April 17, 2008
by Kiyoshi Umaba
Katsura Imperial Villa – Panoramas of an Edo-period Countryside
Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu) is a cherished cultural treasure in the western part of Kyoto City, but because Kyoto Imperial Palace (or Kyoto Gosho), which stands in the city center, is so famous among foreign tourists, many do not know that visiting the imperial villa is actually a much more enriching experience. In this article, you will come to see clearly how beautiful and important the villa is, while learning about its history, scenery and what styles of buildings were used in the era in which it was erected.
What is Katsura Imperial Villa?
Katsura Imperial Villa is a former detached palace, or retreat, which lies in present-day Nishikyo Ward, in the southwest of Kyoto City. Alongside the villa flows the Katsura River. This suburb of the city was once remote countryside, fairly far from Kyoto City, and hence a very quiet and comfortable place to live secretly for a member of the aristocracy. The spacious grounds of this villa cover about 69,000 square meters. The villa is famous for its migration-style gardens. This means that you can enjoy walking from one garden to another across wooden bridges. It is like going across beautiful islands. Here you can also enjoy the panorama of lovely nature through the four seasons. The villa’s elegant buildings are among the finest examples of the Sukiya Style of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868).
Nowadays, the Imperial Household Agency of Japan has reserved or protected the villa. Detailed information will be shown later…
History of Katsura Imperial Villa
Katsura Imperial Villa was constructed in the mid-17th century, early in the Edo Period. The villa was a cottage of an imperial family, Hachijo no Miya. Katsura had been well-known as a retreat for aristocracy back when Kyoto was still known as “Heian Kyo” because of its relaxing peacefulness. The villa used to be called “Katsura Sanso,” simply Katsura Villa. The villa was planned by Hachijo no Miya Tomohito and completed by his son, Tomotada. Tomohito was said to be sophisticated, with an understanding of the styles of construction popular in his era, and he adopted a Sukiya-shoin mixed style including teahouses, a Japanese style study and gardens, etc. The family Hachijo itself declined and broke apart in 1881, and the name of the villa changed three times (Kyogoku no Miya, Katsura no Miya and Katsura Imperial Palace).
A Stroll through Katsura Imperial Villa
At last, you have come to the highlight of my tour. From now, I am going to accompany my explanations with wonderful photos.
First, when you enter the villa, you can see a gate with a thatched roof. It is called Miyuki Mon, or Miyuki Gate. It was used for the doorway to welcome and entertain imperial families or important guests. Before reaching it, a low pine tree welcomes you, called Sumiyoshi no Matsu, or The Pine Tree of Sumiyoshi, because it hides the inner panorama of the gardens.
Second, you can see a teahouse called Shokin Tei, or Shokin Teahouse. In this thatched teahouse, you can imagine how imperial families or guests enjoyed the beautiful vista of the gardens while drinking a cup of green tea. Today, all of the fusuma (framed and papered sliding doors) are opened for enjoying the views, so you can look around at four different elegant panoramas.
To join an actual one-hour sightseeing tour of the villa, which is free of charge (and the only way to get inside), you will first need to get permission from the Imperial Household Agency office, located just inside the grounds of the Imperial Palace in downtown Kyoto. The same is true for Katsura’s counterpart villa in eastern Kyoto, Shugakui Rikyu. The tours of Katsura, held several times daily except Sundays, many Saturdays and all national holidays, are conducted in Japanese only, but an audio guide is available in English. To book your tour, apply in advance with your passport. Foreign visitors can get bookings fairly quickly, sometimes even for the same day, while Japanese tourists may have to wait three months unless they are accompanying foreigners. The IHA office is open Monday to Friday from 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 noon and from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m..
Katsura Imperial Villa is a 15-minute walk from Katsura Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. You can also ride the no. 33 Kyoto City Bus from Kyoto Station for about 20 minutes and get off at “Katsura Rikyu-mae” bus stop.