Friday, April 3, 2015

Photo Friday #4: Kinkaku-ji! フォト金曜日#4:金閣寺!

フォト金曜日#4:金閣寺!Photo Friday #4: Kinkaku-ji! 

April showers bring May flowers! Spring rain and thunderstorms have finally--well, hopefully!--replaced snow here in the midwest. On rainy, overcast days like these, I'm reminded of my first trip to Japan: during our stay in Kyoto in March 2013, it rained nearly every day. We didn't let that dampen our spirits, though; the rain kept many visitors away from Kyoto's picturesque shrines and temples, leaving us to enjoy their quietude and tranquility. As a plus, we were able to take a lot of great photos without throngs of tourists in them, like this one...

金閣寺: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
In a previous Photo Friday post, I wrote about Heian Shrine, a Kyoto landmark in the Okazaki area. It's been referenced in popular culture and is classified as an important cultural property of Japan. However, few places are as iconic and recognizable as Kinkaku-ji, seen in the photo above: it's Kyoto's most visited temple and its grounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known worldwide for its opulent golden structure and Muromachi period gardens. Located a few miles north-northwest of Kyoto Station, it's easily accessible by city bus, taxi, or a healthy walk from nearby subway stations.

At the foot of the Kitayama Mountains, the site of Kinkaku-ji originally functioned not as a sacred place of worship, but as an expanse of rice fields. A wealthy politician named Saionji Kintsune purchased the land from a court noble and built Kitayama-dai--his sprawling family residence and shrine--there in 1224, but it fell into disrepair as his family's influence and wealth dwindled under the new shogunate. Saionji's descendants eventually sold the property to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, who lived out his retirement amidst the tranquil reflective ponds. Ashikaga had grand plans for the compound as he worked to restore the estate to its former glory, constructing several buildings on the grounds, including the Golden Pavilion. He planned to cover the entire pavilion in gold leaf, but only managed to coat the top floor's ceiling before his sudden death in 1408.

In accordance with Ashikaga's will--as was often the tradition of these times--the area was then converted to a Zen Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect and called Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, or Deer Garden), taking its name from Ashikaga's posthumous name. (Indeed, Rokuon-ji is the temple's official name, but since the Golden Pavilion is its most famous aspect, the nickname Kinkaku-ji is more commonly known.)

Like many other Kyoto temples, fires destroyed the buildings on the temple grounds through the years, most notably during the Onin War. The Golden Pavilion is the only remaining structure of Ashikaga's estate--and even it was destroyed by fire, most recently in 1950, when a crazed monk burned it down. When it was rebuilt in 1955, more gold leaf was added to the exterior. The gold leaf, while an obvious symbol of wealth and luxury, also carries a symbolic meaning: it's meant to alleviate and purify thoughts and effects of death.

Today the Golden Pavilion continues to function as a shari-den, or reliquary, housing sacred Buddhist relics within. The pavilion itself is not open to the public, but visitors to the temple grounds can peek inside the first story windows for a glimpse of statues of Ashikaga and the Historical Buddha. Visitors will also notice that each of the pavilion's three stories display distinct architectural styles, masterfully blending contrasting styles into one cohesive structure.

To me, Kinkaku-ji's architecture represents a lot of what I've observed of the whole of Japan and its culture: paradoxes and anachronisms are often seen side-by-side, but rather than seeming out of place, they reach a harmonious coexistence. It's something that isn't often seen here in the U.S., and I'll enjoy exploring these observations in future posts.

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