At 2:30 in the morning on July 2, 1950, Hayashi Yoken, a 22-year-old monk, set fire to Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. He held a match to a small bundle of kindling he placed near a wooden portrait of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the temple’s founder. Hayashi Yoken was going to burn himself with the temple but at the last minute lost his nerve and ran into the woods. He ran to the nearest mountain, Daimon-ji. He watched the Golden Pavilion burning through the trees, the fire reflecting in its pond. He downed a bottle of sleeping medicine, then stabbed himself in the heart. 

Some said he had been stricken by the temple’s beauty. Some said he despised its ostentation. Some said he wanted to take it away from the people who came to defile the relics of the Buddha with their gawking. Some said he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Some said he had dementia. His mother said he was short-tempered and shy.

He confessed: I used paper and mosquito netting to start it, and after seeing the fire catch, I ran away and drank sleeping medicine I had bought one week previously. Although I had planned this from the time I made the purchase, even now I do not believe I have done anything wrong.

Hayashi Yoken’s knife missed his heart. He had stab wounds beneath his left collarbone. He survived.

The Golden Pavilion was five centuries old. By 4:00 in the morning, it was gone. Firefighters were able to rescue Yoshimitsu’s portrait but with its head blackened and badly deformed. A fire alarm had recently been installed in a small room on the first floor of the Golden Pavilion, but it stopped working and had been sent out to be fixed.

Before seeing the Golden Pavilion for the first time, Mizoguchi, the Hayashi Yoken-inspired protagonist of Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, imagines it as both a “small, delicate piece of workmanship and a huge, monstrous cathedral that soared up endlessly into the sky.” The reconciliation of the two forms the basis for Mizoguchi’s obsession.

The Golden Pavilion was rebuilt in 1955. Hayashi Yoken, sentenced to seven years in prison, was released after five and died a year later.

It was a clear hot summer day in Kyoto. Hundreds of people passed before the Golden Pavilion. The trees were animated, in waves, with cicadas. Large, straggling tours trailed tour guides, old women, whose voices floated over the brown and green pond. The tourists were either extrapolations or betrayals of Hayashi Yoken. It was difficult—watching the people stare longingly, absent-mindedly, or not even raise their eyes—to tell the difference between reverence and disinterest, even disrespect. They were not, in their minds, watching it burn.

A young mother and father and their young daughter, three or four, stopped on the path before the Golden Pavilion. The mother was holding the girl. The girl was struggling, trying to wriggle free of her mother’s arms. Neither she nor the father spoke.They signed to each other. The daughter stared at them, watching their hands. Then she spoke, in a quiet voice—the quiet of someone talking to herself in a room. Her parents responded in sign language. The mother was Japanese. The father was white. They were deaf. The daughter was not.

Watching the young girl with her parents, I thought of my father. I can hear birds, sometimes water, he said, the last time I saw him. That was almost a decade ago, years after he stopped speaking to my sister, a few years before he stopped speaking to me.  

I am profoundly deaf in one ear and on the border of severely and profoundly deaf in the other, my father said. When I was growing up I knew that he was hard of hearing (the phrase we used), but I did not know what that meant, not exactly. He rarely talked about it, and when he did, he was elusive. Or, I could not hear it. Only that there was a time every night when his hearing aids came out, and sat like snails on the sink. That was when he disappeared, and I knew not to talk to or try to engage him. It did not occur to me that he might have looked forward, every day, to the moment when he took his hearing aids out, and that when the moment arrived, he experienced the most extraordinary relief.

The third floor of the Golden Pavilion is empty. The wooden floor is polished, a dark mirror.

Years after my family left the house where I grew up, I returned to it. The neighbors’ house had burned down. I walked through the ashes. I went up the front steps and rang the bell. The door opened onto an empty hallway. A young girl with blonde hair, no more than four years old, appeared. She was just tall enough to reach the doorknob. She looked up at me. I looked down at her. Have you seen anyone in my room? I wanted to ask. Have you followed anyone into my room? Her eyes were enormous. But she did not look scared. Behind me stood a row of tulip trees, then gray birch, thousands, interminable, forming a wall. Or . . . have you seen anyone strange, or unfamiliar, going up the stairs? 

A woman’s voice came from around a wall. Who’s at the door? The girl did not answer. Her mother appeared. I realized, or felt, that I was trespassing. I used to live here, I managed, suddenly unsure. I wanted to visit. The woman asked if I wanted to come in. Her invitation startled me. I did not know how to answer. I thought that maybe I was a ghost, and that part of being a ghost, was being invited into the house where I used to live, up the stairs, into my room, and into the wall. No, I said, I just wanted to see. See what? I had not seen anything. I thanked the woman, then the young girl, who, even as I walked away, continued to hold the door open.

Excerpted from “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” by Brandon Shimoda from The Grave on the Wall. Copyright © 2019 by Brandon Shimoda. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books, www.citylights.com

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