The Way of the Philosopher
In the northeast of Kyoto is a historic site called Ginkakuji. Now a Zen temple, it was built as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the 1490s, after the fashion of a similarly famous villa/temple owned by his grandfather Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Yoshimitsu’s pavilion was covered in gold leaf, and Ginkakuji was meant to have a similar finish in silver, but it was never completed. The permanently unfinished building has come to be a great symbol of the medieval Japanese aesthetic of imperfection, spontaneity, and weathering, and it has been long decided that the building looks best incomplete in raw wood.
I never saw it in my Kyoto days because it was undergoing a major period of upkeep and was hidden behind scaffolding and sheets. I thought it would take me many more years before I could see it…
Ginkakuji marks the northern end of a quiet lane known as the Philosopher’s Road that runs along the eastern edge of town, past many shrines, temples, and little cloisters. Exploring it was another thing I had not done in my student days.