The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji, 金閣寺) in Kyoto, Japan is a world-renowned temple named (and famous) for its pure gold leaf finishing. In this post we’ll cover some of the pros and cons of visiting the Golden Pavilion, share some photos from our experience there, and offer random thoughts and history on the pavilion.
For starters, the Golden Pavilion is a colloquial name, derived (obviously) from the appearance of the exterior. While pretty much everyone calls it the Golden Pavilion, it’s known as Kinkaku-ji in Japan, which roughly translates to “Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” This is despite its official Japanese name being Rokuon-ji, which translates to “Deer Garden Temple.” I saw no deer at the Golden Pavilion, which might explain why no one calls it Rokuon-ji.
The Golden Pavilion holds a place as one of the most prominent icons of Kyoto, and really, all of Japan. Open just about any travel guidebook about Japan and you’ll find this on their top 10 places to visit. In all of our trips to Kyoto, we’ve found the Golden Pavilion to be the most popular spot we’ve visited. It’s unquestionably popular and likely to be busy no matter when you visit–the real question is whether it lives up to the hype…
The answer for me is no. Despite the Golden Pavilion’s popularity, it was one of the least impressive temple we visited on our first trip to Kyoto. It was actually our first stop on that first trip and the experience was pretty anticlimactic. It made us wonder whether the rest of Kyoto would be a disappointment.
Fortunately, it was not. It seems like a lot of the most iconic places in the world are less impressive to visit than lesser-known alternatives in the same area (or maybe that’s just us).
Kyoto seemed to hold true to this “rule” with the Golden Pavilion being its version of the overrated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or Times Square in New York.
Now, overrated does not necessarily mean bad. In fact, the Golden Pavilion is pretty cool. It’s just not the end-all, be-all of Kyoto as many planning resources suggest.
It’s a beautiful pavilion, and we would recommend going to see it, just temper your expectations. My main qualm with the Golden Pavilion is that it’s not even remotely substantive; you go there, look at the pretty temple, wander around a pond, and that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing particularly moving about it, nor is there any reason to linger here. This is atypical of temples or shrines in Kyoto.
While the main draw is definitely the Temple itself, I think for most guests the gardens and grounds of the Golden Pavilion will be a pleasant surprise. After viewing Kinkakuji from across the pond, you will pass by the head priest’s former living quarters, which is not open to the public.
The path then circles around the Golden Pavilion from behind, leading through the temple’s gardens. From the backside of the Golden Pavilion, you get the most up-close view (see below) of the lavish exterior.
The Golden Pavilion’s gardens retain their original design, and have a meticulously maintained style. In the gardens, you can see Anmintaku Pond, Japanese statues, and the Sekkatei Teahouse before exiting the paid temple area. All of this is quite lovely, albeit crowded.
The Golden Pavilion gets even more crowded once you’re outside the exit, and here you’ll find souvenir shops, another tea garden, and plenty of food vendors. There’s also Fudo Hall, a small temple hall housing a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings. As this is an area where tour groups tend to congregate by the busload, it can be chaotic.
All hope is not lost, though–the vendors have matcha ice cream! Actually, if you’ve been to Japan, this should come as no surprise. Green tea ice cream is available at pretty much every temple and shrine. (It’s not for everyone, but you should at least try it.)
Directly across the street, you’ll find a slew of restaurants and other tourist spots, all of which are decidedly less busy. We had lunch at one of these (I don’t recall which, unfortunately) and it was excellent, and reasonably priced.
Speaking of cost, the paid areas of the Golden Pavilion cost 400 yen, and are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Getting to the Golden Pavilion can be a bit tricky–the best option is from Kyoto Station by direct Kyoto City Bus numbers 101 or 205, which makes numerous stops and takes about 40 minutes (you’ll know when you’re there–it’s where most visitors get off the bus).
In terms of other tips, the easy recommendation for the Golden Pavilion is to arrive early, before the tour buses show up and the walkways become incredibly crowded. I’m going to buck that conventional wisdom and suggest going whenever. Since you cannot go inside the Golden Pavilion, and are really just walking along a wide path to look at the Golden Pavilion from across a pond, what difference does it make?
I took all of the photos in this post on an incredibly busy day, but you can’t tell the difference because water separates visitors from the Golden Pavilion.
Moreover, unlike other temples and shrines in Japan, this is not exactly a contemplative and spiritual experience, so I don’t think it makes much of a difference if you’re here at a crowded versus uncrowded time.
Ultimately, I know this post is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Golden Pavilion. You should go anyway and make up your own mind about it, though (I do highly recommend the Silver Pavilion, which is the ‘companion’ location to the Golden Pavilion). With the Golden Pavilion being so highly regarded by just about every Japan travel expert and visitors to Kyoto, you might very well disagree with me. Also, it’s worth reiterating that even though I feel the Golden Pavilion is overrated does not mean I don’t like it–I do like it. I just wouldn’t put it in my top 5 (or maybe even top 10) for Kyoto. As compared to most other people, this seems to put me in the extreme minority.
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you been to the Golden Pavilion? Any thoughts on other popular sights that overrated? Have you visited the Silver Pavilion, too? Which did you prefer? Would you recommend the Golden Pavilion to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this Temple interest you? Please share any of your thoughts on these things (or other topics) in the comments!