The key to enjoying Kinkakuji (aka The Golden Pavilion) is to get there early and adjust your expectations.
Is Kinkakuji Worth Visiting?
Out of all sights to see in Kyoto, the glittering walls of Kinkakuji evokes the greatest expectations—and unfortunately, often leads to the greatest disappointments.
Kinkakuji was not intended to be a temple. The original building was constructed as part of retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s villa.
At that time, Kinkakuji was one of many buildings on the site. The outside of the pavilion was renowned for being covered in gold leaf. After Yoshimitsu’s death in 1408, the villa was converted into a Zen temple, part of Yoshimitsu’s ambitious campaign to see himself deified, a practice reserved for the Emperors.
Check out this video of Kinkakuji in the winter:
What you Can See There
The Kinkakuji we see today is a reproduction. Surviving the destruction of the Onin War (1467-1477), the original Kinkakuji burned down in 1950 by a young monk.
As a result, the pavilion, although undeniably beautiful especially on a sunny day, feels a little lacking of the atmosphere that other Kyoto sights have.
This doesn’t deter the huge crowds of tourists, however! Kinkakuji is crowded no matter what the season.
Once you reach Kinkakuji, you follow a gravel path around a lake.
Competition is fierce for a photo with the golden pavilion in the background. Japanese tourists have a strict photo etiquette, and by joining the line you will be assured of a few moments to capture that iconic view of the pavilion glittering over the water.
Once you’ve taken your photo, follow the path towards the temple for more photo opportunities and a closer look at the pavilion.
Check out this video for a tour of Kinkaku-ji:
People Watching to Pass the Time
Kinkakuji is an interesting place to meet other people from around the world, or just to engage in people watching.
Attempting to guess the nationality of your fellow visitors passes the time as you inch closer and closer to the pavilion itself.
Past the pavilion, the path continues up a slight hill where a scraggly attempt at a garden awaits. The path descends to a more typical shrine where you’ll find the usual business—fortunes, charms and bundles of incense for sale.
If you visit before the Daimonji festival in mid-August, look at the mountains as you leave Kinkakuji. You may see preparations for the famous festival in which a bonfire in the shape of the Kanji for “big (大)” is burned into the mountain.
Places to Eat and Relax
The tea house is usually full, but beyond the gates, in the shade of a small bamboo grove, food stalls targeted at tourists selling anything from ice cream to taiyaki (pancakes stuffed with sweet red bean paste and made in the shape of a fish).
This is a good place to stop and recover before moving onto your next destination.
Ryoanji: Find Peace at the Zen Rock Garden
Ryoan-ji, a Buddhist temple whose rock garden is almost as iconic as Kinkakuji itself, is the closest, a 20 minute walk or a 5 minute taxi ride away.
The more serious ambiance of this temple, which is also well-known for its vegetarian food, is an interesting counterpoint to Kinkakuji’s gaudiness.
- March – November: 9:00am – 5:00pm
- December – February: 8:30am – 4:30pm
- No closing days, however there are times with special opening hours.
Check their website for more information: Ryoanji Website
- Adults (high school students or older): 500 yen
- Junior high school/elementary school students: 300 yen
How to Get There
From Kyoto Station, take either the 101 or 205 City Bus and get off at the Kinkakuji-michi stop (230 yen each way and takes around 40 minutes).
A faster alternative is to take the Karasuma subway line to Kitaoji station, and from there transfer to either a taxi or City Bus 101, 102, 204 or 205.
Visit on a weekday and time your visit for the early morning or the evening. This is especially important in summer, as there is little shade on the site and Kyoto’s summers are extremely hot and humid.