Spotlight: Ginkaku-ji (Kyoto)

I’m just back from a lovely weekend in Kyoto where I thankfully managed to miss the worst of the masses of cherry blossom viewers. The blooms weren’t out yet, except for a few lovely trees in Gion and at the Imperial Palace, but the city still looked as attractive as ever. I haven’ t touched on Kyoto too much on the blog lately, so the next few posts will feature some highlights of one of Japan’s former capitals.

Ginkaku-ji (also known as the Silver Pavilion) is perhaps one of my favorite spots in all of Kyoto. It’s often overshadowed (and mistaken for, thanks to the close pronunciation) by its glittering counterpart, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion). And in contrast, the little temple-like building from which Kinkaku-ji gets its name won’t thrill you in the slightest. But it’s modeled on the Golden Pavilion, which comes as a surprise to some visitors. When shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa set out to build his retirement villa in 1482, he decided to base it on his grandfather’s villa – Kinkakuji – at the edge of Kyoto’s northern mountains (Kitayama area). It never quite achieved the same grandeur (the color notwithstanding) and when the shogun dies in 1490, the villa was given over to Buddhist monks.

Ginkakuji with the perfect cone of sand in front
Ginkakuji with the perfect cone of sand in front

While the pavilion itself may not impress visitors, I dare you not to be awed by the beauty and scope of the garden. The first thing to catch your eye will be the carefully-raked Ginsyadan sand garden with a massive and perfectly formed cone of fine white gravel. Nearby is a moon-viewing platform, and the sand raked sands supposedly gleams like ocean waves in the moonlight. From here, the path leads back into the estate and up the slope of the Higashiyama (eastern mountains). Follow it. Forget how many steps there are or how long you’ve already walked that day. Follow this path, past a glade and through a tiny bamboo forest up to a viewpoint. From here, you can glimpse not only the entire garden and the pavilion laid out before you but a good portion of the eastern half of Kyoto.

A view of Ginkakuji and the eastern half of Kyoto
A view of Ginkakuji and the eastern half of Kyoto

My descent on the path was made even more picturesque by two young girls strolling in sakura-patterned kimono, a common occurrence in Kyoto in the spring time. Back down on flat ground, the garden changes its pedigree yet again and becomes the deep emerald green of a moss garden. The only hint of color were the fallen pink petals from a camellia tree. The bridge along the path here is also the best place to stop and get a portrait shot of the Silver Pavilion surrounded by the glorious garden.

Ginkakuji and its garden
Ginkakuji and its garden

If you’re put off by Ginkaku-ji’s popularity, try to come here as soon as it opens (8:30am, 9am in winter) and choose a weekday if possible. The garden is a definitely a highlight of any Kyoto itinerary and it would be a shame to miss it.

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