Heaven and Hell on Earth

Kyoto, Japan

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 was another man’s hell.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion): Heaven on Earth

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.

Kinkaku-ji in Summer

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 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.

Kinkaku-ji: The Three-Tiered Temple (Firmament Top – traditional Chinese temple design, Hall of Roaring Waves – samurai-house style, and Chamber of Dharma Waters – Heian imperial palace design)

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.

Photo Taken by a Kind Tourist

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 despite the murky water. 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.

Kyouko-chi (Mirror Pond) in Kinkaku-ji Complex

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 have been 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.

Hakuja-zuka in Anmintaku Pond, Kinkaku-ji Complex

Ultimately, a place was just a place. Only our personal perception would color it differently. Kinkaku-ji was said to be 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, the seasons rendered Kinkaku-ji in various facets of beauty: ephemeral and timeless, vulnerable and indestructible, romantic and real. Much like our concept of heaven.

Kinkaku-ji, Rear View

64 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell on Earth

Add yours

  1. Great capture and point of expression, AJ. This is my first time to look into a blog. I’ll be looking forward then to more of your posts which reflects your forte that I’ve come to know. On ward, Sir!

    1. Thanks! My Japan series is almost done, unfortunately. I think I only have one or two more entries left to write. Btw, I checked out your blog too, but it’s in a language I don’t know.

  2. I like the photos and the descriptive post to go along with it. This looks like a beautiful location. I am very much looking forward to making my way over to Asia!

  3. AJ, I know what you did with the photos…:) Hahaha! We share the same trick, I guess! Brilliantly beautiful photos!!! Now I’m going to read your post…:) and comment again about it later. 🙂

    1. Oh, no worries, J. It’s not a secret. It’s just Picasa. I use a point-and-shoot so my photos need a little enhancing for sharper contrast and color clarity.

  4. AJ, this post reminds me of Chinese Garden in Singapore… But of course this one is more fabulous! I didn’t know the temple is yellow. And oh my this is in Kyoto , Japan! What more can I say?! It’s like heaven’s paradise! So envious now! I wish I can visit the place too. 🙂

  5. This looks familiar.. were there in 2001. I seem to rember an area where a building like this had scaffolding around it, closed to the public. But beautiful gardens everywhere around it, and a temple sitting in a pond with causeways leading to it. I must drag those photos out and have another look. Thanks for reviving memoories. I’d forgotten those photos.

    1. You should definitely unearth them, Jim. It’s criminal not to. 🙂 I suppose the temple’s beauty could not be concealed by scaffoldings (restoration was completed only in 2003). I hope your photos would see the light of day.

  6. These photos are stunning – you have caught the light so well. The photos belie the struggle this place has gone through. It holds a strange history of its own building, destruction and restoration combined with the people that had a chance to live in it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Kerry-Ann. It was almost sunset when I got there so the Golden Pavilion was washed over by golden light. My photos, actually, didn’t capture the magical brilliance. You should see it in person.

      And yes, you’ll appreciate its delicate beauty even more when you know its dramatic history.

    1. From Argentina to the Philippines, we’re all “sending our love and light across the waters” (as my Canadian friend said in Facebook) to Japan.

    1. You should! Japan is not as prohibitively expensive as you might expect. I suggest you stay at a “ryokan” (traditional inn) in Kyoto for that full-on Japan experience. Like a geisha. 😀

    1. Chyng, hosto kasi ako, hehehe joke. It’s so cheap na to go Japong, thanks to CebuPac, as usual. I guess the only challenge is the visa. I had an invitation from my Japanese host so I was approved sans any hassle. Dunno how it goes for backpackers without an invite.

  7. I was carried away by your words. Grabe ka gid ya magsulat. 🙂 And the pictures are so beautiful.

    1. Beauty is a curse, indeed. But it is also relentlessly enduring. As Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

  8. You know what, your writing never fails to enchant me! So amazing, I am more of a reader than a writer and I really love reading yours. This is really a nice place and definitely a hell also on earth just imagine the tragic way that happened to the family. Thank you for taking us to this place. 😉

    1. Thanks Violy! The history is crucial in the full appreciation of Kinkaku-ji. It contextualizes its beauty, which is actually the harmonious marriage of temple and nature.

  9. Aj, your pictures are taking forever to load…if I was not curious about why you think this is heaven on earth I would just make this comment and move on…maayo lang kay friends kita…hahaha it is beautiful but the water looks murky 😉

    1. Sorry about the loading lag. Thanks for the patience though – wasn’t it worth it? 😀 Yeah the water was murky; but it was not disconcerting enough to diminish my joy for seeing this place. In fact, it made better contrast for the reflection of the temple and clouds on the water. And I wouldn’t get bent outta shape about it.

      1. Definitely worth it…it looks so peaceful and restorative. How did the place smell? silly question but the smell of a place is a huge factor for me 🙂 and coming back here, the page loaded in less than 3 seconds!

    2. Oh, this is Japan…you can bet there are no imbornal smells here. 😀 That’s how it goes with Photobucket. It’s slow in loading the first time you open the page. I don’t want to upload all photos into WP cuz they take up so much space. I just choose a pic or two for WP, the rest are linked from Photobucket.

  10. Your words are indicative of a reflection you took..
    You can really allude it from being in heaven, looking at the pictures alone, the balance of and serenity it exudes, and knowing that this was once a haven for people seeking peace in a relatively comfortable life.

    The world has gone to war and back to peace, this place may have been rebuilt from ashes like the phoenix on the roof.
    It’s just amazing and very inspirational!
    what’s more, you write very well, it was the most apt words to describe this place referred to as heaven and hell.

    Ikaw na guid yah! 🙂

    1. Me already! 😀 I always appreciate your 2-cents, Pala-lagaw. The serenity and the gleaming golden hue did evoke heaven and the tumultuous history hell. I’m glad you were receptive to what I tried to convey.

  11. wow. another timeless post AJ and the yellow hue connotes summer. i have not been to Kyoto yet, but your writings just took me there. I can’t wait to travel there soon and see the place of heaven on earth –

    1. My posts are not timely, but timeless is even better! Such a sweet thing to say, Atty! Oh, and I’m shocked a globetrotter like you hasn’t been to Kyoto.

  12. There’s a lot of
    HEAVENS on Earth and this is one of them.
    Not only that you captured the magnificent
    view of the temple but you just embraced its
    magical history by the way you described it.

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