June 28, 2009
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is, by far, the loveliest spot on earth I have 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 is in Kyoto. But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.
The entire complex – consisting 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 – is called Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple). All told, the Golden Pavilion has become the single most iconic structure in it, even in all of Japan, that the temple complex is now commonly referred to as Kinkaku-ji.
First built in 1397, it was originally a retirement retreat for a shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The extravagant gold-gilded structure was erected when the shogun in his late 30s bequeathed his throne to his son, wanting freedom from power to simply enjoy the finer things in life. This was probably the most luxurious early retirement of his time. After Yoshimitsu’s 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 building is three-tiered, each one representing a different style. The top floor (Firmament Top) is patterned after a traditional Chinese temple, the middle (Hall of Roaring Waves) is rendered in Samurai-house style, and the bottom floor (Chamber of Dharma Waters) follows the Heian imperial palace design, conjuring up an image of a wedding cake up close. The diverse styles complement one another, creating a harmonious and compact whole.
Its gold leaf – micro-thin sheet of gold used for gilding – was blindingly bright in the warm late afternoon light. It is 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 has risen from the ashes at least three times. The reliquary contains 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. And 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 developed a sense of self-loathing stemming from a perceived ugliness. 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 knifed himself and downed sleeping pills in a vain attempt to die with the object of his obsession. Unlike the temple, he survived and was eventually 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 looks more “shiny and new” than antiquated, which may not sit well with some people.
A piece of restored historic edifice may rob us of authenticity, but in Kinkaku-ji’s case, its conception, conflagrations and reconstructions are 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 Asian 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 is from the other end of Kyouko-chi (Mirror Pond). On the bright summer day I was there, the reflection of the temple and surrounding conifer trees – even the clouds overhead – was crystal clear. Its design was inspired by the Seven Treasures in the Land of Bliss or Nirvana (the Buddhist heaven). It succeeds in evoking heaven. Along the path to the temple, contorted tree trunks frame the temple in some angles. This is one of those rare places that photograph well.
Islets crowned with pine trees and massive rocks dot the pond. They represent the eight oceans and nine mountains that figure in the Buddhist creation story. For a non-Buddhist visitor, they contribute to the graceful harmony of water, sky, nature, and temple. Their mirror-like reflection on the tiny ripples lends a dreamy quality to Kinkaku-ji.
In another pond behind the temple, the Anmintaku (Tranquility Pond), an islet is 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 told me a similar story when we were in Hangzhou, China – the other heaven on earth I have been to, coincidentally. It is perhaps the same legend to which this stone pagoda was dedicated, considering that Yoshimitsu had a fondness for all things Chinese. It is also a shrine to pray for rain since the pond has never dried up even during drought.
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.