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Katsura Imperial Villa - 桂離宮 (built 1620-1663, minor construction later)

The Katsura palace (Katsura Rikyū) is a pivotal work of Japanese Architecture, often described as the "quintessence of Japanese taste." First revealed to the world by Bruno Taut, the great German architect, in the early twentieth century, Katsura stunned the architectural community of the West. Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, pillars of the Modernist establishment, were fascinated by Katsura's "modernity." They saw in its orthogonal and modular spaces, devoid of decoration, clear parallels to contemporary Modernism, going so far as to laud Katsura as a "historical" example of Modernity.

But this approach obscures a deeper understanding. Though the interior of the palace resembles a Mondrian painting at first glance, the designers of course had no such intention. What the Modernists admire in Katsura does not represent an early indictment of ornament, but is rather the deeply personal reaction of its designer, Prince Toshihito, to the social currents of his age.

Katsura's prestige is not lost on contemporary Japan. Unlike most of historic Kyoto, the government tightly controls access to Katsura. Special permission to visit must be obtained in advance through the Imperial Household Agency, the office in charge of the Emperor's affairs. Unfortunately, we did not know this ahead of time and were not allowed inside. Even those who get permission are not allowed to take photographs or venture into the palace.

The above photos are a 1/100 model of Katsura's interior space built by Timothy M. Ciccone, the author. It was on display at the University of Virginia's Weedon Exhibition in February 1999. The scale of the model is 1:100.

Katsura was built in the 17th century, but its origins extend back to the Heian Era a thousand years ago, when Kyoto was known as Heian-Kyo. Around 978 a woman wrote the first novel in recorded history, the Tale of Genji, which chronicles the life of an ideal courtier and his romantic liaisons around the capital. The book gained enormous popularity through the centuries, becoming standard among the 17th century aristocracy. At that time the Togukawa Shogunate was busy consolidating its power, arrogating political control to itself at the expense of the nobles. To keep the aristocracy entertained and out of trouble, the Shogunate encouraged the nobles to pursue lives of cultivated leisure. Blocked from political participation, both the aristocracy and the Emperor diverted themselves with cultural pastimes: poetry, painting, calligraphy, tea, etc., etc.

Prince Toshihito, the founder of Katsura, was born in 1579. He was a younger brother of the Emperor Goyozei. At an early age the boy was briefly adopted by the national unifier Hideyoshi Toyotomi as a son and heir, but separated from this relationship after Hideyoshi sired his own. Toshihito, as a prince, became the head of a new line called the Hachijo family, but it was a rather poor branch without much resources. To improve this situation, it was proposed in 1615 that he marry Sen-Hime, the widow of the second Togukawa shogun, but little interest was shown by both parties. Instead, he took a wife from the Miyazu family, a dignified but not particularly wealthy family, winning the marginal income of 3,000 koku per year (about 15,000 bushels of rice).

The Prince was never fascinated by ostentatious wealth. From an early age he showed great interest in the Tale of Genji and other literature. When some land along the south bank of the Katsura River passed into his hands, he was no doubt aware of the literary significance. In the chapter of the Tale of Genji entitled "The Wind in the Pines" it is written:

Far away, in the country village of Katsura, the reflection of the moon upon the water is clear and tranquil.

Possessing the exact spot of land mentioned in his favorite book, the Prince set about constructing a villa modeled on the pond gardens of the Tale of Genji. Katsura also figured in other ancient literature. The Prince probably knew that at one time a graceful mansion stood at the spot, modeled on the villa of the Tang poet Po Chu-i. Using both of these as a precedent, he set about constructing his own villa.

The limited resources of the Prince compelled him to exercise restraint and fiscal discipline. Accordingly, the first Katsura Villa seems to have been little more than "a teahouse in the melon patch"--for most of the area had given over to melon fields. But by June, 18, 1620 the Prince had made enough of an impression that he wrote in his diary: "Shimo Katsura teahouse built. Guests come often." By June 18, 1624, the Prince had apparently devoted considerably more of his scant resources, for the records of the Shokokuji temple mention that

hills have been formed and a pond dug in the middle of the garden. There are boats in the pond, bridges over it, and pavilions around it. From the pavilions the view of the mountains in all directions is superb.

The same record calls the villa a "palace" by 1631. Apparently the villa became the pride of its owner, who lavished whatever he had on the project. Even so, the Katsura of 1631 was far smaller than today's. It consisted of just the Old Shoin, the Middle Shoin, and several tea houses with the central garden. Still, it was large enough to hold moon-viewing parties for guests in model of the Tale of Genji.

The Prince died in 1629, when his son Toshitada was only ten years old. Consequently the boy made little use of the villa, and by 1631 it was already noted that the villa was deteriorating. But the young Prince shared the same interest in literature as his late father, and by 1641 had visited the dilapidated villa. When he married Fu-Hime, the daughter of the lord of the Kaga clan, his income grew much greater than the 3,000 koku inherited from his father. Accordingly, he gained the financial means to thoroughly renovate the villa, which he proceeded to do after 1642.

Toshitada was an enthusiastic practitioner of the tea ceremony, which encourages an attitude of rustic simplicity. He desired to renovate Katsura into an ideal place to serve tea, and to these ends built several additional teahouses on the grounds. He also explicitly mentioned his wish to make the garden similar to the one in the Tale of Genji, apparently "making [the workmen] awestruck and surprising them with the concept that he had."

It should be noted that Katsura was not the result of an architect's designs, but was the inspired creation of the Hachijo Princes themselves.

