Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

I was asked the other day, what is the best time of year to visit Kinkaku-ji, and I was stumped for an answer. Just when would a visitor catch Kinkaku-ji at its best?

Kinkaku-ji translates as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the name is not figurative: it really is covered in gold leaf and in pretty well any weather at any time of year, shimmers with an inner glow.

Of all the sights in Japan that best represent the country, the first might be Fuji-san, the majestic volcano. After that: Kinkaku-ji.

It was built in the 14th century and, unusual among devotional buildings, it was originally built as a villa and converted to a temple later on the death of the founder. It stands above a pond in deeply wooded grounds the water reflecting the gold of the pavilion and the trees all year round. The grounds, in contrast to the minimalist style most associated with Zen, are lush — almost extravagant, you could say. You could say the same about the acres of gold leaf coating the pavilion. However, the gold isn’t bling: this is Japan where everything surrounding a sacred building has symbolic significance. Here the gold represents and encourages purification of thought and emotion, especially toward death.

The power Kinkaku-ji exerts on the imagination of Japan has made it a star of literature and film, most famously, Yukio Mishima’s intense 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion which is a fictionalisation of a real-life arson attack on the building in 1950.

Whatever time of year you visit, the gold of the pavilion, the water of the pond and the leafy surroundings work together to create a spectacle, a combination of colours that complements and inspires. In spring, you have the burgeoning pinks and peach colours of the blossom, in summer the lush vibrancy of trees in the heat, in autumn the majestic reds and yellows, and in winter, if you are lucky, you will catch the pavilion and park serene in a mantle of snow and a minimal palate of colours.

So, what’s the best time of year to visit? There’s no answer to that. Or better, every time of year is the best time — by which I don’t mean anytime of year, I mean in order to catch the various splendours of Kinkaku-ji, visit again and again in each of the seasons, and then when you’ve seen it all year round, you’ll have seen it at its absolute best.

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