Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto

May 19, 2010

From my first visit to Japan in 1962 my finest memory was the visit to the Katsura Imperial Villa. It seemed to capture the exquisite best of Japanese aesthetics in its gardens and architecture. Its purpose as a retreat from the Imperial Court for tea ceremonies, moon viewing etc was intriguing and satisfying. On my next visit to Kyoto, in 1982, I was frustrated that I could not get the necessary permission from the Imperial Household Agency to visit. However, this time our friends at Real-Japan were able to secure the permission two months in advance. Linda and I went on April 20, 2010, in a slight drizzle. 

The first simple villa on the site was built by a younger brother of the emperor in 1615. After his son married the daughter of a wealthy feudal lord, the rest of the buildings and gardens were built around 1662. It remains in almost the same form today. There is a circular path through the gardens around the lake. It is mostly made of a wide variety of beautiful rough stepping stones.

The photos below are all mine, shown in the order I took them as we walked around the lake and ended at the main building complex. I have used descriptions of the various small buildings in the garden from the English language brochure we were given, which, fortunately, I was able to find on-line:

The Miyukimon Gate was used as the entrance exclusively for members of the Imperial Family and their guests. This gate was built on the occasion of the visit of retired Emperor Gomizuno’o in the mid-17th century. Although the gate was torn down later, it was restored during the time of Prince Yakahito. The thatched gable roof is supported by log pillars with the bark still attached. The Miyukimon Gate shares a sense of silence and simplicity that are characteristic of the Katsura Imperial Villa.

There are many flat stones packed onto the Suhama shore, which juts out into the pond. There is a lantern at the tip and the intention is to create an image of the sea, with the lantern representing a light house on a cape. Furthermore, the stone bridge connecting the islet represents Amanohashidate, which is known as one of the best three scenic spots in Japan, along with Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture and Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture. You can see the Shokintei (see below) on the left.

You can see the Shoin, or main house complex, across the lake.


Crossing a large stone bridge brings the visitor to the entrance of the Shokintei, the most important teahouse at the villa. “Shokin” means the sound of a koto (Japanese harp) and the whistle of the wind passing through pine trees. Because the entrance is extremely small, visitors must hunch over to pass through to the interior. The Shokintei is a typical Japanese teahouse; there are eight windows.  A different perspective of the Shokintei can be enjoyed from the east, north and west. The ichinoma, or first room, has a blue-and white checkered pattern on the sliding door and tokonoma alcove. This is the result of bold and flexible creativity and ingenuity and it appears as novel and contemporary today as it did back then.

The Shokatei, built in a style like a teahouse at the pass, is located at the highest point of elevation in the garden. It is an ideal location to stay in the summer.

The Shoiken is a country-style teahouse beside the shoreline that has cut paving stones leading to it in a diagonal line. In the room with a narrow wooden passageway along the building facing the garden, there are six round windows lined up horizontally above the waist-high papered sliding door, but the combination of the sills is different for every one and the material used for the lattice window is a subtle combination of wood and bamboo. The interior is partitioned by fusuma, or sliding doors, but the ceiling is not partitioned. This is thought to give an appearance of airiness inside.

This Onrindo is located at the base of the hill on which the Shokatei is located and it was where the memorial tablets of the Katsura family were previously kept. Now only the structure remains.

The cluster of the Shoin, which consist of the Koshoin, Chushoin, Gakkinoma and Shingoten, are built next to one another along an east-west axis.  The Koshoin has a Tsukimidai, or a moon-viewing veranda, facing the pond.  The Chushoin has three rooms and Gakkinoma was where musical instruments were stored.  The Shingoten was added on by Prince Toshitada on the occasion of the visit by retired Emperor Gomizuno’o. Throughout the period from 1976 to 1991 large-scale restoration work took place, with each Shoin and teahouse being dismantled and then rebuilt.


The Gepparo is a teahouse standing on a promontory above the shore of the pond near the Koshoin. There is a spacious earthen area to the front-center of the structure. It is a good place to watch the moon and another feature is that there is no interior ceiling in the teahouse and the back of the roof looks like the bottom of a boat.

This is a veranda for moon-viewing. Situated in front of the ninoma, or the second room, one of the rooms of the Koshoin, the Tsukimidai is built in a way so that it protrudes from the broad passageway along the building facing the garden toward the lake and is constructed with bamboo flooring. It goes without saying that this is not only a lovely place to enjoy the view of the moon, but also an ideal place to enjoy a panoramic view of the entire villa gardens. It is a cool and refreshing place to be in summer.

The pine  tree was planted so that it is impossible to view the entire garden from one place and one must seek out views.

I was not at all disappointed in my second visit. Linda really appreciated it also.


Now I can have a fantasy of the emperor and empress inviting us to join them for a tea ceremony and moon viewing at their Katsura villa. 


3 Responses to “Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto”

  1. Troo Says:

    Beautiful! What a rare treat to be able to enter these grounds. Well worth the effort!

  2. Timothy Says:

    in the first room interested to know what the ‘pit’ on the right is…for cooking?
    the idea of inside/outside, mind/nature discussion is intricate and complex in the world of Japanese architecture….

  3. Tony Says:

    I want one, please. Great pics.

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