In Kyoto: The Silver Pavilion & the Sea of Silver Sand

THE Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto’s northern mountains (Kitayama) has a counterpart in silver nestled at the foot of the city’s eastern mountains (Higashima) – the Temple of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji), or the Jisho-ji, “Temple of Shining Mercy,” the temple’s formal name.

It was the third stop for Day 4 in Kyoto after the twin Kamo temples—the Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines, both Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Ginakaku-ji may not be listed as a World Heritage Site, but the temple’s Kannon-den and Togu-do are both designated as National Treasures.

On the 25,000-square meter grounds of the garden temple today was where the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa in 1482 and was modeled after the Kinkaku-ji, the retirement villa of his grandfather. Upon Yoshimasa’s death in 1490, the villa was converted into a Zen temple in accordance to his wishes.

The temple got its name from the Ginkaku (“Silver Pavilion”), or the Kannon-den, the two-story structure in the temple grounds that contains the statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

Unlike Kinkaku, which is wrapped in gold leaf, the Silver Pavilion never got to realize the silver-foil overlay design detail of the structure due to the long delay of its completion when construction was halted during the Onin War.

The silver cladding may not have happened but with that intention, the structure earned its nickname a century after its construction. On the other hand, the moonlight’s reflection against the black lacquer exterior (the building’s coating in the past) emitted a silvery sheen.

This Ginkaku is one of two buildings in the temple grounds that survived the fires and earthquakes of the past centuries.

The temple became the center of the Higashiyama Culture, a contemporary culture that didn't limit Japanese aesthetics to Kyoto’s aristocratic circles (in contrast to the Kitayama Culture during his grandfather’s times). With the new culture, the arts, which include the tea ceremony, theater and poetry, flower and garden design and architecture, were developed and refined.

Beside the Hondo (main hall) is perhaps the more distinctive feature of the Ginakaku-ji— its dry sand garden called the “Sea of Silver Sand.” The “Ginshadan” is a plot of sand is designed with an elevation, and in one part of the sand garden is the “Moon Viewing Platform,” a massive mesa-like cone of sand called the Kogetsudai. The sand formations are intended to accentuate the beauty of the moon when viewed during the autumn full moon.

The Togu-do is the other building in the compound that dates back to Ginkaku-ji’s foundation and National Treasure. In it is a study room of 4.5 tatami mats, which is the said to be the oldest existing example of Shoin architecture.

Two terraces make up the temple’s garden. The lower terrace is where the dry sand garden, the Kyo-chi Pond and other small ponds with bridges are, and the upper terrace offers a beautiful view of the temple grounds and the city beyond.

Ginkaku-ji is beautiful place to visit. Make it part of your itinerary when you're in Kyoto.

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