Tamozawa Imperial Villa: not exactly a holiday cottage

Tamozawa Imperial Villa was built in 1899 as a holiday residence for then-Crown Prince Yoshihito (1879-1926), who reigned as the Emperor Taisho from 30 July 1912 to his death on 25 December 1926. The Emperor Taisho spent much of his summers here throughout his reign and the villa continued to be used by the Imperial family until 1947 when the Emperor’s official position under the constitution changed and much imperial wealth was handed over to the Japanese government (on behalf of the Japanese people). The villa is now known as Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memoral Park.

The 106 room villa was constructed in three phases, giving it a number of distinctive architectural features across three periods in Japanese history. It’s also interesting to wander its rooms and imagine how the Taisho emperor might have spent his time there.

The villa sits in a large, leafy park just above the original Nikko village; ie, on the left bank of the Daiya River upstream from the Shinkyo sacred bridge. The garden has many seasonal features, and different sections of the villa are open at different times, making the villa great destination any time of year.

After passing through a gate in the stone wall surrounding the park, visitors approach a porte-cochère where a friendly and helpful guard ensures that visitors shed and store their shoes, purchase their entry tickets from a machine, and undertake the current health check measures (temperature check and hand sanitization).

Stepping in to the first suite of rooms, built in the early twentieth century, the first thing one notices is that the rooms open onto a serene naka-niwa (atrium). The use of outdoor space and nature as features of a house is common in traditional Japanese homes and this sprawling villa has no less than ten naka-niwa, many of which are designed to bring the outdoors inside. But this view is only a foretaste of the feast to come.

These first rooms serve as a “lounge” for visitors, with two subtitled videos on the history and design of the house running on a loop to help orient visitors. It’s quite sweet to see Emperor Emeritus Akihito showing his wife around the house to which he was evacuated in 1944 as Crown Prince. Was it my imagination, or was he reliving his youth?

The next rooms serve as an exhibition hall, with information on the phases of construction of the villa and on its restoration in the 1990. There are lots of detailed signboards in English to help visitors understand how this magnificent structure came to be.

The first section of the villa, built in 1899, was a three story structure that had originally been built in 1840 on the grounds of what is now Akasaka Palace in Tokyo as a residence for one branch of the Tokugawa family. When the Tokugawas ceded their property to the Meiji emperor in 1872, the site became the home of the Crown Prince, a role which it continues to this day. When, in 1899, it was decided to modernize the Akasaka home of then-Crown Prince Yoshihito, the Tokugawa house was dismantled and rebuilt in Nikko to serve as his summer home.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the final years of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), additional rooms were added, including the ones comprising the exhibition hall. After Crown Prince Yoshihito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne to become the Taisho emperor in 1912, he continued to enjoy spending his summers at Tamozawa, which necessitated further additions to the villa to accommodate both his imperial role and his expanded entourage. Thus the house contains elements of traditional wooden architecture from three different periods of Japanese history (Tokugawa, Meiji, Taisho) across two centuries.

The next suite of rooms visitors see were built early in the Taisho Period as rooms in which the Emperor would receive and entertain visitors. They include a dining room, a billiard room, and an audience chamber (in effect a throne room). They are among the few rooms of the villa to contain any furniture. Be on the lookout for the circular light switches, which a helpful docent will happily tell you were made in the U.S.A.

The next section of the villa is the original three-story 1840 structure, elegantly refined rooms with stunning views of the garden behind the villa. On the second floor is a room from which the emperor, as a living god, would offer prayers to his ancestors. The imperial regalia, the sacred sword and sacred jewel, were kept in the next room. The third floor rooms are only open to the public from mid-December to the end of January each year.

Here and there in the villa visitors can peek into the bath and toilet facilities used by the former occupants (modern facilities for visitor use are also available near the entrance). The tatami mat flooring and extensive use of wood for facilities Westerners associate with ceramics and porcelain may be surprising to some.

There are a number of suites of rooms used by the Imperial family and their entourage. Interestingly, 83 of the villa’s 106 rooms were for the use of the lords and ladies in waiting. Most rooms are empty of furniture and their beauty is found in the windows, door and other decorations. Needless to say, the more opulently appointed rooms are the ones for Imperial use.

In one of the villa’s many corridors there is a special display of some of the wooden sliding doors used in the villa. Often depicting scenes from nature or Japanese legends, they are works of art in their own right.

Thanks to the naka-niwa, nearly all the rooms of the house have nature views. A fun aspect of the naka-niwa are the special little tunnels constructed so that gardeners can access them without ever entering the villa. A docent mentioned that on weekends in the spring there are guided tours that include the opportunity to enter the naka-niwa.

Be sure to visit the garden behind the house after retrieving your shoes. A number of paths allow visitors to wander and enjoy various views.

One of the garden’s surprises is that entrances to the World War II-era air raid shelters are clearly marked.

The Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park is open 9:00 to 17:00 (16:30 November to March) but closed on Tuesdays (except during Golden Week, O-bon, and the month of October) and December 29-January 1. Admission is JPY600. It’s less than 10 minutes on foot from Shinkyo or the Toshogu shrines or, if coming from Nikko station, any bus bound for Chuzenji or beyond will stop at the “Tamozawa” bus stop.

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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