Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)


Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was our first Japanese garden of the tour and delivered on many of the archetypal Japanese garden elements. I’ve already shown you the Golden Pavilion, the garden of Yoshimitsu, and the Silver Pavilion is the garden of his grandson, Yoshimasa (1435-1490).


Ginkaku-ji is home to some early examples of the dry landscape gardens of the late Muromachi era; these symbolise the ocean and the mountain. The ocean (above) is represented by ginshanada which means ‘silver sand open sea’ and you can see that the sand is raked to represent the waves.  I am curious as to how often the sand has to be raked.  Having peered at it and other sand gardens we saw it seems that the sand must be combined with something to keep it in shape, otherwise surely when it rains the patterns would be destroyed.  You can just about see how sharp the edges of the sand platform are and to my simple mind the sand must have been treated in some way to keep this looking good.


Again, looking at the second element of the sand garden – the mountain, kogestsudai, a ‘platform facing the moon’, you can see how precise the shape is especially the flat top. The dry sand elements are based on zen principles and are intended for contemplation.


I have to admit to being left rather cold by the sand gardens we saw, particularly as they are so antiseptic in appearance encouraging no wildlife whatsoever.


I much preferred the garden away from the dry sand garden.  Near the Silver Pavilion you have a strolling garden which is a variation of the gardens, exemplified by the Golden Pavilion and would probably have originally been intended to be viewed from boats on the lake or from within the temples.  The current garden is much diminished in size from Yoshimasa’s time having only two buildings left of the original twelve.


Having done some research since my return this waterfall could well be the ‘sengestsu-sen’ waterfall which means ‘spring in which the moon washes’ and apparently it is intended to capture the reflection of the moon ‘washing’ itself in the waters.  I much prefer the greenness of this part of the garden over the grey of the dry sand.


From the lower part of the garden you traverse steep paths up the slopes to the upper garden from where you have wonderful views out over Kyoto. The upper garden is a moss garden with streams, islands and bridges. The path then brings you back past the Silver Pavilion.


The Silver Pavilion is a bit of an enigma as there are no silver elements so no rationale for it name.  As Ginkaku-ji was not finished before Yoshimasa’s death in 1490 then I suppose its possible that there was an intention to finish the Pavilion along the lines of the Golden Pavilion, other theories are that the name was coined to distinguish it the two Pavilions or alternatively because the moon’s light was reflected off the building’s former dark timber.

The pavilion you see in these photos was reconstructed in 2010; we soon learnt during our travels that few of the buildings we saw were original.  Hardly surprising given the construction is based on timber, prone to fires and earthquake damage.


For me the nicest part of the garden was up in the high garden amongst the trees, which were slowly changing colour for the Autumn, and looking out across Kyoto.


Whilst I was bowled over by the splendour of the Golden Pavilion, I preferred the quieter gentleness of the Silver Pavilion garden.


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion


Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is the iconic temple of Kyoto. Dating from the late 14th century, the temple was originally the retirement villa of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  After his death in 1408, in accordance with his wishes, it become a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect.


The temple is built over 3 floors with each floor representing a different style of architecture. The first floor, housing statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha, is built in the Shinden style which was used for palace buildings during the Heian Period, which predated the Muromachi era (1336-1573).   The second floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences.  The samurai, whilst originally warriors, increasingly  became more and more powerful setting up a military government in 1192 and ruling over the country for the next 700 years. The second and third floors are covered in gold leaf – hence the name The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The third floor is built in the style of the Chinese Zen Hall, and is also gilded inside and capped with a golden phoenix.


The Golden Pavilion, built in the early years of the Muromachi era, continues the Heian garden prototype with ponds and islands.  During the Heian period the intention was that the temples and gardens were viewed from boats; and there are contemporary records recording boating parties and festivities.  In the Muromachi era the intention was that the garden was viewed from specific points from within the temple;  at this time the chisen kaiyu teien ‘pond-spring-strolling-garden’ was developed. Contemporary records show that the Golden Pavilion was intended to be viewed from boats, as in the Heian era, although the garden could be admired from the three storeys of the Pavilion whose geometric proportions means that any view was harmoniously framed.


The pond on which the Pavilion is sited has an inner and outer pond; the outer pond has a couple of small islands and in addition there are two larger turtle islands facing in opposite directions.


Having passed the Golden Pavilion the visitor is taken up a windy path past the Anmintaku Pond, which it is claimed never dries up.



