Japan Trip - Kyoto Day 5 - Kinkakuji Golden Temple

>> Thursday, July 22, 2010

On our last day in Kyoto, we bowed to the guidebooks and hit a couple of the "can't miss" historical sites, including this one--Kyoto's famous Kinkakuji Golden Temple. It really is pretty magnificent.

One of 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto alone, Kinkakuji (which translates as the very Indiana Jones-sounding "Temple of the Golden Pavilion") was originally the villa of a powerful statesman. In 1397 it was bought by the shogun, and upon his death it was dedicated as a Zen temple, per his last wishes. The whole complex was burned to the ground in the 1400s during the Onin war, and it again burned to the ground in 1950 when a mentally ill monk set fire to the place. The current building dates from 1955, when it was rebuilt.

The top two stories are covered with gold leaf, and the building supposedly houses some of Buddha's ashes. Each floor has a different architectural style, the first two with (building on a theme here) Harry Potter-ish names: The first floor is The Chamber of Dharma Waters, the second floor is The Tower of Sound Waves. The third has no cool name, but is topped with a bronze phoenix, which fits our theme nicely.

The temple sits at the edge of a beautiful Japanese garden. The pond is known as the Mirror Pond, and does, in fact, offer pretty stunning mirror images of the Golden Temple. (None of which I was able to capture very well.)

The rest of the grounds were built according to the descriptions of the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amida, meant to demonstrate the harmony between heaven and earth. The largest islet in the pond (not this one) represents the Japanese islands. The four stones forming a straight line in the pond near the pavilion are intended to represent sailboats anchored at night, bound for the Isle of Eternal Life in Chinese mythology.

The problem is, this is about as close as you ever get to the temple, and you definitely don't get to go inside. We didn't, at least. And when the guidebooks tell you Kinkakuji "attracts a large number of visitors annually," they aren't kidding. There must have been thousands of other visitors there with us, with room, comfortably, for only hundreds.

When you enter, you're set off on a path that moves around the far side of the pond, with varying views of the temple through the trees. The best places to view the temple are absolutely jam-packed--so much so that you can barely move--and it's impossible not to be jostled and squeezed with no regard whatsoever for personal space as though you're on the Yamanote line during morning rush hour. Despite the beauty across the river from us, the rest of our visit was terribly unpleasant.

Adding insult to injury, it costs each of us 400 yen (about $4.00) to enter for what amounted to a highly contested photo shoot. Admittedly, that's mostly what we do at attractions like this, take lots of pictures, but we're a family that likes to learn something and have some kind of cultural experience along with our photo ops, thank you very much, and that wasn't the case here. Everything I've told you about the history and significance of the place I found on the Internet or in the guidebook later. The temple complex is all about getting your money, herding you quickly down the path, and getting you to drop some hard money at the inevitable temple souvenir shops at the end.

The top of the temple from the latter half of the path. Again, the place is gorgeous, but what you don't see here are the hordes of people I had to wrestle out of the way to get this picture. It helped that I was usually a bit taller than the average crowd in Japan.

It was so crowded, there was an embargo on tripods--a sign which, in a land otherwise mad for restrictive signs, we had never seen before. This one at least we agreed with. If you let people set up tripods around this place, you would never, ever be able to move. And believe me, if they didn't prohibit them, Japanese photohounds would have them set up all over the place.

And then there was the madhouse souvenir area, selling all kinds of Buddhist charms...


...and fortunes. Love the signage here: "Hard money, 100 yen, pay down." The unintended tone matched our impressions of the place entirely.

Best of all, perhaps, was the specially labeled "Fortune dust-can," where you're supposed to throw away your fortunes after you've read them. Our final impression about Kinkakuji: exquisitely beautiful from afar, but we could have saved ourselves a lot of time, trouble, and money if we had all just bought postcards of the place and spent the morning somewhere else.

(BTW: this marks our 1,000th post at Gratz Industries! Cheers, and thanks for reading!)


tanita davis July 22, 2010 at 4:55 PM  

There is definitely the feel of the surreal in these pictures -- they're so perfect that they seem ...well, fake. Which is disturbing. Since you were right there.

It sounds kind of awful. And yet: gorgeous photographs. Really.

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