金閣寺 A Golden Flame

A week ago I awoke to a Kyoto covered in a thin layer of snow, so after class I did what many others did and went to see Kinkaku-ji in the snow. This is an image I’d seen on post-cards countless times but I never expected to be able to go and see it for myself so soon.

The temple was beautiful with the gold of its upper two floors shining brilliantly against the snow. The surrounding pond and gardens were also a sight to see. The grounds were pretty busy but it was fairly easy to find a space and take pictures – definitely not as bad as I expected it to be.

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Kinkaku-ji, 金閣寺, was founded in 1397; it was a mansion that was turned into a Zen Buddhist temple upon the death of the owner of the property. The pavilion itself is constructed in three different styles; the first floor is in traditional imperial Heian style; the second in the style of warrior-aristocrats and contains a shrine to Kannon; and the third is in classic Chinese Zen style. The top two floors are coated in gold leaf, representing the purification of negative thoughts towards death (and also because at the time it was built, temple aesthetics were very important). The temple is surrounded by a pond and stroll-gardens, in which the temple fits perfectly, with no sense of disharmony with the nature surrounding it (despite all the bling).

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Kinkaku-ji is famous for the arson commited in 1950, in which a mentally-ill monk burned down the temple before attempting suicide. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released due to his illness (schizophrenia and persecution complex). This event became the subject of the author Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, in which the monk narrates the events up to the arson. Mishima even visited the monk in prison in order to ascertain the accuracy of the novel (though it is still clearly a work of fiction).

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Mishima himself is an interesting character, and his great literary legacy is overshadowed by the manner of his death. In 1970 he and his followers attempted a coup d’etat at the Japanese Self Defence Headquarters for the Eastern Command of Japan, barricading themselves into the head office. Mishima gave a speech to onlooking soldiers in which he tried to start a revolution that returned the Emperor to power, but the soldiers simply mocked him. Shortly after he came back out onto the balcony where he gave his address and committed seppuku, ritual suicide. He had already written traditional death poems prior to entering the headquarters, so he probably always had meant to commit suicide regardless of the reception of his speech. His dramatic death can be somewhat likened to the burning down of the temple – a dramatic end that grabs the public imagination. I have only read extracts from the ‘Temple of the Golden Pavillion’ but he portrays a paranoid mind very well and its an interesting, if disturbing, read.

Mishima during his speech in 1970

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Today the temple is completely restored, though some argue that it did not originally have so much gold-leaf; the leaf had worn off over the years so it was unclear how much it had when it was built. Regardless, it remains an icon of Kyoto and Japan. It is also a World Heritage Site.

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Kinkaku-ji is iconic and well worth the visit, though it is very much on the ‘temple trail’ for tourists, so I would recommend going in the morning on a weekday to really enjoy it without the bustle of other tourists.

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Sadly the snow only lasted the day, and was melting before I even left Kinkaku-ji, so I feel very lucky that I got to experience the brief beauty that was a snow-coated Golden Pavilion.

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