Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Muromachi period, prioritized the trade and interaction with the Chinese Ming dynasty. Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavillion) is said to be the starting point of this relationship. I will tell you the necessary things you need to know to discover the true story of Kinkakuji, the World Cultural Heritage Site.
Point 1: How many people and horses can walk together?... The approach to the temple is surprisingly wide!
You probably don’t pay much attention to the roads leading to temples, but Kinkakuji’s road is way larger than in other temples.
Originally built as Ashikaga shogun’s villa and later changed into a temple, Kinkakuji is often compared to Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavillion), but not only the building, even the road has a totally different atmosphere. Unlike Ginkakuji which was just the result of an art obsession, the Golden Pavillion was used as a representative residence for emissaries from Ming Dynasty, imperial and feudal lord visits, and many other official purposes.
Point 2: The impressive gold which takes everyone’s breath away
Here it is! The Golden Pavillion stands impressively across the pond. Each floor of the multistoried construction represents a different style of architecture.
The first floor is “hossuiin” in the traditional Shinde style (Heian period palatial architecture). The second floor is “choondo” in the traditional Shoin style (Japanese residential architecture). The thirs floor is “kukkyocho” in the traditional Zen style.
The first floor is not gilded but is built in the Shinden style of Heian aristocracy residences, so it has an intentional monotonous appearance of plastered walls, pillars and mortar. It is not because there was no money for gold leaf.
Point 3: The temple conveys Japan’s dignity and presence
After his father, the second shogun Ashikaga Yoshiakira died, Yoshimitsu became a shogun at just 11, but ruled for long and managed to help the impoverished people whose farmlands were destroyed by the ongoing wars. He made Japan a rich country again and resurrected the official relationships with Ming Dynasty.
Initially Ming Dynasty did not acknowledge this Japanese shogun as a representative of the country and turned away his emissaries twice. However Yoshimitsu succeeded in unifying the Northern and Southern dynasties in Japan, suppressed the notorious fighting provincial lords and finally rose to the level of a Grand Minister.
In 1397 he built Kinkakuji, transferred his shogun rule to his son Yoshimochi and sent his last emissaries to China. In September 1402 Emperor Jianwen’s emissaries came to Kinkakuji and brought the document that acknowledged Yoshimitsu as Japan’s ruler.
Even now when we have media and Internet, many foreign representatives come to Kinkakuji and become fascinated by its glitter.
Point 4: The living witness Rikyushu pine tree is 600-year-old!
On the north side of the high priest’s former living quarters is a pine tree called “Rikushu no matsu”. It is one of the three best pine trees in Kyoto which has an age of over 600 years.
Since Yoshimitsu liked growing bonsai, this tree was planted after his death and has survived till present. Pruned to face westwards and look like a sailboat, the tree gives the impression of aiming towards the Buddhist Pure Land. It has survived all the fire disasters in Kyoto and is cherished as the living witness of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s life.
Point 5: The waterfall where carp fish swim against the stream and become dragons
This is Ryumonbaku waterfall. It is designed to look as if carp fish are swimming against the stream of the fiercely falling water from the cliff. According to a Chinese legend, if carp fish manage to jump against a waterfall, they will become dragons. This is the origin of the phrase “toryumon” (gateway to success), which is used for people who overcome great difficulties to achieve high goals.
Ashikaga Yoshimitsu became a shogun at 11, in a time when the Northern and Southern Japanese dynasties were fighting. He managed to unify the nation, put the feudal lord society in order and finally restore officially the relationships with Myng Dynasty at the age of 46. He died at 50, but his life did seem like the carp fish which tries to jump against the waterfall.
550 years later, in 1950,
Kinkakuji was burned down in a fire. But then it was restored in just 5 years through donations coming from all over the country. This is also due to Yoshimitsu’s persistent spirit.
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