Katsura Villa

The construction of the Katsura Villa and grounds near Kyoto were commissioned by the princes Toshihito (1579 – 1629) and Toshitada (1619 – 1662) of the Hachijo Imperial Family and built in three main stages starting in 1615 over a period of roughly fifty years.1 In its lifetime, Katsura as attested by Arata Isozaki in his essay The diagonal strategy: Katsura as envisioned by ‘Enshu’s Taste’, has yielded many readings – Bruno Taut who saw in it the epitome of the modernist ideals of simplicity, functionalism and a beauty born out of a richness of the human relationships with the buildings and garden, Sutemi Horiguchi who saw it as an eclectic mix of irresoluble ideas, Kenzo Tange, who saw in its articulation the clash of the ‘jomon’ nature of the common people and the ‘yayoi’ nature of the aristocracy. Isozaki himself proposes an alternate reading of Katsura – that as a construct of the aesthetic ideas of the garden designer and tea master of the early Edo period, Kobori Enshu (1579 -1647),2 long mistaken to be the architect of the villa and its grounds.

Fig 1. Nut Pine of Sumiyoshi

That the Katsura villa allows such varied readings points to the very ambiguity of its nature, which can perhaps be summarized as an assimilation of cultural and aesthetic ideas over many generations moderated by the taste and ideas of Enshu. Enshu’s aesthetic tastes had heterogeneous influences: he was born into a samurai family, studied Zen and had an affinity for ancient imperial court aesthetics, and appropriately although slightly contradictorily, his style is designated the term ‘kirei sabi ‘, kirei which is literally beautiful or gorgeous and sabi, a Zen aesthetic of the patina, a kind of elegance created by time.

The gardens of the Katsura villa are the oldest of the ‘tour garden’ typology, a garden that is designed to be walked in and is meant purely a pleasure garden. The secularized pleasure garden is a relatively late development in the history of the Japanese garden, as gardens have always had religious and philosophic connections to Japanese culture. Nevertheless it is part of the lineage of the Japanese garden, and draws its intrinsic qualities through the assimilation and modification of religious, philosophical and cultural ideas of all its predecessors.

The garden as an essential part of Japanese culture, first made manifest in the courtyard gardens of Shinto shrines, is a distinctive trait that can be attributed to the animistic nature of Shinto. Shinto says that Nature, with its spirits inhabiting rocks, trees, waterfalls and other natural features, is an entity to be revered and man, in his inhabitation of the natural world, should strive for a harmonious relationship. During the Heian period, religious and cultural influences from China that brought Esoteric Buddhism – as well as Ch’an which was to have a profound influence on native spirituality – to Japan started to be incorporated into the garden. The Esoteric Buddhism idea of the garden was that of a paradise garden, a mandalistic conception of nature that was rigidly codified and somewhat at odds with existing Shinto beliefs. Taoist ideas of the shijin-so (‘four quarters’ – the Blue Dragon to the east, the Red Phoenix to the south, the White Tiger to the West and the Black Tortoise to the North) and furo-fushi (immortal beings) were also being incorporated into Japanese culture and influencing urban, house and garden design. Ch’an Buddhism became gradually accommodated within Shinto ideals of nature and Japanese cultural intuitions to give rise to a new strand of Buddhism, Zen.

Zen thought combined the philosophies of Ch’an with the natural intuition of Shinto, so that where Esoteric Buddhism sought to encapsulate the spiritual world of the Buddha in the physical representation of the mandala, Zen Buddhism chose to see in it nature. Consequently, the patterned, geometric aesthetics of Esoteric Buddhism started to become appropriated as Zen aesthetics, finding the grace of the Buddha revealed in natural things, developed. Zen virtues of the wabi (an idea of poverty, of simple taste, of austerity) and the sabi (patina, elegance brought about by age) found resonance in many of the great arts that developed in the wake of Zen Buddhism – the tea ceremony, the flower arrangement (ikebana), the Noh theatre and the dry stone garden of Zen temples, designed as a potent philosophical landscape, a garden for the mind.3 The tea ceremony especially was refined to an art that became the epitome of Japanese culture of the time, and in its evolution, established the tea garden. The tea garden is the essence of the spiritual space, supplementary to the tea-house; it prepares the person for the ceremony of tea. Sen no Rikyu, one of the great masters of the tea ceremony stated, ‘The tea garden is a passage to a house deep in the mountains.’ (Rikyu, n.d., cited by Ito 1972, p. 39)

