On a sunny day in May 2016, I took part in a guided tour at Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu) in Kyoto Prefecture. As some of you may know, reserving a tour there is not an easy task. Instead of securing a booking through the Internet, I visited the office of the Imperial Household Agency located in the compound of Kyoto Imperial Palace in person in early May and reserved a tour scheduled to be conducted two weeks afterwards. It is worth waiting because Katsura Villa is one of the interesting places in Kyoto.
The compound of the villa is surrounded by a unique hedgerow made of bamboo grass. It spans over 200 meters and is called Katsura hedge. As you approach the front gate, the Katsura hedge ends and a bamboo fence called ho-gaki begins and continues to the entrance.
There is an air of simplicity and cleanliness around the entrance area, with no daunting objects like an imposing wall. It made me excited to just think about what is waiting inside.
Katsura Imperial Villa is located in Katsura (formerly called “Katsura village”), Nishikyo-ku in Kyoto Prefecture. The area had been well-known as a spot for moon-viewing long before the villa was constructed, and it also has been closely related to the Tale of Genji which was written in the Heian Period. Studies suggest that the origin of Katsura Imperial Villa dates back to the early 17th century when Prince Toshihito constructed the original main building, the Koshoin, there. In the middle of the 17th century, it developed almost to the point of its current state.
Near the chumon gate there is a small pine tree called Sumiyoshi Pine Tree. It is as if the pine tree prevents visitors from looking at the entire view of the garden from this point.
Passing under the chumon gate, the stone path meanders at first, and then, extends diagonally to the left toward the entrance of the Koshoin. Green moss surrounds the stone pavement. This is where the noblemen used to get off the palanquin to enter the Koshoin. Even from here, we can’t see the inside of the building, nor can we get a good look at the other buildings or the garden, as the shrubberies obstruct the view.
At Katsura Imperial Villa, the buildings constructed in the early Edo period still remain intact, and the “circuit style” garden centered around the beautiful pond is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Japanese gardens.
Tsukimidai, whose surface is made up of thin bamboo sticks, is a moon-viewing veranda protruding from the Koshoin. They say that from here one can enjoy the entire view of the garden, including the Shokin-tei tea house on the other side of the pond. However, since the participants of the guided tour were not allowed to enter into the Koshoin, it was impossible for us to stand upon the floor of tsukimidai to appreciate the view.
There is a dock near tsukimidai where noblemen used to ride in a boat. This dock is said to have been designed so that passengers can get on and off the boat easily and safely. If you look to the right from the dock, you can see the Onrindo structure beyond the azalea shrubberies, as well as the bridge leading up to the Shoka-tei. This garden might be far more complicated than it looks.
Taking part in the guided tour at Katsura Imperial Villa was a pleasant experience. Being well-organized, we moved like a legion, sandwiched between the tour guide at the top and the imperial guard in the rear. Firstly we entered into the garden from the north-northeast side and trod the path toward the Shokin-tei tea house.
After we walked for a while through the woods, listening to the murmur of the brook, suddenly a bleak landscape appeared. It is the Suhama shore which consists only of stones, no plants. A stone lantern stands at the tip of the Suhama.
As we get closer to the Shokin-tei tea house, the Manji-tei rest house can be seen on a small hill on our left side. It is a resting place for the guests of the tea ceremony and famous for its unique formation of the four benches found there. Although this place is not included in the route of the guided tour, we can see the same formation of the benches in the waiting room of the villa’s office.
It is sometimes said that the benches are arranged like this so that the guests don’t need to sit face to face. But it seems the true intention of the creator is still a mystery.
The final step to reach the Shokin-tei tea house is the crossing of the large stone bridge. People may have to be careful not to fall off.
Photographs: taken at Katsura Imperial Villa,
by Koji Ikuma, with Fuji X-T1 & XF 35mmF2 R WR