Friday, 19 August 2011

Preview: The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion

For over a thousand years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan. Seat of the emperor, it was the centre of politics, economy and culture of Japan. While the power has now been shifted to the neon metropolis of Japan's modern capital, Tokyo, Kyoto has remained the historic heart of the nation, a city of ancient shrines, temples, gardens and traditions. Tokyo is chrome and glass, Kyoto is wood and grass. It is famed worldwide for its distinctive wooden architecture and meticulous, perfect gardens, often heavily influenced by the Japanese take on Buddhism.

One of the best representations of this is the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, in northern Kyoto. As I write, if you type in "Kyoto" into Google Images, Kinkaku-ji is the first image displayed. It appears again frequently. Distilled down into one building, Kinkaku-ji is Kyoto; that is, if bulldozers entered the city with the remit of tearing down all these old wooden buildings to make way for, say, some convenient Tescos or shiny new apartments, then Kinkaku-ji would the last one standing.

One of the most celebrated buildings in Japanese architecture, the Golden Pavilion is, by any standards, immaculate. Positioned half on the shore and half in the water, it uses the pond as a mirror to reflect and seemingly double its size. The arrangement of rocks, islands and trees around it is precisely placed to exaggerate the sense of dimension, but at the same time is carefully contrived to create the impression of untouched nature. Originally a villa, it was built in 1398 by the third shogun of the Ashikaga dynasty, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Shoguns were a kind of military ruler of Japan, with powers that were usually hereditarily passed on; although the emperors were officially the boss, the shoguns were effectively in charge. The Ashikaga dynasty were the family of choice between 1336–1573, and Yoshimitsu was an enthusiastic builder in traditional Chinese and Japanese styles. Although it was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple after his death, as according to his wishes, it was effectively built as a kind of retirement home for himself, although when he passed on the reins of powers to his 9-year-old son he still retained power in all but title.

The pavilion was built in three different architectural styles, with the overall architectural character borrowed from the Chinese Song dynasty, a sophisticated style specialising in grand Buddhist pagodas and the treatment of architecture in more organised , intellectual way. The ground floor was designed as the reception room for guests and the departure point for lakeside boating, and was in an 11th Century Japanese residential style. The middle floor was a little more private, and was used for discussions on art and affairs of the day; intended as a Buddha hall, it contained an image of the Boddhisattva Kannon (whom you may recall as the "superhero sidekick" inspiration behind Kiyomizu-dera), and the floor was in the samurai house style. The top floor is in the Zen Buddhist style, with Buddhist ornamentation and statues, and was designed as a private refuge for Yoshimitsu and his close friends. It was this top floor that gave the pavilion its name, for the ceiling was gilded in Yoshimitsu's time. The original plan had been to cover the exterior with gold too, but he died before getting round to it. However, with a gold ceiling and some good intentions, the name managed to stick.

But look at the picture now, and what do you see? It looks pretty gold. What happened - did one of his successors do it in the end? Not exactly. Despite being the only building of the complex to survive a 15th Century civil war, and Kyoto being one of the few Japanese cities to avoid heavy damage during World War 2 as well as fairly narrowly avoiding being the original target for the second atomic bomb, Kinkaku-ji couldn't avoid the insanity of a solitary man. In 1950, a deranged student monk burnt down the pavilion, pretty much utterly destroying it.

The monk attempted suicide immediately after, but was less successful at this than at fire-raising, and survived to be sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Due to mental illness, he was released early in 1955, by slightly worrying coincidence the exact same year the "new" Kinkaku-ji was built, although I doubt they let him near it, and he died of tuberculosis the year after. The reconstruction of the pavilion, the building we see today, is said to be an exact copy of the original, although with what appears to be considerably more gold leaf coverage.

In being a reconstruction of a 550 year old building, Kinkaku-ji poses an interesting dilemma: when is a Wonder not a Wonder? The actual pavilion was totally destroyed in 1950, so does that make the remake invalid, even though it is an exact (albeit with a bit extra gold) copy? Refurbishment of ancient monuments is an absolutely necessary practice, provided it is done sensitively, and indeed many places I will visit will have been rebuilt in some way. The temples of Angkor, for example, have seen much reconstruction, as was Borobudur, which had every single brick removed and replaced during a very thorough 20th Century fix-up. Nobody would claim these are invalid. However, in the case of Kinkaku-ji, a wooden structure burnt to a crisp, it was entirely new materials required to rebuild it. The building may look the same, but it is not the same. Despite being an utterly authentic reconstruction, we are still looking at a 50-year-old building posing as a much older one.

Does this matter? The effect and impact are identical - a beautiful pavilion in harmony with the perfect nature around it. I don't know. But I do know that if the Pyramids were wiped out by a giant space laser then rebuilt just as they were, it wouldn't seem quite the same.

Aside from these intriguing puzzles, Kinkaku-ji is unusual for my candidate selection as it is comparatively small; at just 10.8 metres high, 10 metres wide and 15 metres long, it would fit very comfortably at actual size on an IMAX cinema screen. Unusual, but not unique. Compare it to Machu Picchu, the magnificent ruins on a Peruvian mountaintop, and its clear that removed of their surroundings, the actual structures are pretty small when compared to gargantuan monuments such as Angkor Wat or the Egyptian Pyramids. But as with Machu Picchu, the context of the surroundings is all important. Machui Picchu goes for the sheer drama of being above the clouds, perched in the sky; Kinkaku-ji instead goes for the sheer perfection of the discreetly sculpted landscape that surrounds it. The appreciation of the Golden Pavilion is not just in the building itself, but for the landscape around it. And the landscape around it is far from a happy coincidence - it is as deliberate as the wood and gold of the pavilion. Magnificence often arrives in the form of grandeur, but in the Temple of Golden Pavilion's case it arrives in being just right.

I'll be visiting Kinkaku-ji in February or March and will give a fuller account of its history, as well as my own impressions, then.


  1. NO. WHY WAS IT BURNED!!!!!!!

  2. I couldn't have put it better myself, anon.

  3. It was burned a long time ago by a deranged monk who thought that its beauty was too dangerous for this world. Yukio Mishima wrote a book about the account called "The Temple at the Golden Pavilion" which is a look at this horrific event thought they fictional eyes of the monk who burned it down. In the introduction to one of the versions of the book it talks about how Mishima was able to interview the monk who did this to the pavilion. However the Pavilion has been rebuilt and is beautiful! :D I've seen it for the 3rd time this summer (2012)!


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