KATSURA PALACE, KYOTO


KATSURA PALACE, KYOTO
   The tea ceremony is perhaps the most famous Japanese tradition and consists of a small group of people who come together not simply for a tea service but also for a highly ritualized modest discourse. Tearooms are typically made of wood or bamboo posts, with mud walls, paper-covered windows, and a floor covered with mats of woven straw called tatami. Diffused light enters through the thin paper window coverings, revealing a clear spatial arrangement of the interior, which flows in asymmetrically arranged square or rectangular rooms. A painted scroll or flower arrangement might be the subject of muted discussion. These structures are integrated with their natural surroundings, revealing a rustic simplicity and picturesque setting that characterizes the Katsura Palace. The Katsura Palace was constructed in the wooded perimeter of Kyoto in 1620 by the famous tea ceremony master and architect Kobori Enshu. At this time, the shoin house style was prevalent. Domestic shoin architecture first appeared in the late 14th century during the Muromachi Period (1333-1567), but was anticipated by the elegant simplicity of the highly cultivated Zen gardens developed to complement the more meditative form of Buddhism, called Zen Buddhism, that appeared in Japan in the late 12th century. These gardens, often made of gravel meticulously raked to accentuate several carefully selected large rocks or artistically pruned trees, provided the proper meditative surroundings for a variety of religious structures. The term shoin, at that time, referred specifically to a writing alcove or desk, and shoin architecture is characterized by an intimate display of rooms organized around the study or writing hall, which could also be used to entertain guests.
   Shoin buildings are designed as simple rectangular structures defined by square or rectangular bay units with a timber framework and timber bay divisions that incorporate the tearoom aesthetic into a livable arrangement of verandas, alcoves, and open rooms. The rooms could be enclosed by decorated sliding doors called fusuma, while translucent rice paper made into screens called shoji could further organize the interior space. Tatami mats covered the floors, and the wooden ceiling was divided into squares. The measurement of traditional Japanese architecture is based on the standard shape of the tatami mat as a module, so a room would be called, for example, an eight-tatami room. What instigated this new architectural style was the increased desire among the military aristocracy, called the samurai, to emulate the elegant courtly culture of previous generations. They were the cultivated nobility who rejected the urban palaces and ornate architectural decoration for a more meditative, reductive approach to design.
   Shoin buildings appeared in the subsequent Momoyama Period (1568-1603) in the form of upper-class homes that incorporated the elegant simplicity of the tearoom into their designs. The Katsura rikyu, or separate palace, is perhaps the best example of this type of secular architecture, and was constructed as a series of rooms connected by covered walkways that harmonize with the surrounding woods. The rambling design of the house and the verandas constructed at the gable ends of the building blocks provided ample opportunity to enjoy nature. Made of a light timber frame and a triangular truss in the tiled, hipped roof, the walls do not need pillars for support. The wood frame is plain, unpainted, or stained, and sometimes the bark is even left on parts of the timber.
   The building is made up of three parts. The Koshoin, which is the more ornate shoin-style alcove, faces east at the front of the complex and is designed to accommodate two guest rooms, a warming room, and a small room for light snacks. The second section of the palace, located in the center of the block, is called the Chushoin and is designed in the more intimate sukiya style of farm cottages made elegant through the tea ceremony. This section contains the tokonoma alcove, where a single object of art or nature would be displayed for contemplation during the traditional tea ceremony. The Chushoin connects to the third alcove, called the Shingoten, by a covered walkway that has storage space for musical instruments and a smaller tearoom for female guests. This too reveals the sukiya style, with its more rambling domestic layout. The Shingoten is the rectangular rear alcove, which faces west and contains a series of small bedrooms and washrooms. To the north side of these private quarters is a series of servants' quarters. Verandas were built outside the building beneath the overhanging roof gables. Sliding doors and rice paper walls provide a smooth link between interior and exterior. A stone path leads to the entrance and toward the gardens that surround the structure. Although in some ways Chinese culture informed the architectural styles that developed in Japan, this complex certainly contrasts sharply with such rigidly symmetrical and axially directed architectural complexes as the Forbidden City in Beijing, where the buildings, elevated on a podium, were constructed with pillars, brackets, and highly ornate architectural sculpture.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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