Katsura Imperial Villa

Invisible Excellence


Points of View
(1)Arrangement of every element
(2)A choice selection of materials
(3)A great deal of time and effort

Katsura Imperial Villa, formerly a villa for the aristocracy, is undoubtedly one of the most excellent and elegant creations in Japan. This villa is my most recommended sightseeing spot in Kyoto, and indeed in the whole country. The villa was created using ordinary natural materials such as wood, bamboo, stones and vegetation, but care was taken to pick out only the very best materials. The arrangement of every element in the garden, the buildings, the trees and the stepping-stones was masterfully planned and painstakingly executed, and took a great deal of time and effort. Now, let’s go and see the villa.

A first look at the villa in perspective reveals its trees, paths and architecture arranged in the center of the pond, with some of the buildings connected by stepping-stone paths. The pond plays an important role, as in those days pleasure boating was a favorite activity here, and locating the pond at the center of the garden adds a coolness in summer. In addition, due to the continuous changes in vista along the paths surrounding the pond and the physical effect of the surface as a mirror, the scenery is full of variety and seems more expansive than it actually is.

Walking around the garden, the progression of scenery consists of an exquisite combination of the pond, trees, stones and buildings. As there are no needless elements in the garden and the right elements are placed in the right places, the overall atmosphere is one of good order. Visitors must walk on the stones to move from one building to another. Some of these stones are arranged at a certain distance from each other, while others are paved. The stones are all different in color and shape but create a sense of unity, and some stones of an irregular shape are deliberately used as stepping-stones. All these stones are very nice in color, texture and appearance.

Next, let’s take a look at the buildings, which are quite simple. Their walls are painted in quiet colors, and there are fewer pictures painted on the fusuma papered sliding doors than in other buildings. All views of the garden from inside the buildings perfectly match the simplicity of the buildings themselves. These garden views take the place of pictures on the fusuma, making it unnecessary to paint images of artificial landscapes on them. When the fusuma are closed as a room partition, there are no pictures in the rooms, but when they are opened up a view of the garden appears in their place.

Looking carefully at the materials used in the villa, one can see that only the best were chosen. Visitors may be captivated by the beautiful grain of the columns, the board used for the shutter casing and the floor of the hallway. Grain was used as a kind of design concept, and each shutter case features grain of the same pattern. The wood for the hallway floors is different from that in other areas, and the more it is worn underfoot, the more polished it becomes.

As a whole, the ordinary materials used in the villa contain a hidden beauty that is not overwhelming, but at the same time is far from dull. The building is a result of a careful selection of materials and placement of elements. Although the villa is not so big, it took a great deal of time and effort to make. One of the features of Japanese culture is the use of energy, which is used to make things not only bigger and more decorative but also more elaborate, and to hide beauty inside things. Another cultural feature is that the supreme is made from the ordinary; exquisite work has been made using ordinary materials through careful selection and investment of time and effort.

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