We’ve been sitting on a Kyoto bus for what feels like a really long time. The driver is careful, and the baby is calm, but she’s already lost Sophian the French giraffe, and a Hello Kitty sock on the ride over. Fortunately, they’re recovered quickly thanks to the kindness of Japanese passengers who notice their disappearance long before I do.
I check the time.
Kinkaku-ji, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” closes at 5:00 and it’s already 4:30. It seems unthinkable to miss it after being on the bus for such a long time. But just as I’m really getting antsy, we finally reach the stop. The 4 of us disembark, along with Naia in her stroller, and a tangle of other tourists.
The temple complex is just a few hundred metres away from the bus stop. We rush over, buy tickets, and hurry our way around the corner in the direction the staff has pointed us.
And stop short. Captivated.
The Golden Pavilion is luminous, it’s reflection shimmering in the calm waters that surround it. The sun is just starting to set, and it’s magic hour – that evanescent period of time between day and night when the light is truly bewitching.
And that’s how I feel. Bewitched.
The Pavilion looks unreal, the gold a blinding contrast to the dramatic sky above it and the sculpted green landscape around it. The harmony is sublime, and we all linger there, drinking it in for as long as we can, before we’re urged reluctantly out of the complex by closing time and the friendly old men that work there.
Located in Northwest Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and one of the most popular tourist sites in Japan. Formally known as Rokuon-ji, it’s original use was as a villa for 14th Century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death, the villa was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple, where zazen or religious meditation was practiced.
The sparkling Golden Pavilion has been burnt down several times, twice during the Onin wars, and most recently by a fanatic monk in 1950. It was fully restored in 1955 and the emblematic gold leaf replaced entirely in 1987.
Today, the 132,000 square metre temple grounds include Kyoko-chi, a large pond, with islands of various sizes, unusually shaped rocks and stones and a gorgeous Japanese strolling garden.
I’d seen many pictures of Kinkakuji before I actually saw it in person, and can safely say, that it’s one touristy site that’s much better live than in pictures. Definitely worth a visit.
We ended up at Kinkakuji during magic hour by fluke, but if you can time your visit to coincide with that time, it was beyond beautiful, and had the added bonus of being relatively quiet. Morning visits can be full of tour groups and schoolchildren on class trips.
Getting to Kinkakuji
There are a few ways to get to Kinkaku-ji. From Kyoto Station, take Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205. The ride takes approximately 40 minutes and costs 230 yen. You need exact change, but there’s a coin machine on the bus to exchange bills. Alternatively, you can take the Karasuma subway line to Kitaoji Station, and then take a taxi or transfer to City Bus number 101, 102, 204 or 205 to reach the Temple.
We took the Kyoto Station route because we were closer to it, but in hindsight, taking the subway to Kitaoji Station is a much better way to go. That bus ride was looong.