A Visit to Ginkakuji (Part 1)

On the third morning of my recent research trip to Japan, we visited Ginkaku-ji, the “Temple of the Silver Pavilion,” named for its founder’s intended desire to overlay the roof of the temple pavilion with silver leaf. Time and cost defeated that plan, and the temple (largely constructed during the 15th century) retains its original wooden roof.

Like many famous Japanese shrines, the entrance to Ginkaku-ji lies at the top of a narrow road lined with a variety of shops selling special snacks, souvenirs, soft-serve ice cream in flavors we don’t often see in the West (here, we saw peach and chestnut in addition to the ubiquitous matcha [aka green tea]). 

Since Ginkaku-ji lies at the northern terminus of the Philosopher’s Path, we also passed a group of ricksha drivers (in black bicycle shorts) offering rides along the famous route for those whose preferences or physical condition might prevent undertaking the 2-kilometer walk on foot.

A large, painted map of the temple precinct sits adjacent to the entrance:

15J04 Ginkakuji map

These maps are common at Japanese shrines (and temples) and usually show not only the location of major attractions within the complex but also the various paths visitors can walk. Sometimes, the signs also indicate how long (in minutes or kilometers) it takes to walk the various paths, enabling visitors to decide whether to tour the entire temple or simply to take the “easy route” to the spots with the greatest historical significance (or best photo-ops, if you prefer).

If you look closely, you can see the red “you are here” note in the lower left.

From the outer entrance we walked through a set of large wooden gates and through a bamboo-lined passage to the “true” entrance, where we purchased our tickets ($3 each) and left our goshuin** to be stamped by the temple priests.

We then walked around “the long way” to enter the temple grounds through the garden farthest from the silver pavilion. Entering this way allowed us to appreciate the extensive gardens and the path that led up the hill (you can see it along the right side of the map, leading up toward the top of the “mountain”).

We started off in the garden, which was designed by the famous 16th century Japanese landscape artist, Soami…

15J04 Ginkakuji garden

…and followed the path to the place where the climb began, with another part of the lovely garden–this bit set against the side of the mountain.

15J04 Christopher at Ginkakuji

(That’s my son in the photo–it was truly special to have both him and my parents with me on this trip.)

It rained that morning, and though the rain had stopped before we reached Ginkaku-ji (and, miraculously, held off all afternoon as we toured shrines and temples along the philosopher’s path) the steps along the mountain trail were wet and slick. 

15J04 Ginkakuji stairs

After a lovely ten-minute climb through groves of maple, cedar, and bamboo, we reached the apex of the walk and had our first view of the  famous “Silver Pavilion”:

15J04 Ginkakuji pavilion

We could have taken a more direct route and seen it sooner, by using the alternate path that leads directly from the entrance to the pavilion and around to the zen “dry garden,” skipping the slippery climb. However, I’m glad we didn’t.

Later this week, I’ll post “part 2” of the journey, with photographs of the pavilion and zen landscape (which we saw when we returned to the base of the hill). In the meantime, I hope you’ll tell me…have you ever chosen the harder path, and been glad you did?


**Goshuin (sometimes also called “goshuin chou”) are hardback books with accordion-style pages (really one continuous sheet, folded accordion style to make separate pages) which people use to collect special stamps and calligraphy from Japanese temples. I’ll do a longer post on the topic–with photographs of my book–when I return from Bouchercon.