With so many shrines and temples to see in Japan, it can be difficult for some to choose their favorite. However, many people have no trouble choosing at all, as one temple stands supreme. Considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings throughout all of Japan, Kyoto's Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, was constructed in 1397 during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The three-story villa on the grounds of Rokuon-ji was commissioned by the reigning shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), as his summer home; upon his death, the structure became a Zen Buddhist temple.
For centuries, Kinkaku-ji has been a symbol not only of Kyoto, but of Japan itself.
The temple is perched at the edge of Kyoko-chi, or Mirror Pond. The top two stories are covered in gold leaf, and a bronze phoenix sits atop the roof. The temple is a shariden, meaning that it houses Buddhist relics. Kinkaku-ji was important to the creation of Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, and preceded the Shokoku-ji, both of which were also commissioned by the Ashikaga family.
The temple’s surrounding complex has been burned down numerous times, particularly during the Onin War (1467-77). The pavilion itself, however, remained intact until a fateful day in 1950. In the wee hours of July 2, a young monk named Hayashi Yoken torched the temple, then attempted to commit suicide Daimon-ji, the hill that stands behind the pavilion. His suicide attempt failed, and he was arrested and later sentenced to prison. The sentence was suspended when Hayashi was found to be mentally ill; he died just a few years later.
Japanese author Mishima Yukio (1925-1970), known for both his right-wing political radicalism and experimental, innovative writing style, wrote The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a novel based on the arson. Published in 1956, the book follows the original story closely, as Mishima even visited Hayashi in prison to collect information. The writer changed only the names of the characters and the outcome of the fire, along with other minor details, to better suit his writing style and end to the plot. Fourteen years later, Mishima succeeded where Hayashi could not, committing ritual suicide after a failed coup d’etat that was intended to rally Japanese troops to fight for the restoration of power to the emperor.
The fact that Mishima wrote a novel based on the fire at Kinkaku-ji is crucial to Japanese literary history. Both Mishima and the temple have lasting legacies, as the writer continues to be an important figure in Asian Literature studies internationally, and the temple, which was reconstructed and completed in 1955, was named a World Heritage site in 1994.
Kinkakuji is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is ¥400.