Published: Jul 06, 2009
Category: Art and Photography
The book you really want is Katsura: A Princely Retreat. It’s out of print, but you can find a copy at Amazon.com for $450.
Failing that, you’ll be well rewarded with Katsura, a far more modestly priced ($34.19) picture-and-text effort that weighs as much (five pounds) and is far thicker (400 pages) than the collector’s item.
In case Katsura is a mystery to you, don’t fret — this Imperial Villa built in the 1620s in Kyoto fell into obscurity for several hundred years and wasn’t rediscovered until 1933, when a German architect named Bruno Taut visited and saw it as an astonishing ancestor of Twentieth Century Modernism. Thanks largely to Taut’s advocacy, it has been beautifully restored and is now a must-see on any visit to Japan. (Charmingly, there are no tours on weekends, and the lectures are only in Japanese, though an English audio guide is available) For a virtual tour, click here.
Katsura was built as a residence for Prince Hachijo no Miya Toshihito (1579-1629). But “residence” doesn’t convey the high esthetic quality of this retreat. It looks as if the buildings have been set in an exquisite natural park. In fact, there is nothing natural about Katsura — everything about the place is as carefully staged as a play. Streams were re-routed, landscapes shaped. Tea houses that look almost raw in their simplicity are made from the rarest of timber.
Here’s how extreme the planning went: Most palaces face south, but Katsura faces southeast. Why? So residents and their privileged guests could enjoy a better view of the rising moon. This is one totally integrated fairyland.
In the middle of bustling Kyoto — the villa and gardens are a 15-minute walk from the railroad station — Katsura offers unparalleled relaxation. But by “relaxation”, we must apply a Japanese interpretation. Katsura also provides an exquisite opportunity for contemplation. To stroll the grounds is to experience a myriad of emotions, all carefully planned by its creators. As Taut put it, “Katsura makes the eyes think.”
Nothing can replace a direct experience. But a thoughtful book of great photographs can come close. Katsura, an admirer wrote, “is a flower blooming out of season.” To have such a flower on your coffee table is to be constantly refreshed.
To buy “Katsura” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Katsura: A Princely Retreat” from Amazon.com, click here.
To take a Virtual Tour of Katsura, click here.