Fig. 2 View of the Old Shoin                                                        Fig. 3 Pebbly shore of the promontory

 Fig. 4 The Shokatei, ‘mountain hut’                                              Fig. 5 The veranda of the Shokintei, ‘fixed views’

The gardens at Katsura came into being in light of the context of its rich heritage. The physical layout of the garden described rather meagerly as ‘a pond surrounded by a footpath’,4 has its roots in the lake-and-path typology of the paradise garden. The tea garden contributes the rationale for the pleasure garden; it is meant to be used for the aesthetic benefit of the person although the experience is far more varied and outward oriented in the tour garden. The person is invited to walk along a path, which is necessarily choreographed to present to the person a series of constantly changing views of the garden. The rhythm of the journey is guided by the changes in texture of the path, the rise and fall of land, the pauses by the bridges and all the time the scenery unfolds in a series of beautiful spatial arrangements of the natural landscape. The teahouses serves as points of rest as do a bench if the person wishes to tarry. From the points of stasis, different views are orchestrated, revealing the parts of the garden as is suitable from the point of viewing. For instance, as Taut recounts in his Japanese Diary, the view from the Gepparo or the Moon-viewing platform, situated at a high elevation at the north eastern point of the garden, offers a view of the whole grounds and the lake from which to observe the moon and the quiet it casts on the landscape, whereas ‘from the living quarters of the emperor’s suite all you can see of the garden are bare grassy glades and trees; nothing appears… of the art of the garden, either because it is too precious to offer to a casual everyday glance, or in order not to trouble the calm and peace of the simple act of dwelling…’.5

The gardens are also rich in their literary contrivance; the manner in which some parts of the garden are constructed is reminiscent of the scenes from The Tale of Genji, the names of the teahouses are derived from literary sources, the central islets are named after the popular cultural symbols of longevity, the Crane and the Turtle. In the landscaping, other more distant places are alluded to in miniature – the pebbled shore resembling a jagged coastline, the waterfall and the idyllic stream, the ‘teahouse on a mountain road’.Contrived but beautiful and rich in its associations, the reading of the gardens could possibly degenerate into kitsch but this is balanced by the artistry of the visual composition and spatial arrangements which impart to the garden a lyrical quality. As Bruno Taut says, ‘The overall differentiation of all these complex components of the garden merges into a single unity. It achieves a beauty that is completely non-decorative but functional in the spiritual sense. This beauty makes the eye a sort of transformer of thought. The eye thinks… in all that it sees.’7 And that is the potency of a Japanese garden – that through a visual contemplation of the physical manifestation of hundreds’ of years of religious, philosophical and cultural thought, the consciousness of a person is elevated beyond the everyday.

© Kalpana Gurung


1 Isozaki, A., 2005. The diagonal strategy: Katsura as envisioned by “Enshu’s Taste”. In: Ponciroli, V., ed. Katsura Imperial Villa. Milan: Electa Architecture, pp. 9-39


3 Ito, T., 1972. The Japanese Garden. Tokyo: Zokeisha Publications, Ltd.


5 Taut, B., 1933. Japanese Diary. In: Ponciroli, V., ed. Katsura Imperial Villa. Milan: Electa Architecture, pp. 331-347

6 Isozaki, A., 2005. The diagonal strategy: Katsura as envisioned by “Enshu’s Taste”, translated by Sabu Kohso. In: Ponciroli, V., ed. Katsura Imperial Villa. Milan: Electa Architecture, pp. 9-39

7 Taut, B., 1933. Japanese Diary. In: Ponciroli, V., ed. Katsura Imperial Villa. Milan: Electa Architecture, pp. 331-347


Fig 1. Matsumura, Y. Taken from: Ponciroli, V., ed., 2005. Katsura Imperial Villa. Milan: Electa Architecture.

Fig. 2 – 5 Taken from: Ponciroli, V., ed., 2005. Katsura Imperial Villa. Milan: Electa Architecture.


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