Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) has so many names it’s best to keep it simple. Translated as Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it makes more sense once you know its official name: Jishō-ji (慈照寺) or the Temple of Shining Mercy. Because for one, where’s this so-called Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion? you may wonder to yourself as you stroll through the serpentine garden pathways. The two-story building located at the far end of the labrynth dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese version of the East Asian deity of mercy, …well, looks brown to me…but maybe it’s one big zen koan–find the silver lining within, not without, right?.

Located off the Philosopher’s Path in the Sakyō ward of Kyōto, it remains one of the best examples of harmonious confluence of natural and manmade elements. It didn’t start out with much harmony though, for although Higashiyama culture begins wafting the essence of wabi-sabi throughout the country during the Ashikaga reign of the late 15th and 16th centuries, developing chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), noh drama, and sumi-e ink painting, this era is also known as the Sengoku Jidai — the Warring States Period — of the Muromachi era. And while this pristine sanctuary was being constructed on the still hot ashes of another garden villa, all hell was breaking loose outside.

The Ōnin war

'Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk', Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

‘Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk’, Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

Coming after the powerful Kamakura and preceding the Ieyasu ruling clans, the Ashikaga clan was the middle child of the Shogun rulers in medieval Japan, ruling from roughly the 14th – 16th centuries. Throughout the 250-year reign of the 15 shogun, the rulers depended more on the loyalty of the local lords than on military power, and thus were soon exposed as a kind of paper tiger that could not do much if you, say, didn’t pay your taxes. The first hundred years or so see the flowering of Kyōto amidst the rise of the Samurai and the Rinzai form of Zen Buddhism. It is during this time of general peace (and approaching discord) that much of the system of art that Japan is so well-known for was formalized.

The Ōnin War (1467–1477), a dispute brought on by the question of who would succeed the aging Yoshimasa, was most actively waged by the Hosokawa family and its allies, who favored Yoshimasa’s brother Yoshimi, against the Yamana family, who supported the current shogun’s suddenly-born male heir. Sounds like a goddamned soap opera, but unlike good melodrama, where are all the women? There had to have been a few devious and deadly femme fatalia pulling the strings behind the screen. Nothing here but rich old cranks who dig getting high on green tea and raking rocks and completely ignoring the thousands dying all around. Although fighting in Kyōto lasted for only 11 years, the conflict, for all intents and purposes, destroyed Kyōto, ruined the Ashikaga clan, and ignited the slow-burning and widespread revolt which would spread to outlying provinces, lasting for a hundred years, eventually bringing about Oda Nobunaga’s brutal unification.

Portrait of an Escapist

While others in Kyōto mastered Soba and the city burned, Yoshimasa practiced the fine art of tea ceremony, continuing plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens. So enamored was he of his grandfather’s Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and the gardens of Saiho-ji (Koke-dera) designed by Musō Soseki, Yoshimasa made the garden landscape of the grounds a priority above all else. He commissioned the artist Sōami to design the Ginsadan, the Sea of Silver Sand, the rock garden, with its now infamous cone of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. Nōami, the grandfather of Sōami, imparted his knowledge of the fledgling Zen priest practice of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony to Murata Jukō. Murata is alleged to have been under the employ of Yoshimasa around this time. When finished around 1490, this villa would eventually be built on the remains of his brother Yoshimi’s temple-residence Jodai-ji. Except for his desire that Ginkaku-ji become a Buddhist temple associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen on his death, Yoshimasa was completely oblivious to all except for simplistic beauty of rocks and tea.

But the war had its annoyances as well. Despite his intention to cover the main structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, the way his grandfather had done with gold leaf on the nearby Ginkaku-ji, the war delayed the work so long that Yoshimasa died before its realization. Amidst political intrigue, of course. The current brown facade of the structure is likely to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. Despite his initial desires to beautify it with silver leaf, he probably came to the realization that such decadence in war time was not just wasteful, but unwise, with a secondary benefit of being “unfinished”, illustrating one of the aspects of wabi-sabi perfectly if not a bit ironically.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver PavilionDespite the temple remaining quite unfinished, in 1485 Yoshimasa became a Buddhist monk and took the name Jishō. It is said that he passed his days sitting in contemplation in the Dojinsai tea room in his Hall of the Eastern Quest (Tōgudō), taking tea with the key figures in the development of tea culture. Situated as it is at the far end of the Hōjō, it demands perhaps the most excellent view of the garden path, the various waterways and the growing moss that must have reminded him of better, more peaceful days, even as the war waged on around him, and enveloped more and more of Japan. During his reign as Shogun, Yoshimasa may have funded and formalized a large part of the traditional culture by which Japan came to fame, yet he was an administrative nightmare.

Nightmare perhaps, but fascinating to live in such a fiery time, and to be at the center of it all, yet instead of addressing it head on and jumping into the war, Yoshimasa got Zen and zoned out. Maybe somewhere in all of the daily manicuring of those beautifully raked rocks he knew that his legacy would outlive him–that despite the fragmented and bloody society that threatened to tear itself apart before his eyes, Japan would survive, and thrive even, and in that new land of the rising sun, would find hidden strength in the quietude and solemn ritual of the simple, imperfect art of brewing, serving, and enjoying tea within the confines of perhaps one of the most perfectly polished contemplative rock gardens ever conceived.