Pam, Ruth’s friend, lived and worked in Kyoto, Japan, for a couple of years and gave Ruth a list of 5 must-see attractions when she heard we were going there. One of them was Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion. Wow! Was Pam right. My first glimpse of it, which wasn’t an easy feat, literally caused me to gasp. It is THAT stunning.
Also known as Rokuon-ji Temple, Kinkaku is “a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha” according to the brochure I was handed after paying 400 yen for the privilege of seeing it. Casual visitors apparently don’t get inside to see the relics’ repository on level 3. However, the golden room they’re in is pictured in the brochure. There are plenty of visitors because this is one of the most popular attractions in Japan. We were there on an anonymous day, and the crowd was claustrophobic. I had to wait a long time to get close enough to take a picture of what is surely one of the most photographed buildings on Planet Earth.
What made my first sighting of The Golden Pavillion, now a World Cultural Heritage Site, so compelling was its placement. It’s across a lake with trees around it ascending a mountain slope and making the reflection in the water stupendous. The Golden Pavilion is, in other words, peacefully placed amid a masterpiece of Japanese garden design from the Muromachi era. And its gold-leaf gilding is actually thicker now than the original coatings.
Reconstruction became necessary when a mentally unstable monk burned it to the ground in 1950. A fictionalized version of this historic event was the plot of Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A well-reviewed translation of it became a bestseller and is still in print after more than 50 years.
The original 1397 building was a retirement villa for a Shogun whose will instructed that it be converted into a temple. This was accomplished by a priest, said to be the Shogun’s son, who became the temple’s first abbot. Its name, Rokuon-ji, came from the new name given to the Shogun for use in the next world.
Before we joined the horde circling Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s villa, which looked much less impressive close up, several young girls in school uniforms approached Ruth and asked if they could practice their English with her. While this was being accomplished, I spoke with their male teacher, who told me that he had been to the U.S. only one time to visit his dream destination–Hollywood. Talking to the girls delighted Ruth, who asked me if I had noticed some scowling faces in the crowd. I hadn’t. Apparently some citizens are not thrilled about Japanese kids studying English, or maybe the problem was a teacher who loved Hollywood.