Ashikaga Yoshimasa initiated plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens as early as 1460; and after his death, Yoshimasa would arrange for this property to become a Zen temple. The temple is today associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen.
The two-storied Kannon-den (観音殿, Kannon hall), is the main temple structure. Its construction began February 21, 1482 (Bummei 14 , 4th day of the 2nd month). The structure's design sought to emulate the golden Kinkaku-ji which had been commissioned by his grandfather Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
It is popularly known as Ginkaku, the "Silver Pavilion" because of the initial plans to cover its exterior in silver foil; but this familiar nickname dates back only as far as the Edo period (1600–1868).
During the Ōnin War, construction was halted. Despite Yoshimasa's intention to cover the structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, this work was delayed for so long that the plans were never realized before Yoshimasa's death.
During his reign as Shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa inspired a new outpouring of traditional culture, which came to be known as Higashiyama Bunka (the Culture of the Eastern Mountain). Having retired to the villa, it is said Yoshimasa sat in the pavilion, contemplating the calm and beauty of the gardens as the Ōnin War worsened and Kyoto was burned to the ground.
In 1485, Yoshimasa became a Zen Buddhist monk. After his death on January 27, 1490 (Entoku 2, 7th day of the 1st month), the villa and gardens became a Buddhist temple complex, renamed Jishō-ji after Yoshimasa's Buddhist name.
After extensive restoration, started February 2008, Ginkaku-ji is again in full glory to visit. The garden and temple complex are open to the public. There is still no silver foil used. After much discussion,
it was decided to not refinish the lacquer to the original state . The lacquer finish was the source of the original silver appearance of the temple, with the reflection of silver water of the pond on the lacquer finish.
A Cultural and Architectural History by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, "In 1474, following his retirement from the shogunate, Yoshimasa (1436-1490), had some of the stones and pine trees of the Flowery Palace and Muromachi Hall, both of which had been devastated by civil warfare, removed to his villa retreat at the base of Higashiyama (the Eastern Hills).
The Zen culture is not entirely represented in this garden because it was financed by the shogunate as a retreat and the primary use was aesthetic enjoyment. Instead of being designed by and for the use of monks, practitioners of zazen, or seated meditation.
Ginkakuji was constructed in relation to its surroundings. This is described in the Journal of Asian Studies by Ichito Ishida and Delmer M. Brown, "The southeast corner of the first floor has openings in the walls, since a pond is located on that corner of the building, beyond which the moon rises between the peaks of Higashiyama.
And since a lake extending northeastward reflected light that suffices even for reading, the room on the northeast corner has been planned as a library. Therefore the natural objects do not merely surround the building, twisting it out of shape but supply intrinsic motivation for the structural design." The sand garden of Ginkaku-ji has become particularly well known; and the carefully formed pile of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji is an essential element in the garden.