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The Golden Pavilion.

Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most famous and recognizable Buddhist temple halls in Japan. One of the many sites comprising the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site, the temple was built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, to serve as his retirement villa.

The site had previously been, in the 1220s, the location of the villa of court aristocrat Saionji Kintsune. The Saionji family fell into decline over the course of the Kamakura period, and their Kitayama estate likewise fell into disrepair.

Yoshimitsu abdicated his position as Shogun in 1394, and in 1397 began construction on a retirement villa at the location, which he called Kitayama-den (the northern mountain palace). The first major building to be completed was the minami gosho, or Southern Palace, where Yoshimitsu took up residence in 1398; it later became the chief residence of his wife Hino Yasuko, niece of his first wife, Hino Nariko. The kita gosho, or Northern Palace, was completed in 1407, and became Yoshimitsu's own residence. Another residence on the site was built for Sukenmon'in, the mother of Emperor Go-Enyû and grandmother of Emperor Go-Komatsu. All three residences were constructed in the shinden-zukuri style typical of aristocratic homes since the mid-Heian period.[1]

Construction began in 1404 on a massive seven-tiered pagoda called the Kitayama Daitô. Roughly twice the height of the 56-meter pagoda at Tôji, it may have been the tallest pagoda ever built in Japan. However, in 1416, very shortly before its completion, the pagoda was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.[2]

Following Yoshimitsu's death, in accordance with his wishes, the estate became a Buddhist temple; though the temple is more properly named Rokuon-ji, it is commonly referred to as Kinkaku-ji for this most famous structure. The building itself, also known as the Shariden ("relics hall"), is three stories tall, and is intended to serve chiefly as a pavilion from which to admire the garden, though it does contain religious sculpture. The first floor, constructed in the shinden-zukuri style and termed the Hôsui-in, contained spaces for receiving guests, including an exterior porch for accessing small boats, which one might row on the pond. The second story, constructed in a buke-zukuri style such as was used for samurai residences, is called Chôon-dô, and was intended for more private meetings, while the third floor, constructed in the karayô style typical of Zen temples, and called Kukkyô-chô, was for Yoshimitsu's personal private use. The structure contains lavish ceiling paintings and a famous statue of Yoshimitsu.

The top two stories are lacquered and gilded on the outside, and the building is topped with a shingled roof and golden phoenix finial. A disgruntled monk destroyed the pavilion in 1950, in an act of arson which forms the focus of the novel Kinkaku-ji (or, in English translations, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) by Mishima Yukio. The Kinkaku was rebuilt, restored, five years later. The extent to which gold was used in the original construction is unclear, but it is generally believed that the latest restoration effort, when the pavilion was re-gilded in 1987, employed a thicker and more extensive covering of gold than the building ever possessed previously.

The pavilion's reflection in the pond is often included in depictions and descriptions of its beauty, and the pond is accordingly known as Kyôko-chi, or "mirror pond." A second, smaller, pond within the grounds is known as Anmintaku, and contains a small stone pagoda associated with the Chinese legend of the White Snake. Other buildings on the grounds include a shrine to Fudô-myôô, and Sekka-tei, a tearoom known for its pillar made from the wood of the nandin tree.

A replica of the Kinkaku-ji stands in the Kyoto Gardens of Honolulu Memorial Park.


  • Ching, Francis D.K. et al. A Global History of Architecture. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. p444.
  • Pamphlets available on-site.
  1. H. Paul Varley, "Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and the World of Kitayama: Social Change and Shogunal Patronage in Early Muromachi Japan", in John Hall and Toyoda Takeshi eds., Japan in the Muromachi Age, University of California Press (1977), 201.
  2. Tomoyoshi Kubo, "Artifact may be from long-lost pagoda, tallest ever built," Asahi Shimbun, 9 July 2016.

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