The Temple of the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), is one of Kyoto’s most celebrated sights. Though modelled on its ostentatious forebear, the golden Kinkaku-ji, this simple building sits quietly in the wings while the garden takes centre stage, dominated by a truncated cone of white sand whose severity offsets the soft greens of the surrounding stroll-garden. Ginkaku-ji originally formed part of a much larger villa built in the fifteenth century for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436–90), the grandson of Kinkaku’s Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Interrupted by the Ōnin Wars (1467–77) and plagued by lack of funds, the work continued for thirty years, until Yoshimasa’s death in 1490. During that time, however, it became the focal point of Japanese cultural life. Yoshimasa may have been a weak and incompetent ruler, but under his patronage the arts reached new heights of aesthetic refinement; in this mountainside retreat, significantly turned away from the city, he indulged his love of the tea ceremony, poetry and moon-viewing parties while Kyoto succumbed to war. After 1490, the villa became a Rinzai Zen temple, Jishō-ji, and eventually fires razed all except two buildings, one of which was the famous pavilion.
The approach to Ginkaku-ji creates a wonderful sense of anticipation as you’re funnelled between tall, thick hedges down an apparently dead-end lane. Turning the corner, a high wall now blocks the view except for one small, low window that offers a teasing glimpse. Inside, you’re directed first to the dry garden, comprising a raised, rippled “Sea of Silver Sand” – designed to reflect moonlight – and a large “moon-facing” cone of sand. The jury’s out on whether these enhance the garden or intrude, but it’s almost certain that they weren’t in the original design, and were probably added in the early seventeenth century. Behind the cone to the west, the small, dark two-storey building with the phoenix topknot is Ginkaku-ji, or “Silver Pavilion”, despite its lack of silver plating.