Tue, Mar 10, 2020

Niigata Saito Villa: Wabi-sabi culture, auspiciousness, delicate green … all in one

Niigata Saito Villa
By Yang Jinling / CIR for the city of Niigata

Built in the Taisho Period, the Saito Villa is a luxurious guesthouse that tells the story of a port city. Its strolling garden was built skillfully utilizing existing sand dunes and is seamlessly integrated into the open-concept modern Japanese architecture, a perfect example of “Garden and House as One.” From the Saito Villa, one can see the prosperity of Niigata, which has grown into a famous port and commercial city in modern times.

The Saito Villa was built in 1918 by Kijuro Saito (1864-1941), the fourth generation head of the Saito family, one of the three zaibatsu families of Niigata. As a guesthouse, it received the Saito family’s guests. After World War II, the mansion was taken over by the U.S. army.

In 1953, it was transferred to the Kagata family. It served as their residence and they also opened it to the public as a place for cultural exchange. As the times changed, in 2005, it was said that the mansion would be resold or demolished so some locals launched a campaign to preserve it, collecting signatures and donations. They petitioned the City Council and in 2009, it became a public property of Niigata city.

The mansion has 11 rooms, each with a different level of sophistication. Stepping into the entryway, the big reception room comes into sight. With all of the sliding doors stowed away, there is no boundary between the house and the garden. What I saw was the whole landscape of the garden, full of Japanese pine trees.

Sitting in the large reception room, savoring a cup of matcha green tea, I forgot time and space, as if I fell into a meditative state. The room next door is a typical tea room with only four and a half tatami mats that is in a stark contrast to the reception room. There are no luxurious decorations. It is both simple and elegant, quiet and deep. Here you can experience the spirit of tea ceremony. The view from the tea room was full of beautiful plum trees.

The tatami-mat interior of the villa as seen from outside the mansion

Further along is the west room where the host would entertain his guests. Bamboo was used as part of the building materials, was incorporated into the interior design, and the view from this room is that of the bamboo trees. Pines, bamboos and plums in the garden, which have auspicious meanings, can be seen from the three rooms on the first floor.

Events are held at the villa regularly, starting with tea ceremony. The hospitality of tea is said to be the highest ranking way to entertain guests. There are five rooms used as tea rooms in the Saito Villa. Each tea room has a unique atmosphere, and the most characteristic is the tea room on top of the hill of the garden. The entrance is very narrow and you have to bend far, bowing deeply, to get in. In the past, samurai had to take off their katana before entering tea rooms of this kind.

Next is Furumachi Geigi dance performances. The Furumachi Geigi, who boast being one of the three great geisha of Japan, have over 200 years of history. Furumachi Geigi present the hospitality culture of Niigata even to this day. You can chat with geigi and play traditional games together. Then you can take a picture together and leave with an unforgettable memory at the old villa.

People who support the Saito Villa behind the scenes cannot be forgotten. The volunteers who introduce the garden to the guests have a wealth of knowledge of the villa and of Japanese culture so vast they could be called walking dictionaries.

Additionally, the members of staff are always very careful with the villa from the management to the publicity. There are also active exchanges with other gardens. When the staff go to foreign countries to share the wonders of Japanese traditional gardens, they compare the architecture and landscaping of other countries and rediscover the traditions of Japan which they then share with all who will listen. Among the staff there are craftsmen who know each and every blade of grass and flower at the Saito Villa. I was impressed by their artisan spirits and devotion to their work.

The garden recreates the natural scenery as if you were in a deep mountain valley. The now giant pine trees were planted in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect from sand blowing in from the coast. In addition to the pines, there are also the evergreen and quince trees that are symbolic of vitality. The garden varies in expression throughout the four seasons. The most beautiful is the maple leaves in autumn. At night, when the lights come on, the combination of the Japanese garden, architecture and light creates a fantastic and beautiful space.

Regardless of the season, when you make your way through the garden to the middle of the hill and look back at the mansion, you can see the modern high-rise buildings, which form a sharp contrast with the quiet mansion. Time seems to freeze, transmuting into eternity.

I believe that wabi-sabi culture, the auspiciousness of pine, bamboo and plum and the delicate garden found here all represent the true essence of Japanese culture. I think that it is no exaggeration to say that the old Saito Villa is the epitome of Japanese culture. To me, there is no greater happiness in life than this: sitting in the reception hall of the villa, looking at the garden, sipping a cup of matcha, with the breeze blowing and a maple leaf slowly falling.

(Photos courtesy of Yang Jinling)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

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Yang Jinling

Jinling was born in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, in China. She taught Japanese reading comprehension and culture in university before coming to Japan to work for the city of Niigata as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR). She likes reading and listening to music.

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