In the southwest corner of Kyoto are two magnificent gardens, though in both cases admission is by appointment only. The more accessible garden belongs to Katsura Rikyū (桂離宮), a former imperial palace; applications to visit should be made through the Imperial Household Agency.

Katsura palace, unfortunately not open to the public, was built in the early seventeenth century as a residence for the imperial Prince Toshihito, and then expanded by his son, Toshitada, in the 1650s. Toshihito was a highly cultured man, who filled his villa and garden with references to The Tale of Genji and other literary classics, while also creating what is considered to be Japan’s first stroll-garden. As the name suggests, these gardens were to be enjoyed on foot – rather than from a boat or from a fixed viewpoint – and designed to look “natural”. In fact they were planned in minute detail so that scenes unfold in a particular order as the viewer progresses. Focused on a large, indented lake, the Katsura garden is famed for its variety of footpaths and stone pavings, and for its stone lanterns, all of which helped create the desired mood of relaxation. Several tea pavilions occupy prime spots around the lake, the most attractive of which is Shokin-tei, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the garden is the sheer ingenuity of the designer – Toshihito managed to wrestle a splendidly harmonious, seemingly spacious garden out of an unexciting bit of floodplain.

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