The light on the day we visited was extraordinary causing the most wonderful reflections in the pond and the sun really made the pavilion sparkle.  We were grateful that we hadn’t visited two days before when we spent the day under heavy skies and dodging the rain.


A striking feature of the majority of the Japanese gardens we saw was their tidiness.  There was rarely a leaf out of place and as you can see from this photo the moss is being raked for some unknown purpose. We also saw moss and lichen being trimmed and other very labour intensive approaches to horticulture which made our issues with lawn edging seem quite pedestrian.


Being Kyoto we couldn’t avoid encountering a group of young ladies all dressed up in traditional dress who were only too happy to pose for us, subject to a high level of bowing and smiling.


This is the key photo opportunity area and as you can see it is incredibly busy.  However, with their usual efficiency, the Japanese manage the visitors in such a way that you don’t really feel that you have been managed, everyone gets their chance to take any photos they want, and there is no pushing or frayed tempers.

The Golden Pavilion is, in many people’s view, the Taj Mahal of Japan and you can see why this might be so given its opulence and stunning setting. I too thought it was stunning, however, I don’t think I would go as far as saying it was my highlight of the trip – I much preferred the quieter more modern gardens which weren’t so obsessively managed.


Going Japanese


Anyone who follows me on Instagram or Facebook will know I have been travelling around southern Japan for the last two and half weeks and posting regular photos.  I am now home and want to share the things I saw and experienced.  In the past I have done posts on a day to day basis from trips but this time I am planning to theme the posts more.  The trip was planned and led by Noel Kingsbury and its premise was to experience both the gardens and culture of southern Japan. I travelled with a multi-national group of 19, some keen gardeners, some horticulturists and garden designers.

Our trip started in Kyoto and ended in Fukuoka and involved travelling on trains, ferries, planes, and buses.


Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 for over a 1000 year until the Emperor moved to Tokyo. As such it is a city full of temples with their wonderful temple gardens and oozing in history and culture. So much so that we frequently encountered groups of young Japanese who were visiting the city so they could dress up in traditional costume and in particular visit the historic Higashiyama area.  Our time here was spent visiting a range of temple gardens including the iconic Golden Pavilion.


Moving from Kyoto to Naoshima we discovered a very different mood.  The island, is an art island, with many of the art installations having been installed by the Bennesse Corporation, which oversees the art gallerys and museums on the island in the inland sea. It is the brain child of Ando Tadao.


Back to the mainland and the west coast where we stayed in Matsue for a couple of days. The primary reason for visiting this area was to see the Adachi Museum Garden, said by some to be one of the best gardens in the world.  We also hiked on Mt Daisen on a wet and misty day which for me was quite magical.


From Matsue we went along the coast of the Sea of Japan to Hagi.  Our primary reason for visiting this area was to see the coastline which has influenced much of what we know as the Japanese Garden style.  We also visited a wonderful shrine, a limestone plateau and some caves.


Then after a long day on the bullet train and a ferry we arrived at Yakushima.  

Yakushima is an island in the East China Sea which took up two and half hours to reach on a hydro-foil.  It is one of the most southerly parts of Japan and has the highest rainfall – 10,000mm a year in the mountainous centre. The island is a popular destination for botanists as the forest – which is borderline sub-tropical is almost pristine.

Our final destination, albeit it for one night before we set off on our journeys home, was Fukuoka. I only saw it at night-time due to an early flight home the next day but I was struck by the contrast to Kyoto and how modern Fukuoka is by comparison.  Apparently, this is because it was bombed heavily in World War II and has had to be rebuilt.  It was definitely a city that I and my friend Ines would have liked more time in.

As I indicated above I will no doubt bore you over the coming weeks with more detailed posts on various elements of the trip but aside from the specific amazing places we saw what I really enjoyed about this trip was seeing the real Japan.  It is all too easy to visit a large city such as Tokyo or London and feel that you have a feel for Japan or the UK; but you would be wrong.  By travelling on public transport zig-zagging across the country and staying in towns where I didn’t see any Westerners apart from those in our group, we really experienced Japan and met some wonderfully friendly and helpful people along the way. There is a view that the Japanese don’t have a particular liking for Westerners but we consistently found ourselves in conversations with all sorts of people, often on trains or in lifts, and sometimes through exaggerated sign language – they were curious about  where we were from and going to (and why!).  As with anywhere in the world regardless of who you are and whether you can speak the same language a smile and politeness brings many rewards.