Ashikaga Yoshimasa became Shogun in 1449 and began one of the worst periods of leadership in Japanese history, yet his cultural contributions can be seen almost everywhere. Though his reign is commonly known as the beginning of the end for the Muromachi Dynasty, Yoshimasa’s escape from power helped nurture the flames burning inside the soul of traditional Japanese culture. So many beautiful temples and buildings rest within Kyoto’s boundaries, but Yoshimasa’s mountain retreat is where it all started. Although not solely responsible for Higashiyama Culture that eventually spread throughout Japan, Yoshimasa had a keen eye for talented individuals and he rewarded them with patronage and a voice at his retreat.
Yoshimasa’s Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji)
This travel guide is part of our series on Japan Travel and East Asia Travel. It was originally created on April 1, 2015. It has been maintained and updated (as of December 28, 2018) to reflect current viewpoints and travel trends.
“Under the guidance of the former shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the Higashiyama era represented a kind of cultural renaissance in the wake of the worst destruction Japan had ever experienced.” Donald Keene, Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan.
Named for the mountain retreat that would eventually become known as the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), Higashiyama and Yoshimasa are largely inseparable. The soul of traditional Japan was born here and truly makes the Ginkakuji a special place. Products of the Higashiyama era include Noh Theatre and those gardens characteristically found throughout modern-day Japan. The art of flower arrangement (ikebana) also came out of this short period but the most recognizable Higashiyama contribution is the tea ceremony, a common feature enjoyed by visitors to Yoshimasa’s house.
Every time I set foot here, its wonder strikes me more than before. Everything about it is gorgeous and if not for Yoshimasa, we’d probably never know about it. High culture was largely reserved for the elites like his grandfather Yoshimitsu, whose Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is more glamorous in comparison. Walking inside requires a short walk up the base of Higashiyama and through a walkway surrounded by perfectly trimmed hedge path. Immediately, Yoshimasa’s wonderful living quarters are on display with sand gardens and spectacularly toned moss that remains green throughout the year.
Japanese History can be quite overwhelming, thanks to thousands of years designated by countless periods and emperors. Ashikaga never comes up when talking about Japanese history, as that’s usually reserved for names like Nobunaga and Tokugawa. Yoshimasa has very little to do with the glories and triumphs that usually accompany these warrior generals. Considering his rule is largely attributed to the series of civil wars that began on his watch. He appears to be otherwise insignificant, except for the Ginkakuji, but in reality his contributions were much more important in (at the time) subtle ways.
Instead of sticking around to fight and restore order to Kyoto, Yoshimasa went to the mountains and carved out his own piece of heaven at Ginkakuji. The Silver Pavilion doesn’t stand out in the ways that Kyoto’s other temples are known, but it’s crucial to visit Ginkakuji when trying to dig in and find the soul of Japanese culture. It’d be impossible to understand without stopping by.
Getting to Ginkakuji
Courtesy of Japan Guide
By Bus – From Kyoto Station, you can reach Ginkakuji anywhere between 35-40 minutes and for just over 200 yen. If it’s a busy day in the city or later in the afternoon, the trip might take a little longer so leaving early is best.
By Foot – Start at Nanzenji Temple and walk along Kyoto’s famed Philosopher’s Path that’ll get you to Ginkakuji in 30 minutes if walking quickly. If you’re the type who loves a photo or two, expect 45-1 hour but it’s worth every second!
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