Ginkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, is one of the most famous and recognizable Buddhist temple halls in Japan. One of the many sites comprising the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site, the temple was built by Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482-1483, to serve as his retirement villa. The Silver Pavilion itself was completed in 1489. Located in the Higashiyama (eastern mountains) area in northeastern central Kyoto, the compound was meant to mirror or reference the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) built nearly a century earlier by Yoshimasa's grandfather, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, in the corresponding northwestern corner of the city.
The Ginkaku is roofed with cypress shingles and features a silver phoenix final at the peak of its roof. Its first story is called shinkûden (心空殿), and was designed in the shoin zukuri style. The second story houses a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon, features more Zen architectural elements in its design, and is known as Chôonkaku (潮音閣).
The retirement villa, then known as the Higashiyama-den (Eastern Mountain Palace), was transformed into a Buddhist temple after his death, in accordance with his wishes. A fire in 1558 destroyed, however, all of the buildings in the complex, with the exception of the Silver Pavilion itself, and the Tôgudô (東求堂). The latter, completed in 1486, is said to have been the first room in Japan to be constructed explicitly to serve as a space for tea ritual. It is the oldest building in a one-story irimoya shoin style and with a cypress shingled roof. It contains several rooms, including a panel-floored area, two Buddhist altar rooms, and two tatami-floored rooms, one 6 tatami in size, and one four and a half tatami; the latter was a precursor to the Sôan-style tearoom, which developed based on the form of that 4.5 mat space.
The architectural design of the two-story Ginkaku is quite similar to its three-story golden cousin, with one major exception. Unlike the shining gilded Golden Pavilion, the Ginkaku (Silver Pavilion) has never been covered in silver, but instead displays the brown of unadorned wood. This is often said to be more in keeping with the restrained elegance of traditional Japanese aesthetics; the Golden Pavilion, in fact, was burned down in 1950 by a disgruntled Buddhist monk who believed it to be too gaudy, and unsightly. There is debate, however, as to the extent to which the Kinkaku was historically gilded, and it is widely accepted that it bears more gilding today than ever before. There is debate as well as to whether or not Yoshimasa intended to cover the walls of his Ginkaku with silver. Some narratives would have it that Yoshimasa intended to do so, but could not afford to do so, given the warfare that had enveloped the city for decades, and the corresponding economic tumult. Other accounts suggest that he had never intended to do so, intending this plainer, more restrained look all along.
The temple which houses the Silver Pavilion, known formally as Jishô-ji, became a Zen temple by the 17th century. Today, it belongs to the Shôkoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Zen monks added a rock garden, known as the "sea of silver sand," to the garden. The raked sand or gravel resembles, perhaps, the waves on a relatively calm sea. Rising up above this "sea" is a perfectly smooth and flat-topped mound of gravel which is often said to resemble, and to refer to, Mt. Fuji. Though the temple complex does include an extensive area of green and water gardens, inspired by the moss gardens at Saihô-ji, the prominent grey sea of sand plays an important role in contributing to the compound's overall aesthetic of restrained elegance.
- Ching, Francis D.K. et al. A Global History of Architecture. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. p445.
- Plaques on-site.
- Pamphlets available on-site.