After Toshitada's renovations the fame of the villa grew. On March 12, 1658, the retired Emperor Gomino-o decided to visit the palace. The reasons were twofold. Not only did the ex-Emperor wish to gain inspiration from his ongoing Shugakuin villa project (also documented on this website), but also wanted to see his son Yakahito, who had been adopted by the heirless Toshitada. For this special visit, Toshitada constructed the "New Shoin" for the Emperor's pleasure.

The Modernist admirers of Katsura have always decried the New Shoin. In contrast to the earlier components, the New Shoin is deliberately ornamented and less minimal. Stylistically, it is the crystallization of a change in Japanese taste occurring in mid 17th century. Previously, the shoin style of architecture had dominated Japanese taste. The Shoin style is usually formal, orthogonal, and ostentatious, but the financial difficulties and literary tastes of the founder Toshihito created a mild, restrained shoin style that is simple but elegant. The greater income of his son, Toshitada, allowed the New Shoin to be decorative and fashionable, in keeping with the "Sukiya" style that was soon to replace Shoin architecture. However, the palace seems harmoniously constructed because Sukiya had not yet overwhelmed the basic principles of the Shoin style when the New Shoin was constructed.

Gomino-o again visited the palace in 1663. By that time the grounds were largely as they appear today. Prince Toshitada himself died in 1662, and his heir perished just three years later. Over the years future additions were impossible because both the fourth and fifth generation princes died in their teens. The sixth generation prince died in his thirties, but the seventh generation, Prince Yakahito, lived from 1703 to 1767. During his relatively long life he made frequent visits to the villa and made numerous repairs, although leaving the general layout intact. The villa passed out of Hachijo hands in 1883, when the family became extinct. The vacant palace reverted to the Emperor, but suffered damage during the turmoil of the Meiji Restoration. Fortunately, there has never been a fire. In 1983 a comprehensive restoration was made, involving the dismantling of virtually the entire building, replacing rotten wood and repairing the sagging floor before reassembly. Thanks to this treatment, the palace of today is weathered but sturdy, retaining most of its original wood.

The Katsura is so successful because it is a universal work of art, one in which everyone can find something to admire and always finds something new. Though large, it seems more like a collection of discreet experiences than a sprawling villa. Though minimal, it possesses an elegance that gives it grace. Though built in phases over a half century, it seems planned from the start. No single work captures the essence of Japan like Katsura.


The approximate location of the villa is 34.983876' N, 135.709962' E (WGS 84 map datum).


Actual images copyright 2005 Arie Kutz

Model images copyright 1998 Timothy M. Ciccone

Mosher, Gouverneur. Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide
  Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1986. Rutland, Vermont

Nishi, Kazuo and Kazuo Hozumi. What is Japanese Architecture?
  Kodansha International, 1983. Tokyo and New York

Nitschke, Gunter & Benedikt Taschen. The Architecture of the Japanese Garden.
  Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 1991. Germany

Schaarschmidt-Richter, Irmtraud & Osamu Mori. Japanese Gardens.
  William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1979. New York and Tokyo

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pepper posted on Fri May 30, 2014 1:00 pm:

i luv this place

Net simon posted on Thu Oct 11, 2012 12:00 am:

I need masterplan of the Katsura garden in Kyoto of Japane. Could you give me ?

David posted on Wed Jul 04, 2012 2:12 pm:

The Emperor was Go-Mizunoo. Also, I believe that the Tale of Genji is the oldest extant novel, but not the oldest. There are references to novels in the Ancient Greek and Roman periods, but there are no extant copies.

Jo-lynn posted on Sun Jul 01, 2012 11:26 am:

I have a large book, "The Imperial Villas of Katsura and Shugakuin", supervised by Osamu Mori, written by Tadashi Muraoka, summarized in english by Makoto Nakamura and photographed by Hisao Ohara published in 1960. The book has an outer box. The LC classification number is NA1557.k9.05. I have book #74 of 300. I am looking for more information. There are tons of pictures and lots of information. I've been approached by many people wanting to purchase this book. Thank you kindly.

Kathi Sorensen posted on Thu Dec 01, 2011 11:47 am:

We could not obtain tickets to visit Katsura in 2008, but in 2010 we were able to get tickets when a couple cancelled. We joined a tour with a party of Japanese people, but the guide kindly translated part of his lecture for us. We had been preparing for the visit for a long time so we pretty much recognized what we were seeing. Visitors should be aware that the tour proceeds at a brisk pace and photos have to be taken quickly before the "minders" sweep you along.

Bronagh posted on Thu Feb 24, 2011 4:19 pm:

Im wanting to build a model of this building, I however can't find any scaled plans or sections. do you know where i can find these?

hovhannessian daniele posted on Mon May 10, 2010 8:52 pm:

can you ,please booked for 2 persons entereds and visit of the villa between 05/12 and 05/14

Brett Graybill posted on Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:13 pm:

Thank you for informing me on an essential piece of Japanese art history!

M.C. posted on Wed Feb 10, 2010 11:28 pm:

Very informative and helped me alot with writing an essay on the Katsura villa.

Nicholas J. Pety posted on Wed Jun 17, 2009 1:09 am:

I love Katsura, If I had the means to rcreate it where I live I would. A masterpiece.

Julia White posted on Tue Mar 31, 2009 11:23 pm:

Thank you so much for your website/ Katsura Imperial Palace. I so enjoyed it- text, images and the superb model. It really clarified things for me, and added to my intense pleasure in the existence of this building. I am currently working on a painting of the Katsura Palace, which I visited recently. Regards, Julia White