It is mid-July in Kyoto. The unforgiving sun and the endless flux of tourists turn the city into a feverish sauna. But it is a sauna in which you voluntarily trap yourself. Like everyone else, you want a glimpse of historical Japan in its finest fashion. If temples and shrines are on the top of your list, congratulations, you’re in luck: there seems to be an infinite number of them scattered around the city and its suburbs. The Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is the most symbolic. It is a Buddhist temple covered in gold leaf in the heart of Kyoto.
The actual temple is much more modest than the image one conjures up for ‘a building covered in gold’, but the gilded exterior is not the only intrigue. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the temple’s majestic presence and its historical penchant for getting burned down. The first known destruction of the Golden Pavilion was during the Onin War from 1467-77; since then fire had been the exclusive perpetrator of the temple’s demise. The bombing during WWII spared the ancient city, but only five years later the Golden Pavilion was engulfed in flames once again when an unhinged monk set it on fire.
This peculiar event inspired the remarkable Japanese author Yukio Mishima to write The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a novel that examines the psychological transformation of the arsonist Mizoguchi leading up to his decision to set the temple ablaze. After Mishima’s sensational novel, fire became a consistent motif in the monument’s mythos.
Even though it is inspired by history, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion takes on a life of its own. Mishima takes the reader through Mizoguchi’s mind, from his friendless childhood to his years as a student at the temple. The novel’s success lies in the detailed portrayal of Mizoguchi – his twisted thoughts and self-loathing that transform into an envious hatred for anything and anyone beautiful. Mishima omitted none of the violent and perverted nature of the character, making the protagonist highly unlikeable. By the end of the story, however, one can understand his motivation for arson: for Mizoguchi, nothing can compare to the divine beauty of the Golden Pavilion, to the extent that it prevents him from having a sexual encounter with the girl of his dreams. On top of this, the image of beauty that Mizoguchi had constructed in his mind is gradually tainted. He concludes that the only way to preserve the incomparable glory of the Golden Pavilion is total annihilation to preempt decay.
When I read Mishima’s novel, the Golden Pavilion mystified me. But seeing it in person was a different story. No one warns you about the beam of sun burning on your skin, or the sea of crowds barring you from an uninterrupted viewing.
The view is momentarily breathtaking. The reflection of the golden temple on the tranquil lake creates a luminous, transcendental effect. Your thoughts drift to Mizoguchi and Kyoto in the 1950s… but the next moment, someone’s camera blocks your gaze, pulling you back to reality.
The magnificent monument is still standing, but some of its magic is lost.
Disappointment is common, because there is always a gap between our mental projection and reality, whether it is a sight during travels or, in Mizoguchi’s case, an idealised version of people and places. As extreme and illogical as his actions are, they are not completely alienated from common experience. The question then becomes: How can we deal with disillusionment? Mizoguchi chooses violence, but it is neither sustainable nor morally acceptable.
If in fact the notion of beauty is as vulnerable as the repeatedly burned Golden Pavilion, then it is also malleable. In the end it centres on perspective. Beauty and disappointment are not opposing forces. Taking a step back, the disappointment that follows makes a perishable moment all the more treasurable; accepting disappointment as an integral part of beauty resolves a seemingly hopeless dilemma.
Perhaps disappointment is itself a form of beauty. It leads to an unspeakable frustration that is not as heavy as a loss, but lingers on until it is internalised and becomes one of the blemishes of life. Disappointment is both beautiful and irritating.