Thu, Feb 27, 2020

Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa: A former Imperial retreat, now open to the public

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

The exterior of Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa
By Anna Greenlaw / CIR for Nikko, Tochigi Pref.

Nikko city’s cooler climate during the summer months has long been reason for its popularity as a getaway destination. It’s no wonder, then, that it was chosen as the spot for an Imperial villa.

Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa was built in 1899, located next to the Tamozawa River, as a summer retreat for Prince Yoshihito (who later became Emperor Taisho), and was used by emperors and crown princes over three eras. Emperor Emeritus also lived in the villa for a year during 1944 as an evacuee from the war when he was a young prince.

The villa is a spectacular sight to behold – a vast wooden structure, surrounded by stunning gardens which are coloured vibrant with oranges and reds in the autumn, and where a towering weeping cherry tree blooms in the spring. It was the largest wooden imperial villa built in its time, measuring 2,800 square meters, and underwent further large-scale expansions when Emperor Taisho ascended to the throne.

The Imperial Villa is surrounded by beautiful autumn foliage.

The villa was first constructed, however, around part of the former Kishu Tokugawa residence in Edo (former Tokyo), which became the Akasaka Rikyu when it was presented to the Imperial family in 1872. In 1898 it was dismantled, and the main three-story section was brought to Nikko. This part of the residence served as the living quarters for the emperor and, along with the emperor’s bedroom, includes a study, worship room, and observatory room, which offer remarkable views of the gardens beyond.

In addition to this, a preexisting residence on the site, which had once belonged to a leading business man, Nempo Kobayashi, was connected to the villa, and used as living quarters by the empress. The empress traditionally resided in a separate section of the villa to the emperor, except for when the two would dine together in the dining room.  

The emperor and empress, who spent about a month at Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa over the summer, would bring with them a staff of approximately 100 liege and court ladies. But considering the villa was comprised of 106 rooms, there was plenty of space to host the large entourage, who occupied 83 of these rooms.

It is impressive to witness the attention to detail undertaken in the villa, with the embellishments in each room varying slightly depending on its occupant. In the emperor’s living quarters, the ornamental metal ware covering the nails, kugi kakushi, are gold and adorned with chrysanthemum flowers – the Imperial family crest.

The Imperial crest

In the rooms assigned to ladies in waiting, however, the kugi kakushi are of a much simpler design, and mostly black in colour. Even the tatami bordering, tatami-beri, differs in each area of the villa – silk or cotton bordering with a pattern of small flowers in rooms used by the emperor, and silk, non-patterned bordering in rooms used by the empress.

The Imperial Villa was used by the Imperial family until 1947. After the end of the war, the villa was first turned into a museum, but was later transferred to the Tochigi Prefectural Government, who undertook restorations to the villa and surrounding gardens.

Special care was taken during restorations to preserve the original design of the villa, which blends an interesting mixture of Edo and early Meiji period architecture. The wooden interior of the villa, which naturally darkens over time, was restored with a process called akuarai in which water, then a solution made from ash, are used to clean the wood and return it to its original appearance.

The wooden interior of Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa

Once renovations were complete, in 2000, the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park was opened to the public. It is now accessible year round, with a large majority of the rooms open for viewing, and multilingual explanations located around the site. It is only a short walk from the World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko, or is easily accessible via bus from JR or Tobu Nikko Station.

No trip to Nikko is complete without stopping by the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park, which offers real insight into the life and workings of the Imperial family, and is an opportunity to discover even more about the history of Japan.

(Photos courtesy of Anna Greenlaw)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

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Anna Greenlaw

Anna is from Christchurch, New Zealand. Since August 2018, she has been working as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) at the Nikko City Hall, where she teaches English at kindergartens, helps to run local events, and writes a monthly column for the city magazine. Before coming to Japan on the JET Programme, she studied Japanese and International Relations at university, and spent a year on exchange in Saitama Prefecture.

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