Ginkakuji, Kyoto

Despite its name, don't expect glistening silver when you visit the 15th-century Silver Pavilion Temple (Ginkakuji or Ginkaku-ji) in Kyoto. The founder, whose grandfather built the Golden Pavilion, intended to cover the main structure in silver and named it accordingly, but the plan was never carried out. Thus, in a rather ironic twist, the building intended to be a monument to ostentation turned out to be a fine example of Japanese refinement and restraint.


History of Ginkakuji

The history of Ginkakuji begins with Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-90), who commissioned the building as a retirement villa. Construction began in the 1460s, and picked up speed in 1470s. This was one of the most destructive eras of Kyoto's history, with the Onin War (1467-77) leaving most of the city in ashes. Yoshimasa helped cause the war by first appointing his brother as shogun, then trying to install his young son instead.

A very poor administrator despite his intellectual gifts, Yoshimasa abandoned politics in 1474 and lavished his full attention on the building of his villa and the pursuit of the good life, which included romance, moon gazing, and the tea ceremony (which he helped develop into a high art).

The shogun was never able to coat the pavilion with silver - which he had intended to do in imitation of his grandfather's intentions at Kinkakuji - but he oversaw the construction of about a dozen buildings on the grounds. Yoshimasa counted many Zen monks among his teachers and friends and he designed his retirement villa around Zen sensibilities. He lived there from 1484 until his death in 1490.

Upon Yoshimasa's death in 1490, the villa was converted into a Buddhist temple in accordance with his will, a common practice of the time. But with the decline of the Ashikaga family in the following century, Ginkakuji was neglected and many buildings were destroyed.

Most of the buildings in the present temple complex date from the mid-17th century, but closely reflect the design and outlook of the builder. The Silver Pavilion is faithful to the original and the sand gardens, while a new creation of the 1600s, are consistent with the shogun's interests and inspirations (such as Kinkakuji).

What to See at Ginkakuji

Note: Ginkakuji is currently undergoing major renovations, with the entire structure covered in scaffolding. Works are scheduled to be completed in Spring 2010.

The front room of Togu-do ("East Seeking Hall," a National Treasure) is where Shogun Ashikaga is thought to have lived, and the statue of the priest is probably of Yoshimasa himself. The back room, called Dojin-sai ("Comradely Abstinence"), became the prototype for traditional tea-ceremony rooms.

Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) is a simple two-story building with a serene wooden exterior. Similar to its main inspiration, Kinkakuji, its design combines Chinese elements with the developing Japanese Muromachi (1338-1573) architecture.

The upper floor shelters a golden statue of Kannon said to have been carved by Unkei, a famous Kamakura-period sculptor. Unfortunately it's not normally open to public view. Also enshrined in the temple is Jizo, the guardian god of children.

Another notable building is Togudo (East Seeking Hall), where Yoshimasa is believed to have lived in the front room. A statue of a priest is probably a portrait of the shogun himself. The back room, Dojinsai (Comradely Abstinence) was used for tea ceremonies and became the prototype for traditional tea pavilions that emerged across Japan in the following century.

The temple complex includes lovely Japanese gardens. Attributed to the artist and architect Soami (1465-1523), they consist of two contrasting sections that combine harmoniously.

The first, a green pond garden overlooked by the pavilion, is a composition of rocks and plants designed to afford different perspectives from each viewpoint. The second garden features two sculpted mounds of sand, the higher one of which may symbolize the sacred Mt. Fuji. It sparkles in the moonlight, giving it the nickname Sea of Silver Sand.

Quick Facts on Ginkakuji

Site Information
Names:Ginkakuji · Silver Pavilion Temple
Categories:temples; forest settings; World Heritage Sites
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:35.026606° N, 135.798081° E
Kyoto, Japan
Hours:Mid-Mar-Nov: daily 8:30-5
Dec-mid-Mar: daily 9-4:30
Lodging:View hotels near Ginkakuji
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.


  1. Fodor's Japan, 17th ed.
  2. Frommer's Japan, 8th ed.
  3. Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion Temple) -
  4. Ginkaku-ji Temple - Asian Historical Architecture

More Information

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© Yannick Luthy
© Vernon Fowler
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Map of Ginkakuji, Kyoto

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