I remember when I visited Venice for the first time 5 years ago, I cried at the beauty of it, but also because it was, in fact, so small in scale. Canaletto lied to us with his enormous perspectives, and in some way, the smallness of scale amplified the melancholy beauty of it- and I cried.
Visiting Kinkakuji, The Golden Pavillion, in Kyoto was a startlingly similar experience. To begin with, it is mobbed by tourists. You have to breathe deep and walk slow, counting on the fact that 90% of the people will move quickly to the next thing, and tuck yourself away on the periphery of all the busyness. If you can do this, you will have a wonderful visit to an extraordinary place.
Back in Venice, my absolute favourite church is Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Cannaregio. This wide-open landscape from the 18th century is doing a Canaletto really- the church is tiny, viewed from the other end with the dome behind, it really does look like a small, sturdy jewel box. Inside, it is beyond gorgeous, and as you can see from the detail of the barrel roof, portraits of saints are emeshed in intricate gilded patterning.
So, in Japan, Kinkakuji presents the same elements, tiny in scale and stature, almost like an adult dollshouse, the repeating scalloped roofs on each section, balconies and of course, the gilding- brought me back to Santa Maria dei Miracoli- and I felt the same love.
The original pavillion was constructed in 1398- the one we see now was rebuilt in 1955, after a wayward monk burnt it to the ground in 1950. The lower level is in a modest style, one immense room with a veranda and shutters- the second level, in the Samurai style, used as a Buddha hall is gilded. The third level has rounded windows and is built in the Zen style, and is also lavishly gilded. The Phoenix sits on the roof, appropriately symbolising birth from fire. All that gilt. In some ways, bling doesn’t cover it, but the gold shimmers in any light, and the reflections in the water are mesmerising. Thanks to orientalarchitecture.com for the technical details here.
Water and reflections are a major element in the landscaped gardens around the Pavillion. Greatly influenced probably by the moss garden, a very important theme in 14th century Japanese gardens, the landscape is arranged to highlight the beauty of the Pavillion- the Lower Pond, in which the Pavillion sits, has several differently shaped small islands, planted with groupings of conifers, moss and stones. Emphasising natural beauties, the landscape creates a dramatic setting for the meditative study of the natural world, and the man-made artistry of the Pavillion itself.
Below, in the Upper Pond, near the teahouse, the choreography extends to clumps of iris and reeds, planted to frame the island edged with stones and twisted larch trunks. Groupings of partially submerged rocks connect the island visually with the banks of the pond.
An island shrine is matched with a low, spreading, lichen-covered tree and seen through the framing branches of the silver trunk of the maple on the bank of the pond.
With gently rolling landscaped hills creating a bowl for the Pavillion- from a distance, it sinks into the landscape with only the third level fully visible. It really is to be seen- just steel yourself for the shock of the crowds and walk slow.