SYNOPSIS:  Walking in the emperor’s footsteps.  About the Imperial Palace,  Katsura Imperial Villa, and Nijo Castle.   About permits and bureaucracy.


Walking in past emperors’ steps can be an awesome experience.  I am thinking of Versailles, for example, where the sheer size of the palace, the glittering opulence, the never-ending rooms, staircases, alcoves and hallways permeate the ego of the emperor to this very day.

If you come with expectations like this, you will be very much let down at the Imperial Palace of Kyoto.  And if on top of that, you have already seen a number of important temples, aristocratic residences, and gardens, you might — I am not kidding — skip the site all together.   The palace is neither particularly old, nor large, interesting, or innovative.  But for that alone it might be noteworthy on a philosophical level.   As much as Versailles is a representation of absolute power, the Imperial Palace might be taken as a representation for the puppet-role the emperor has played particularly during the years of the shogunate in Japan, roughly from 1192 to the end of the Edo period in 1867.

And following that train of thought, it should surprise no one that Nijo Castle, just blocks away from the Imperial Palace, is that much more ostentatious and therefore much more fun to visit.  It was built by the Tokugawas in the early 17th century and is a castle that definitely should not be missed.  It is a flatland castle (in contrast to hill and mountain top types) and is a particularly fine example of palace architecture versus defense architecture.

Yes, there are two moats filled with water and massive stone walls, and once there were turrets and a castle tower, too.  But in contrast to Himeji Castle, where the main concern was to ward off a potentially invading army — zig-zag patterns, hidden entries, booby traps, and multitudes of openings for shooters speak volumes of that — at Nijo, the emphasis was on comfortable, protected living and the show of might.   The architecture spoke volumes of status and rank through raised floors, variations in painting themes, and the location of rooms within the castle palace.

The central palace is spread out like an outstretched wing, surrounded by a beautiful garden.  It wasn’t so much an army that one had to fear but more an assassin.  Nightingale floors, literally chirping when you step on them — were a great innovation to prevent ill-minded intruders from sneaking in.

The Kano School of artists were covering the palace from the ceilings to the floors with painting of tigers and cranes, massive cedar trees and court ladies.  Ceilings are covered with square panels showing different floral and geometric motifs.  Every detail is executed to entertain, show off, intimidate, impress.

Another way of looking at these two places is the difference in taste that was developing.  The aristocracy and the emperor were turning to indigenous values and crafts whereas the shoguns were turning to China as the model for inspiration.  The more extroverted and showy the shogun style became, the more introverted, refined and subdued became the aristocratic style.

No better place to observe this than at Katsura Imperial Villa, or Katsura Rikyu.

But don’t just show up at the Katsura Villa or, for that matter, at the Imperial Palace.  There still is an emperor in Japan and this is his property.  You need a permission slip from the Imperial Household Agency located near the palace.  Originally, I had not even intended to visit the palace.  And given my recent experience with Kokadera temple — seven days advance notice via mail is required to gain access — I was ready for some red tape to get permission to visit the villa.  None of it!

I arrived at the agency at 9:20 AM, by 9:30 I had a permission slip for both the palace and the villa, and by 10 AM there was an English speaking tour of the palace for which people had to gather by 9:40 AM.  I could not have planned this any better.  This was too easy.  And so I joined the palace tour — what the heck.  But as I mentioned — it was a lackluster visit in hot, hot weather and if you are pressed for time in Kyoto — go to nearby Nijojo.  My villa tour was in the afternoon.  For Katsura no English speaking tour is offered; foreign visitors have to make do with an audio guide.

Katsura Villa has the reputation of being one of the finest garden villas complete with tea houses, viewing points, a moon observing platform, a treasure house, stone lanterns and fine landscaping.  It was all of that.  But never in my life would I have associated this villa with the emperor.   There was nothing ostentatious about it.  You had to look very carefully to know that no expense was spared in the selection of fine woods and expert craftsmen had been at work creating this serene spot of relaxation.

A very funny feature was a tiny rustic toilet in one corner of the garden, but it was just for show (if I understood this right).  You were supposed to appreciate the fine stones that had been used there for the squatter opening but somehow you were supposed to know that this was not for “real”.  Ladies are reported to have gone in there once in a while to straighten their dress or adjust their hair.  Hilarious.

All together, Katsura villa and gardens are not large.  The trick is to wind around the paths efficiently so that you can appreciate the garden and pond from various angles even though you are not actually covering a lot of ground.  One element of the garden I really found interesting in that respect was an attractive tree that was planted at the end of an alley near the entrance.  This is where you typically would enter.  Shortly after you pass the gate, the path forces you to turn.  When an hour later you come back to that spot, you realize that the sole purpose of the tree was to block your view.  You could have seen the entire garden from that spot were it not for the tree.  It prevents you from spoiling your whole experience.  Somebody had to come up with this.  Brilliant.

Unfortunately, none of the villa interior is open for the public, but from old slides professor Kane took in 1993, I gather that the interior is painted not in the flashy, colorful lacquer and gold leaf fashion that is found at Nijijo, but in monochrome ink washes.

All together this was a nice break from all the temples and shrines.

Good night.