June 28, 2009
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) was, by far, the loveliest spot on earth I had ever seen. My first glimpse of the imperial yellow temple, gleaming in the summer sun with its reflection shimmering on the placid pond, was a poetic vision – a scene of exquisite beauty that I could only describe as heavenly. Belinda Carlisle nailed it – heaven is a place on earth. And it was in Kyoto. But one man’s heaven could be another man’s hell.
Also called Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple), the entire complex consisted of the Golden Pavilion, ponds with several islands, Chinese gates, Kuri (priest’s quarters), a bell tower, a stone pagoda, a tea house, and a small waterfall. All told, the Golden Pavilion had become the single most iconic structure in it, even in all of Japan, thus, it came to be known as Kinkaku-ji.
First built in 1397, it was originally a retirement retreat for a shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death, the shogun’s son eventually converted the building into a Zen temple. Yet Kinkaku-ji wasn’t always an enclave of tranquility; it burned down many times through the centuries.
Architecturally, the three-tiered temple, each tier representing a distinct style, conjured up an image of a wedding cake. Its gold leaf – micro-thin sheet of gold used for gilding – was blindingly bright in the warm late afternoon light. It was said that workers, while applying a new coating of lacquer, had to hold their breaths to avoid creasing the gold leaf with their exhalation. Only when I was going over my photos did I notice the phoenix perched on its roof. How fitting as Kinkaku-ji had risen from the ashes at least three times. The reliquary contained the original rooftop phoenix, but it was closed to the public that time.
The temple was gutted twice during a protracted civil war in the 15th century, but it somehow survived the two world wars. American bombers avoided Kyoto. In 1950, Kinkaku-ji was reduced to ashes again, this time by peacetime arson. The perpetrator was one who was supposed to protect it – a 21-year-old Buddhist acolyte.
Based on interviews, the apprentice monk was a stammerer who had self-image issues. His “antipathy against beauty” and schizophrenia led him to burn Kinkaku-ji to the ground. As he watched the 500-year-old temple go up in flames, he made a vain attempt to die with the object of his obsession. Unlike the temple, he survived his self-inflicted wounds and was sent to prison. His mother, in shame, threw herself off a running train. His death would come five years later, allegedly from consumption. By then, restoration of the temple had already begun. The work was completed only in 2003. Thus, the temple looked shiny and new rather than antiquated.
A piece of restored historic edifice may rob us of authenticity, but in Kinkaku-ji’s case, its conception, conflagrations and reconstructions were intrinsic aspects of its history. A self-indulgent shogun had found freedom as a patron of traditional arts here; a mad monk had wrestled with his demons here; I thought I had died and gone to heaven here. I even had a brush with an angel – in the form of a fellow tourist. As I was taking photos of myself, a young man took pity on me and offered to take my photo. In all my travelling, no one had offered to do that.
The most picturesque view of the temple was from the other end of Kyouko-chi (Mirror Pond). On that bright summer day, the reflection of the temple and surrounding conifer trees – even the clouds overhead – was crystal clear. Inspired by the description of the Buddhist heaven, it succeeded in evoking heaven. Along the path to the temple, contorted tree trunks framed the temple in some angles.
Islets crowned with pine trees and massive rocks dotted the pond, representing the eight oceans and nine mountains in the Buddhist creation story. For a non-Buddhist visitor, they contributed to the graceful harmony of water, sky, nature, and temple. Their mirror-like reflection on the tiny ripples lent a dreamy quality to Kinkaku-ji.
In another pond behind the temple, the Anmintaku (Tranquility Pond), an islet was surmounted by a miniature stone pagoda called Hakuja-no-tzuka or White Snake Mound. This may be from the Legend of White Snake, a popular traditional Chinese story of the tragic love between a young man and a white snake disguised as a beautiful woman (or a beautiful woman cursed to take the form of a white snake at certain times). My Chinese best friend had told me a similar story when we were in Hangzhou, China – the other heaven on earth I had been to, coincidentally. It was perhaps the same legend to which this stone pagoda was dedicated, considering that Yoshimitsu had a fondness for all things Chinese.
Ultimately, a place is just a place – it is our perception that colors it differently. They say Kinkaku-ji is magnificent in any season – in the variegated foliage of spring and autumn, the fluffy white of winter, and the lush greens and golden yellows of summer. Along with its fiery history, they render Kinkaku-ji in various facets of beauty: ephemeral and timeless, vulnerable and indestructible, romantic and real. Much like our concept of heaven.