The Silver Pavilion in Japan



When you visit Kyoto be prepared for the incredible. Here you see the distillation of centuries of refinement, enormous wealth, grotesque egotism, tempered somehow by the urge to art, to some factor we might call beauty that is part of being human, a surprise mutation of our DNA in that tiny fraction of the chain that differentiates us from baboons. And just like Italy is the place where the Renaissance flourished in Europe, Kyoto is where Japan’s renaissance flourished.

The Silver Pavilion was built by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 – 1490) in the northeastern section of Kyoto. He turned landscape and life into art and practiced his aesthetic pleasures – viewing the garden, the drinking of tea, the writing of poetry – a celebration of the senses. Construction began in 1460, but was not completed (wars, etc.) until 1483 when Yoshimasa retired and took up residence.

Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, dictated standards for Japanese taste for centuries to come: shoji (painted, sliding screens), tatami (mats woven of sweet grasses), the tea ceremony, Noh (theater), haiku (poetry). All were refined here in Kyoto in a villa built to face away from the town and the poverty of the ordinary inhabitants. Wealth created an earthly paradise.
Here is “the nursery of the arts” where famous painters were supported by the shogun, the art of the tea ceremony achieved new definition and moon viewing, flower viewing and poetry appreciation all became high arts again as they had been in Heian period (794 – 1185).

Yoshimasa recorded his feelings quite naturally in a poem:

I love
my hut (an understatement, of course)
at the foot of Moon-Awaiting Mountain (Tsukimachiyama)
and the reflection
of the sinking sky.

You enter the inner grounds of the Silver Pavilion on a path between a high hedge of camellias. The Ginshaden sand garden is entered through a small door in the garden wall. The gardens were designed by Soami, the most noted landscape designer of medieval times. The karesansui or dry garden of sand contrasts with the classic Japanese garden of lake, stream, plants, trees, which fronts the Pavilion itself.
The dry garden covers about 1.75 acres and is called the Sea of Silver Sand, a two foot high plateau of sand raked in furrows which suggest a sea in motion. The garden is so situated that when the moon appears over Tsukimachiyama to the east, the sand appears to ripple in the gleaming moonlight. This is an example of the Japanese art of shakhei or borrowed scenery which uses the existing landscape to be a part of the garden itself. The sand sea is called Seiko or West Lake to call to mind the famed West Lake near Hangchow, China after whose shape it was designed.

Adjacent to the sea of sand is Kogetsudai, the moon viewing platform, a large, truncated cone of sand, described as a miniature Mt. Fuji which has been neatly beheaded. Standing on the platform, the shogun and his guests could watch the moon perform its magic and perhaps compose a moon-watching waka.

The Silver Pavilion itself is closed to the public, but according to the literature the cone appears to be a silvery full moon reflected on a silver lake when viewed from the small balcony that runs along the second story of the pavilion (about 16 feet high).

The second garden is more traditional: water and plants and rocks. The rocks come from all over Japan as each feudal lord sent a significant one as tribute to the shogun. Each stone has a name and a history. Shinto beliefs hold that certain unusual shaped rocks are inhabited by the divine spirits of the kami. The rocks are carefully made to appear as natural parts of the landscape.

Azaleas, maples, moss, wild grasses, surround the pond and reflect in the water. The pond, Kinkyochi or brocade mirror pond, has two islands – crane and turtle – named for symbols of longevity. A small waterfall (sengetsu-sei) ripples into the water and is so strategically placed that it appears to wash the moonlight onto the surface of the pond. There are seven small bridges over and around the pond, each one named and each presenting a vista meant to bring to mind a reference to a Japanese or Chinese literary classic. The entire landscape is a saga for the eye and for the mind. It looks good, but without knowledge, you can not truly understand and appreciate the construction.

The pavilion itself is a plain wooden two story building divided by sliding panels to provide rooms of varying sizes. The upper floor houses a gilt image of Kannon, goddess of mercy, supposedly made by Unkei in the 13th century. The interior is lacquered in black and the gilt image glows with life. Also inside the main building are paintings by Yosa Buson, more famous as a haiku writer though he was said to have preferred to express unworldly points of view in his paintings.

After they’ve fallen
their image remains in the mind
-white peonies

It is a poet’s dream to convert a landscape into a poem where one may walk and enjoy scents and sights, capture their fragile existence, mold it to your wishes. Or it is a poet’s dream to make real a vision using only words..
everything is said

about reality –
moonlight splashes

About the Author: Helen Ruggieri spent ten weeks in Japan at Yokohama College of Commerce.  She is retired.

Photo credit: Isabelle Champlin

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One response to “The Silver Pavilion in Japan

  1. Great post! I’ve been here before, but I’ve never read about the history and meaning behind the layout of the temple grounds. After visiting this temple, I used to like to walk down the Philosopher’s Walk and visit the smaller, less crowded temples along the way. Kyoto is a gorgeous city, isn’t it?

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