Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji Temple) is one of Kyoto, Japan’s most popular zen temples and gardens located at the edge of the Higashiyama mountains. In this post, we’ll offer tips for visiting Ginkakuji Temple, photos of the silver pavilion and its beautiful gardens, and whether it’s worth your time to make the trek out to the northern end of the Higashiyama Mountains to see the Silver Pavilion. (Last updated March 16, 2018.)
Silver Pavilion admission costs 500 yen, with Japanese language-only tours of the buildings offered select days at select times for another 1,000 yen. It is open from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., except from December to February when it closes at 4:30 p.m. Note that unlike other temples, last admission is not 30 minutes prior to closing.
You can enter Silver Pavilion at 4:59 p.m. and explore the grounds almost crowd-free until 20 minutes after closing. We’d recommend more time than that, but going at the end of the day is not a bad idea to avoid crowds. Our photos in this post are from visits at the very beginning of the day and very end of the day, hence the lack of people. If you visit at noon, it will be wall-to-wall people, and not nearly as serene.
The heavy crowds Silver Pavilion draws are in spite of its remote location that requires a bus, as there are no train or subway stations within a 30 minute walk of the temple. There are direct buses to Silver Pavilion from Kyoto Station that say Ginkakuji on them; these run with regularity and take about 40 minutes one-way.
However, thanks to its location on the Eastern edge of Kyoto, the Silver Pavilion is a great spot to visit at the start of a 1-day walking itinerary that includes Kiyomizudera Temple, Nanzenji Temple, Philosopher’s Path, and other spots in between. In that case, Silver Pavilion is a short walk from the northern end of Philosopher’s Path.
The Silver Pavilion is often overshadowed by the Golden Pavilion, which is routinely ranked as one of the top 5 (if not #1) points of interest in Kyoto. Despite what the names would suggest, the Silver Pavilion is anything but a cheaper “knock-off” of the Golden Pavilion. Then, why the name? There are competing explanations as to why Ginkakuji has the name it does despite not an ounce of silver on its exterior.
One theory posits that the shogun planned to cover it in silver leaf, but ran out of funds. (Perhaps he depleted his personal wealth on melon soda from vending machines in the area? Can’t say I blame him.) Other historians state that the nickname wasn’t given to the pavilion more than a century after its construction, and was done so to contrast it to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) at the base of Kyoto’s northern mountains, which the retirement villa of Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s grandfather.
While both explanations are plausible, and there could be kernels of truth in each, I’d offer a third explanation. The savvy Japanese marketing minds of the 1400s knew that consumer culture hundreds of years later would be obsessed with flashy bling. They knew superficial tourists clutching golden iPhones and LV handbags would flock to Golden Pavilion for selfies. These marketing minds wanted to ride on that temple’s coattails, so they dubbed Ginkakuji the “Silver Pavilion.” It’s a textbook example of exploiting consumer confusion.
Kidding aside, I think it’s actually quite unfortunate that the Silver Pavilion has been inextricably associated with the Golden Pavilion by virtue of their similar names. The two pavilions are stark contrasts with one another, and unassuming tourists who first visit the Golden Pavilion might expect something similar from the Silver Pavilion.
However, unlike the Golden Pavilion that wows visitors with its flash and grandeur, the Silver Pavilion takes a subtler and more serene approach that rewards guests who take the time to explore its intricacies. Think of the Golden Pavilion as a blockbuster action film and the Silver Pavilion as a slow-burn character study. Both types of films have their relative merits and can captivate audiences, but for very different reasons.
If you walk into a theater all hyped up to watch Terminator 2, you might be disappointed when Citizen Kane starts rolling. Not because it’s a bad film, but because you were anticipating something dramatically different. Similarly, you might not give the Silver Pavilion its due if your preconceptions were a stunning pavilion that you could quickly see and head on your way.
However, there is much more to see and appreciate at the Silver Pavilion. As a result, I think it necessitates a longer time commitment–at least an hour to explore all of the grounds, including the trail at the back of the garden–to fully appreciate the serenity and meticulous design of the grounds and temple.
