Quite probably the most famous temple in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺) is "the" golden pavilion and could certainly compete in a world-wide "most over-photographed building" competition. Kinkaku in in fact only the name of the pavilion itself, the temple's formal name is Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺). In the 13th century it was the villa of Kitsune Saionji, but a retired shogun took possession of the land in 1394 and started to build the Kinaku pavilion and its gardens. After his death and following his will, the place was converted into a temple. Of the buildings of that time none remain standing these days, not even the Kinkaku which was burned down by a mad monk in 1950 (Wikipedia has a nice picture of this, as well as another one of the original building). Interestingly, the pamphlet from the temple doesn't mention this event even though it's the most important of the temple's history. I guess they must be a bit embarassed that a monk did it... Nevertheless, the pavilion is a UNESCO World Heritage since 1994.
The golden pavilion has three floors: the first one in built in the "palace" style, the second one in the "samurai" style and the last one in zen style. The second and third floors are covered by gold leaf. What is even more amazing is that the leaves were set on lacquer, and given what small pieces of true lacquer-ware cost... The Chinese phoenix on top of the pavilion is a classic ornament for temples, and is also found on Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺). Besides the Kinkaku and the pond surrounding it, the temple also has another smaller pond with a stone pagoda sitting on an island. A tea house can also be found near the end of the visitor's path, close to the gift shop.
Kinkaku-ji was the model for the another famous retreat-became-temple Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺). The gardens of Ginkaku-ji are more elaborate and beautiful, and the pavillion is a lot less "bling bling" in style, all of which makes me prefer the silver pavilion. There's no real competition between them, however, as they are both sub-temples of Shokoku-ji (相国寺). This is so little known that on my pages too both Silver and Gold pavilions are presented as separate temples.
The best time to visit Kinkaku-ji is in... winter, quite rare for a temple in Kyoto! But when the snow covers the temple and its grounds the contrast between the gold of the temple and the black and white of the landscape is beautiful. You'll have to be lucky though, as Kyoto has only a few snowy days per year!
Near Kinkaku-ji is another tourist laden (but beautiful) place: the famous rock garden of Ryoan-ji (龍安寺). Further down the same road is Ninna-ji (仁和寺) and then Myoshin-ji (妙心寺) and its sub-temples. All can be done in one day if one wakes up early...
Recommended for: Access:
Nearby: Hirano-jinja 平野神社 (830m), Jobonrendai-ji 上品蓮台寺 (950m), Tōji-in 等持院 (970m), Kitano Tenman-gū 北野天満宮 (1.1km), Ryōan-ji 龍安寺 (1.1km)
External links: Website, ウィキペディア, Wikipedia, Wikipédia, Kyoto Navi, Trip Advisor, Kyoto Design, 京都風光, Inside Kyoto, Marutake, そうだ京都, Satellite view, Map
Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kyoto, 京都, 右京, Ukyo-ku, Kinkaku-ji, 金閣寺, temple, 寺院, 仏閣, UNESCO world heritage, 鹿苑寺, Rokuon-ji