Kyoto: Ginkaku-ji

The next morning, we took the bus to Ginkaku-ji. On the way up the hill from the bus stop, we bought two bags of cookies to keep us going until we found some breakfast. Each bag contained three curved, rectangular cookies that tasted like a really nice fortune cookie with cinnamon. We found a cute little cafe run by a friendly older woman right near the temple, and stopped to get a simple breakfast. It was simple but satisfying, cheese toast on thick slices of fluffy white bread, and really good coffee in floral china cups. Thus fortified, we continued on to the temple entrance. 

Ginkaku-ji, which translates to Temple of the Silver Pavilion, is situated on what was once a retirement estate for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The name refers to the two-story main Kannon hall, which was initially meant to be covered in silver foil. The plans to apply the silver foil never came to pass, but the original lacquer finish reflected the water of the surrounding pond, giving a silvery appearance and the name stuck. Ginkaku-ji was built in 1482 as a place of refuge and contemplation, with the intention that it would become a Zen temple after the shogun’s death. 

The temple and the garden it sits in were not crowded when we arrived, giving me a good opportunity to appreciate my first Japanese Zen garden. The moss on the wooded hillsides created wonderful textures, and the sun cast lovely, dappled shadows across them. The new spring growth on the maple trees was a vibrant, eye-catching green, and the sound of the wind in the bamboo grove was punctuated with the cries of birds that sounded like squeak-toys.

I was struck by how effectively the design of the garden creates a serene and beautiful space, perfect for its intended purpose, and by how different the effect is from other formal gardens I have visited. The Taj Mahal and other Mogul gardens in India rely heavily on symmetry to create balance and order. The approach in Japanese temple gardens is completely different, but just as tightly controlled despite having a more natural appearance to the casual eye.