our way there on the train excited at the prospect of seeing hundreds of bright red torii illuminated against the snow. It seemed that every tourist in Kyoto had the same idea that day, as Fushimi-inari was heaving with visitors even though we’d arrived there bright and early. I guess we shouldn’t have been so surprises – a sign at the entrance gate heralded it Japan’s number one tourist destination in 2014.

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Fushimi-Inari Taisha is a shrine complex dedicated to the gods of rice and sake and is the chief shrine for over 30,000 Inari shrines across Japan. The original buildings were built by the Hata family on the mountainside of Inariyama in at the beginning of the 8th century but they were relocated some 100 years later; the main shrine was built at the foot of Mount Inari in 1499. Beautiful though the main gate (rōmon) and main shrine (go-honden) are what Fushimi-Inari is most famous for is the thousands of red torii (shrine gates) which bedeck the 4km long meandering path up Inariyama. I had memories of a scene in the 2005 film version of Memoirs of a Geisha so I was keen to see them for myself. I wasn’t at all disappointed, even though to begin with it was hard to take good photographs without hundreds of peoples’ heads in the shot. Not everyone makes it up the steep slope to the top of the mountain so it was a lot easier to take photos as we neared the top.

Interestingly the torii are each donated by different business men; Japanese tradition has Inari as the patron of business, so Fushimi-Inari has long been the shrine of choice for many merchants and manufacturers. Periodically along the torii-lined path are various graveyards and as many as 32,000 sub-shrines (called ‘busha’), while at the top of the mountain are tens of thousands of mounds for private worship. You will see in many of the photos below that the image of the fox is used frequently at Fushimi-Inari. Foxes are commonly depicted in Japanese shrines as they are traditionally viewed as messengers of Inari, god of the rice harvest.


What goes up…

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Must come down. What a relief – that was quite a climb!

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  1. Douglas Needham

    How beautiful! Your blog brings back wonderful memories of Brian’s and my visit to Japan in 2013 with Murase and Tomoko.

  2. Pingback: Kyoto: In Search of Silver Temples, Sakura and Geishas | Triad Fellowship

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