Finding a place to explore early in the morning while on vacation is like giving yourself the chance to see a famous attraction in a different light, both literally and figuratively sometimes. No one likes getting up early while on vacation (well, maybe other than me), so chances are you'll have the place mostly to yourself.
One of the places I wanted to see in the early morning was Ginkakuji or The Silver Pavilion. The Golden Pavillion is the most famous and striking of the two, but The Silver Pavillion is right on the Philosopher's Path within Kyoto city and much easier to access on an early morning.
The Silver Temple is a favourite spot for foreigners and locals alike so going early in the morning prevents you from getting stuck in long lines and avoids the crowding that is predictable during the day. When the garden is too crowded, it takes away from the calming aesthetic. When I arrived, I was one of the first people there, and there were only about one of two other couples. We huddled around the cobblestone walkway in front of the entry gates. Right before letting people inside, a worker came out and sprinkled some water on the stones. This wasn't for cleaning, but for cleansing. Just as people wash their hands before entering a temple, they do the same to the temple grounds themselves.
This Zen temple is located along Kyoto's Eastern mountains. It was built in 1482 for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa to enjoy during his retirement. The architectural designs of the temple are significant as they are one of the best representations of the Higashiyama architecture of the Muromachi period.
Inside Ginkakuji you'll find the great Silver Pavillion, half a dozen other small buildings, a moss garden, a reflective pond and the sand garden.
The Silver Pavilion is the first thing you'll see when you come in, as it is the largest building on the property. A circular path will lead you throughout the grounds, and as you go, you will have the chance to see the pavilion from all different angles. Discovering something unique, something new or something amazing as you do so.
Although it is called the 'Silver' pavilion, there was never any silver on it. Originally, it was supposed to be covered in silver, just as its sister Pavillion was covered in Gold, but the Shogun ran out of money. Despite this, the dark colour which it is painted, reflects the moonlight at night, giving it the appearance glowing silver in the moonlight.
The Silver Pavillion was built combining two distinct architectural styles, resulting in a seamless blend of Japan's art history. Each shingle on the roof is made from Japanese cypress trees. Bamboo nails are used to secure the bark as metal nails would rust and ruin the wood. Inside there is a precious statue of "Kannon", the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Although this is not viewable to the public, you can imagine how important it would have been to be housed in such a monumental place.
Despite its relative simplicity, there is a profoundly artistic aesthetic to be found here. The Japanese have perfected the ideology of grace in restraint, and this is one of their best examples.
It is easy to explore all the sights along the circular route that surrounds the garden.
The " Sand Garden" is known as the "Sea of Silver Sand". In the centre of the meticulously manicured rows is a grey cone called the "Moon Viewing Platform" which symbolises Mount Fuji.
Since we were there so early in the morning, we had the chance to see the workers cleaning up the sand and raking it into place so carefully. Picking fallen leaves and rogue stones out of the mix.
Beside the sand garden lies the "Hondo" (the main hall). Although this building cannot be entered, you can still admire the fine wood carvings along the sliding doors, and the paintings etched on the exterior wooden walls.
This building was where Yoshimasa studied the art of the tea ceremony. He was obsessed with creating the ideal room and process for serving tea and spent his retirement perfecting this performance. The tea room he designed would go on to become the prototype for all future tea ceremony rooms. The doors are often left open a sliver, enough to peak inside the greatness he created.
Beside the main hall is the Togudo. This was the shogun's study. The entire room was covered in tatami mats, to create a comfortable zen like environment.
After the study, you head up the small hill which backs out on the grounds. This path will lead you to the moss garden. This garden was supposedly designed by the great Japanese landscape architect Sōami.
Inside the moss garden, you feel as you the world has disappeared. A little steam dribbles down the hill. Tiny bridges arch over the stream, and you can wander around, studying all the various plants which decorate the landscape.
The reflective pond sits beside the moss garden. Manicured trees grow up around it, casting their twins into the glass-like water. The bright green colour of the tree is so vibrant it's hard to believe it's real. I was the first one to venture into this area, and one of the workers was still walking around the paths, cleansing the paths with sacred water.
From the back of the moss garden, there is a set of stairs which will lead you up the hill towards a lookout.
At the top of the path, you can see over the tops of the building below and all the way out across Kyoto. The view is stunning, and even for people who might not be interested in the temple, this view will surely entice them to come.
On the way down the path, you finish the circular walkway around the grounds and will once more pass by the Silver Pavillion.
By the time I finished my walk, there were hundreds of children in tour groups waiting by the gates along with dozens of other tourists. There was clamouring and yelling, a million miles away from the calming, tranquil journey I had just experienced. Sometimes, the early bird does indeed catch the worm.