Updated: Dec 30, 2019
This post is what I would call “an honest tourist’s account” of Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion.
KINKAKU-JI | Day 4 Backpacking | Last day in Kyoto| May 24, 2019
When making plans, I try to read through reviews, blog posts, or some other equivalent. A few years ago when I started reading reviews like a savvy event-planning adult, I realized that many places have unhelpful reviews, minimal reviews, or straight up don’t have any! I wanted to be a part of the reviews that I found so helpful so I started writing reviews for the Google Local Guides program. I would write about places I visited that were particularly memorable for better or for worse. I really wish more people would give realistic, honest accounts of their experiences.
When I read about Kinkaku-ji, people talked about how amazing it was to see a massive pavilion of gold. The pictures looked amazing – a zen temple completely covered in gold leaf overlooking a large pond with a garden in the background. It looked absolutely breathtaking in photos. It was one of the two places Aaron said he definitely wanted to see in Kyoto (the other one was Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion).
ooh, ahh, it’s so pretty…
What people failed to mention about the Golden Pavilion was just how many tourists there are and how crammed it can get. The most common advice that you’ll hear when planning your visit to Kyoto is to get to the shrines/ castles/ attractions early to avoid the other tourists. I’m not going to say this is bad advice, but it’s kind of a given if you have ever travelled before.
RANT (feat. humble-brag about travelling to bigger and better castles)
Alternatively, it would have been more helpful to hear people talk about which places you absolutely must visit in the early morning to make it a pleasurable experience vs. which places would be great no matter the time of day. Granted this is where personal preference comes into play, so you have to consider whether or not the other person prioritizes the same things as you when it comes to travel… but it’s best to take any advice with a grain of salt.
That being said, I felt like Kinkaku-ji was such a disappointment. Perhaps it’s because we had already experienced the very grand Shuri-jo in Okinawa, a vermilion castle that had just re-opened some areas after renovations. We were able to walk around the castle grounds, there was a gorgeous park featuring a pond and garden with many ducks, and we were able to go in the castle itself to see art exhibits, living quarters of the king and queen, and learn all about Ryukyuan history.
Not to mention – just two days before our visit to Kinkaku-ji, we had seen Osaka Castle, which was an actual marvel. We were able to see it at the top of a hill from Osaka station, and it had everything that Shuri-jo had, but it was spread out over eight floors. Compared to these two castles, one of them a beacon at the top of a hill and the other a bright vermilion, Kinkaku-ji paled in comparison.
I’m sure that Kinkaku-ji would have been a great experience had we gone there first thing in the morning, but we were a bit preoccupied that morning, as it was our last day in Kyoto. We were checking out of our Ryokan (where we were served a traditional Japanese breakfast, delaying our start by a couple of hours), and preparing for our transition to Tokyo (we hadn’t booked the hotel until that morning!!!).
Regardless, if anyone ends up reading my this whilst planning a trip to Kyoto, and really wants to hit Kinkaku-ji, I’d advise waking up super early and going there first thing in the morning, then going to Ryoan-ji temple (a zen rock garden in the area that was actually very peaceful). Since you can’t go in the pavilion and there’s no exhibits to observe, it would be best to knock it out at the start of the day because it might actually be peaceful if there’s no one else there.
Saying “knock it out at the start of the day” feels kind of harsh, but I’m not sugar-coating it. It’s literally just a pavilion for you to look at. You pay ¥500 (roughly $5 USD) to enter, look at a pavilion, sweatily snap some pics, and navigate through a herd of people as you exit through the garden.
Needless to say, we didn’t care much for this one. We kept all of our tickets from the other places we visited, but as we were walking out, we gave our tickets to a Swedish father and son duo. We didn’t want to immortalize the experience by adding the tickets to our scrapbook. We also thought that the experience was so disappointing (compared to our other experiences) that we wanted to save someone else from spending money on it.
Okay – done being dramatic. I’m glad we went, but my honest (not hyper critical) thoughts on Kinkaku-ji – it’s actually very pretty and I’m sure it’s peaceful when there’s fewer people. If you go, be sure to visit the other temples in the area (we especially enjoyed Ryoan-ji) and check out a tea ceremony to take a break from the hustle and bustle of aggressive tourism (it’s practically an extreme sport). We just couldn’t stop laughing at the sheer amount of people because it felt ridiculous. I definitely wouldn’t go there again. If you were to ask me, I’d say to spend more time in Gion, go to Arashiyama (bamboo forest), or just visit some other temple/shrine/castle that is more interactive with art/history exhibits.