Ginkaku-ji, The Silver Pavilion; What to see and do inside this Historical and Peaceful Zen Garden
Kyoto has two extremely famous pavilions; Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavilion) and Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavillion). Kinkaku-ji is the most famous and striking of the two and as such it is OVERRUN with tourists, no matter the season. But The Silver Pavillion, close to the peaceful Philosopher's Path, is much less busy and slightly more accessible. Visiting this place early in the morning is the perfect way to find your zen in this amazing city. 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.
This Zen temple is located along Kyoto’s Eastern mountains. You can easily access the Pavillion by bus on #5, 17, or 100 from Kyoto Station. The ride takes about 35-40 minutes and costs 230 yen one way. The Silver Pavillion is located along the Philosopher’s Path so combining this visit with that one is a great way to spend a relaxing morning.
Hours & Admission
Ginkakuji is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm March till November and from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm from December to February. There are no closing days so even during the holidays you can still visit. Admission into the Pavilion is 500 yen.
The Silver Pavillion was built in 1482 for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. It was made for him to spend his retirement, located inside a serene and relaxing environment. The architectural designs of the temple are significant as they are one of the best representations of Higashiyama architecture of the Muromachi period. Unfortunately, the Shogun only had the chance to spend a few years here as he passed away in 1490. After his death, the villa was converted into a Zen temple for the people of Kyoto.
Why is it called the “Silver” Pavillion
Although it is called the “Silver” pavilion, surprisingly enough, there was never any silver anywhere to be found. Initially, the main building was supposed to be coated in silver, just as its sister building, the Golden Pavillion, was covered in gold. But the Shogun ran out of money during construction and that great silver, architectural icon was never to be. But the designers would not give up so easily. They painted the main building with a dark coat of paint so that at night the black paint would reflect the moonlight, giving the building the appearance of glowing silver in the light.
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 were used to secure the bark as metal nails would rust and ruin the wood. Inside the Pavillion, there is a precious statue of “Kannon”, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, to whom the Shogun would pray to each night.
Although this is not viewable to the public, you can imagine how important it would have been to be housed in such a grandiose place. Despite the pavillion's 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.
When I arrived, I was one of the first people to get there. Only a few other couples were huddled outside the gates waiting to get inside. Right before letting people in, one of the caretakers sprinkled some water on the stones along the entry. This wasn’t to clean the stones, but to spiritually cleanse them. Just as people wash their hands before entering a temple, they do the same to the temple grounds themselves.
The Silver Pavilion is the first thing you’ll see when you come inside, 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.
The Sand Garden
The bright white sands of the Sand Garden is one of the first things you'll see upon beginning your tour around the grounds. It is better known as the “Sea of Silver Sands”. In the centre of the meticulously manicured rows of sand 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 caretakers raking up the sand and placing it so carefully in pristine rows. They would gently pick up fallen leaves and find rogue stones out of place and delicately put them back where they belonged.
Beside the sand garden lies the “Hondo” (the main hall). Although this building cannot be entered, you can still admire the exquisite wood carvings, dainty sliding doors, and the paintings etched on the exterior walls. This building was where Yoshimasa studied the art of the tea ceremony. He was obsessed with creating the ideal setting and process for a tea ceremony and spent his retirement perfecting this performance. The tea room he designed would go on to become the prototype for all future tea ceremony spaces. The doors are often left open a sliver, enough to peek inside to see some of 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 for people to come and meditate.
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
The reflective pond sits beside the moss garden. Manicured trees grow up around it, casting their reflections into the glass-like water. The bright green colours of the trees are so vibrant it’s hard to believe it’s real.
I was the first one to venture into this area, and one of the caretakers was still walking around the paths, cleansing the pathways with holy water.
From the back of the moss garden, there is a set of stairs which will lead you up to the hill towards a lookout point. At the top of the path, you can see over the tops of the buildings 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 you to come and visit this magical place.
On the way down the path, you finish the circular walkway around the grounds and will once more pass by the Silver Pavillion. This is your last chance to look at it, this time a little more closely. See if you can spot any hidden details which the architects have littered the exterior with.
If you've never understood what 'zen' is then this is the place to find it. Zen is derived from the Chinese word 'Chán', which is itself derived from the Indian practice of dhyāna or "meditation". Zen is about self-control and finding insight into the nature of things. While it can be hard to make a quiet space in your hear when you're travelling, try your best when you're here to get in touch with that aspect of zen, sit in silence for a few minutes and reflect on the feeling of the world around you and be grateful for this amazing journey you are on.
What is your favourite place in the world to find Zen? Let me know in the comments!