The Katsura Imperial Villa, authentically beautiful architecture

Situated in the southern province of Kyoto, along the picturesque Katsura River, the Katsura Imperial Villa, a masterpiece of beauty, served as a detached villa of two aesthetic crown princes: Prince Toshihito (1579~1629, 八条宮智仁親王) and his son, Prince Toshitada (1619~1662, 八条宮智忠親王). Its construction started in 1628 and was completed in 1658 during the transition from the Warring Period (1493-1573) to the Edo period (1603~1868). Despite its calculated beauty, it creates a sense of beauty and harmony. Notably, in 1953, the renowned German architect Bruno Taut eloquently described it as "so beautiful that it almost brings tears to my eyes." This stylish and dynastic villa subtly yet boldly expresses its great beauty, enchanting every visitor who steps foot inside.

Katsura Imperial Palace Stones_桂離宮の石畳
Katsura Imperial Villa's attractive stone pavements

The functional beauty of the garden path created by stone

The Katsura Imperial Villa is full of functional beauty, especially in the use of stone. There are some highlights: 'Arare-koboshi' paving stone technique, three different types of paving stone design called “Shin-Gyo-So” to suit the dignity of each building, and the continuity between the building and the path through the same “Ichimatsu” design of sliding door and paving stone.

Arare-koboshi pathway

Arare-koboshi spilled hailstones, is a garden path built with paving and hardened cobblestones. It is believed that this finishing of the path was contrived for the imperial visit of the retired Emperor, Gomizunoo in, to prevent the sandals of the palanquin bearers from becoming solid from the dirt after rain. About 130,000 stones are carefully selected from sedimentary rocks (chert) that are black, vertically long, and slick at the upper end-gathered locally from along the Katsura-gawa River. Although the "Arare-koboshi” garden path has a simple structure in which the stones were simply driven into the ground without using plaster, the vertically long stones connect and engage with each together, fixing themselves in the ground. Masons have built up beautiful joint patterns for the pavement by arranging each together, fixing themselves in the working out a jigsaw puzzle.

Katsura Imperial Villa’s information panel
Miyuki-Michi pathway

Arare-koboshi in section

“Shin-Gyo-So” classification of the formality

The term 'Shin-Gyo-So' was originally used to describe the writing styles used in Japanese calligraphy: "Shin(真)" for standard script, "Gyo(行)" for collapsed style, and "Sou(草)" for further collapsed style. It is also used to express the formality of the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, architecture of gardens, and so on.

  • Shin: The stone path toward the entrance of Koshoin, a reception building, is composed entirely of hewn stones with angles, such as rectangular and trapezoidal, creating a dignified atmosphere.
  • Gyo: The stone path in front of the outer waiting seat near the teahouse Shokintei, using long, narrow-hewn stone and natural stone, creates both a tense and soft atmosphere.
  • So: The stone path in front of Shoiken, a country-style teahouse, uses seven types of natural stone, creating a very soft atmosphere.

The continuity between Shokin-tei and its stone path

The indigo blue and white Ichimatsu-designed fusuma (sliding doors) adorn the traditional tatami-mat rooms, adding a touch of stylish sophistication to the high-class teahouse, Shokin-tei. The functional beauty blends seamlessly with the blue and white stepping stones that lead from the room to the garden, creating continuity between the two. Each element weaves harmoniously together to create an unparalleled atmosphere, leaving visitors in awe of the timeless appeal of Katsura Imperial Villa.

Katsura Imperial Palace Shokintei teahouse_桂離宮の松琴亭
Shokintei Teahouse
Katsura Imperial Palace stones in front of Shokintei teahouse_桂離宮の松琴亭前の石
Stones in front of Shokintei Teahouse

Gifted Princes, Toshihito, and Toshitada

Prince Toshitada
(Source: wikimedia)
Prince Toshihito
(Source: wikimedia)

Prince Toshihito, the grandson of the 106th Emperor Ogimachi (1517-1593, 正親町天皇), was gifted in reading and writing from an early age. At a Waka poetry party, at the age of only ten, he composed a Waka in front of Emperor Goyozei and was impressed by the participants. Prince Toshihito received the secret of Kokin Waka from Hosokawa Yusai, a powerful lord and a leading figure in the arts and culture of his time. Kokin Wakashū is Japan's first collection of Waka, compiled by order of Emperor Daigo in 905, and has had a profound influence on Japanese culture. The secret of Kokin Waka is a special interpretation of the poetry that is passed down from master to disciple. Through his interactions with prominent cultural figures of the time, Prince Tomohito learned deeply about traditional Japanese art and aesthetics, which he reflected in the construction of the Katsura Imperial Villa.

Tomohito's eldest son, Prince Tomotada, excelled in learning and literature from an early age, studying calligraphy, Waka poetry, and the tea ceremony, and grew up to become a leading cultural figure. Beginning around 1641, he began to rebuild the villa he had once visited with his father, repairing the Koshoin, Chushoin, and its sliding doors with the work of the three Kano School artists (Tanyu, Naonobu, and Yasunobu), who were the best painters of the time.

The following year, in 1642, he married Tomiko, daughter of Maeda Toshitsune (1594-1658, 前田利常), lord of the Kaga domain in Kanazawa, and with financial support, he built a new teahouse and carried out other major renovations to create the Katsura Imperial Villa, which still exists today. It is believed that the checkered sliding doors of Shokintei were also made at this time, using washi, a traditional Japanese paper presented by the Kaga domain.


A moon-viewing villa

Since the Heian period (794-1185), Katsura province has been a favorite place for aristocrats to enjoy viewing the beautiful moon. In summer, you can cool off by dipping the moon reflected in a water basin named "Uki-zuki”, or Floating-Moon in Shoiken teahouse. In autumn, you can enjoy the harvest moon from the moon-viewing veranda set up in the best direction for it, and also enjoy both the rising moon and the moon reflected in the pond from the tea house, "Gepparo". Stone lanterns are placed to allow visitors to enjoy the moon while walking around in the dark.

Katsura Imperial Palace Lantern01_桂離宮の灯篭3

Prince Toshitada sang one Waka:

At dawn, the moon sets in the western sky beyond the villa. The night of moon viewing ends as we move from place to place, chasing the moon.

「一枝を 折る身ともがな 月の中の桂の里の 住居なりせば」

Please enjoy the sanctuary of beauty that can’t be emulated by anyone.

Prince Toshihito and Prince Toshitada Timeline

538Official introduction of Buddhism from Baekje-
572Soga Umako became a minister.-
574Prince Umayado was bornAge =1
587Soga Umako and Prince Umayado defeated Mononobe Moriya14
589Sui Dynasty unified China-
593Empress Suiko ascended throne20
601Prince Umayado built the Ikaruga Palace28
603Established a system of "Twelve Ranks of the Crown"30
604Established "Seventeen-Article Constitution"31
606Asukadera Temple was established 33
607The second envoy to Sui Daynasty34
622Prince Umayato passed away49
626Soga Umako passed away-
628Empress Suiko passed away-

Recommendation to visit

Katsura Imperial Villa

  • Access: 25 minutes from Kyoto Station. Take Bus #33 at C5 bound for "Raksei Bus Terminal (落成バスターミナル)" and get off at Katsura Rikyu-mae. A 10-minute walk