Achieving such an experience also requires visiting the Silver Pavilion first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon. All of the contrasts between the Silver and Golden Pavilions are a moot point if you visit midday when crowds effectively mitigate any serenity inherent in the Silver Pavilion’s design. On your Eastern Kyoto itinerary, this should be your very first or very last stop.
Fortunately, that works out perfectly, because bookending Silver Pavilion and Kiyomizudera Temple on your itinerary allows a perfect full day itinerary.
The only downside is that Kiyomizudera will be packed when you get there, but the sunset views at Kiyomizudera are so awesome that it’s worth it.
The Silver Pavilion is renowned for its manicured sand gardens. These are the distinguishing element of the Silver Pavilion, and the “Sea of Silver Sand” with a massive sand cone called the “Moon Viewing Platform” are pretty cool.
Not cool enough that I’d recommend Silver Pavilion just for them, though. Luckily, there’s a lot more here than just these beautifully-maintained and designed sand gardens.
The draw and appeal of the Silver Pavilion for me is how the grounds showcase of the temple contain such organized and “managed” natural environments.
As a retirement villa situated at the edge of Kyoto’s actual wilderness, the grounds act as a buffer between the city and the countryside. It can’t really be called a transition area, because the precisely-designed and cared-for gardens are about the best you’ll find in Kyoto, and the forest beyond the edge of the garden is wholly untamed.
The contrast draws a sharp distinction between the managed and chaos, and in a way the juxtaposition of the forest amplifies the beauty of the gardens. It’s all beautiful and enchanting, making the Silver Pavilion a pleasure to explore.
Upon climbing up the path behind the gardens, you’re rewarded with this view of the grounds and the urban area of Kyoto in the distance.
It’s also worth noting that you cannot actually enter the Silver Pavilion. You can walk up to and around it, but it’s not open to the public.
In this regard, it’s very reminiscent of the Golden Pavilion, and it’s likely that the crowds each of these temples draw are simply too large to be accommodated in their small namesake pavilions.
There are several other temple buildings on the grounds of Ginkakuji, the insides of which are almost all inaccessible to the public. You can walk around the buildings, but not into them.
All things considered, this didn’t bother me or make me feel shortchanged by the visit. The majority of the “big name” temples around Japan have some defining or really impressive component about them. Unless you count the sand (and I wouldn’t), the Silver Pavilion does not.
For me, though, that’s not the point. The Silver Pavilion still works really, really well for me. Its design and grounds embody the “feel” of Kyoto, and why I think it’s a world class city without equal.
From the approach along Philosopher’s Path and through the quaint street vendors along the way to the meticulous attention to detail inside, subtle-yet-beautiful gardens, and impressive architecture, the Silver Pavilion reflects what makes Kyoto special. This is why we consider it a must-visit, and include it in our 2-Day Kyoto Highlights Itinerary.
These types of things are personal preference (do you prefer action or character study films?), but I far prefer the Silver Pavilion to the Golden Pavilion. I feel the Silver Pavilion offers substantially more depth and serene spaces to explore and enjoy, whereas the Golden Pavilion is one iconic structure and that’s about it (there are some beautiful gardens, but not to this degree). Golden Pavilion feels like a touristy point of interest with all that entails.
Ultimately, both make our list of the Top 10 Things to Do in Kyoto, with Ginkakuji Temple being pretty high up the list thanks to its beautifully-designed grounds, serenity, stunning gardens, and impressive architecture. The Silver Pavilion captures the essence of Kyoto and why it’s such a special city. Neither pavilion is a substitute for the other, and I recommend doing both. If I had to choose–or simply had to budget my time–I’m going with the Silver Pavilion. To be sure, the grandiosity of the stunning Golden Pavilion is unlike anything else you’ll see in Kyoto, but we prefer the deeper nature of the Silver Pavilion. Perhaps you will be more wowed by the extravagant appearance of the Golden Pavilion, and prefer that. Neither perspective is wrong, so I guess you’ll have to do both to see with whom you agree.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited the Silver Pavilion or Golden Pavilion? Which did you prefer? Would you recommend the Silver Pavilion to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this Temple interest you? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!