Nikko, Japan - Tamozawa Imperial Villa
The Tamozawa villa has been a residence for many members of the extended Imperial family during the last three centuries.
The villa is an excellent example of traditional and Japanese architecture and interior design, blending components from Edo, Meiji and Showa eras, seamlessly together.
Surrounded by a lush, landscaped traditional Japanese garden, the building also encircles a number of beautifully designed courtyards, creating picture perfect displays in all seasons.
Tamozawa is a short walk from the shrines and temples in Nikko (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and has a bus stop conveniently located outside the front gate.
Tamozawa has been listed as an Important National Cultural Property in Japan, both for the history of its occupants, and the amazing traditional craftsmanship in the restored building.
History of the Tamozawa villa
Tamozawa was first built in 1632, under the rule of the Empress Meisho, as part of the detached palace in Akasaka, Edo (Tokyo), and serving as a home for the Kishu Tokugawa family, relatives of the Empress.
In 1898, during the Meiji era, the three storied section of the detached palace was de-constructed, and the frame moved to Nikko, in Tochigi prefecture.
Craftsmen then built a summer residence around the frame, finishing it one year later in 1899.
The Emperor's residence
Tamozawa villa was subsequently extended and renovated for the Taisho Emperor's residence, from 1918 - 1920, when it functioned as the temporary Imperial Palace.
During the extension, a large villa originally belonging to local businessman Kobayashi, was incorporated into Tamozawa, to form the Empress' suites.
At this time the villa and its gardens covered more than 10 hectares (around 25 acres).
The Taisho Emperor spent his summers here, until 1925, one year before his death.
A refuge from the war
His successor, the Showa Emperor, evacuated to Tamozawa villa during the second world war, in 1943.
The bomb shelters, built in the surrounding gardens, are still visible today (although they are not open to the public).
After the conclusion of the war, the villa fell into disrepair, with sections being used for housing and training by local governments.
During a long renovation, the villa was painstakingly restored using traditional techniques, and was opened to the public as a museum in 2000.
Today, the buildings and grounds cover only 3 hectares (7.5 acres), having been reduce to one third of its size of one century ago.
It is the only surviving Imperial residence from the Meiji era. Even with its reduced size, it is still one of the largest wooden buildings in Japan, and retains an strong sense of majesty and luxury.
Museum of traditional Japanese craftmanship
The restoration of Tamozawa has been vitally important for teaching (and preserving) Japan's traditional building and interior finishing techniques, especially as they are not often used in modern buildings.
A self guided tour winds its way through the 106 rooms of the villa, and is packed with displays explaining the amazing craftmanship, in multiple languages (including English).
Exhibits include techniques for constructing durable wooden building frames, cleaning and preserving wooden interiors, lacquer techniques, tatami mat manufacturing, and more.
An introductory video is available at the start of the tour (also in English).
Architecture and interior of Tamozawa villa
In Tamozawa, Edo, Meiji and Taisho architecture and building styles are beautifully combined, although the outside of the building reflects mostly the Edo style.
The building is designed to allow the flow of air (important in hot, humid summers), and to bring light into the center.
Most walls are sliding, with latticed top sections, making the rooms feel light and airy, with beautiful shadowed patterns at night.
The interior is an interesting mix of Japanese and western styles with traditional sliding door panels, protective shoji-style screens for the outer walls, wooden ceilings and tatami flooring from the Edo period.
This is mixed with metal decorative highlights, ornate carpets from Britain, parquetry, and chandelier lighting, predominantly from the Meiji era.
A large number of delicately painted sliding wooden screens from the three periods are featured throughout the villa.
The dining room, used for visitors of importance, is floored with detailed parquetry and lit with chandeliers, although the sliding walls are in the traditional Japanese style.
There are few pieces of furniture, appropriate for a Japanese dwelling, with the notable exceptions of the billiard room and the Emperor's audience chamber.
The billiard table has no pockets, and was used to play a 4-ball game called yotsudama.
The older section of the villa is decorated less ornately, and housed the portable Imperial treasures whenever the Emperor was in residence (the Sacred Sword and the Crown Jewels).
In winter, the outer walls (of clear plastic or waxed paper screens) are shut, providing some protection against the cold.
The gardens of Tamozawa villa
The rooms of the villa are positioned around 13 beautiful and peaceful garden courtyards, allowing for the perfect cool air flow in summer.
A system of passages and paths under the building allowed gardeners to move freely between the courtyards without disturbing the villa's occupants.
When it rains, you can easily lose yourself in the raindrops bouncing from the tiled roof, and the water running down the chains (kurasi-toi) into the pebbled edges of the courtyards.
Tamozawa's meticulously maintained gardens are beautiful in all seasons. A 300 year old weeping cherry blossom tree (sakura) stands near the Empress' study, originally part of the Kobayashi family villa.
The sliding outer walls throughout the villa feature views of a wide variety of blossom trees and summer flowers, a selection of stone lanterns, a delightful stream emptying into a small lake, and a stunning array of maples that are beautiful in fall.
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Throughout the villa when the outer walls are open to the garden, you can hear the water flowing through the Kanmangafuchi abyss, a reminder of the beautiful waterfalls surrounding Nikko.
Nikko Botanical Garden
The Nikko Botanical Gardens was moved adjacent to the villa in 1911, and includes a portion of the Tamozawa gardens.
Containing specialized collections of native alpine plants, and other temperate species, the garden has grown to include over 2,000 specimens.
The botanical garden is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from mid April until the end of November. There is a small additional admission fee.
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The best ravel reference to Nikko! It's pocket sized too, so won't take up too much weight in your suitcase. Highly recommended to take with you on your trip through Nikko.
There is so much information about all the shrines, temples and rituals, with lots of historical facts and research - it's surprising and delightful that this is packed into a book so small!
Visiting the Tamozawa Imperial Villa
Tamozawa is a short 10 minute walk from the main Shinkyo bridge, and is directly next to the Tamozawa bus stop.
You will be asked to remove your shoes as you enter the villa. It is recommended that you wear thick, warm socks in winter as there is no heating (my feet froze!)
On rainy days, it can be more crowded, as tourists search for indoor locations instead of spending more time at the shrines and temples.
It takes about 2 hours to walk through the villa, viewing the exhibits and wandering through the garden.
There is a small souvenir shop inside the villa, and a cafe is positioned near the main gate, serving ice-cream - welcome during summer.
Open: Mondays, Wednesdays - Sundays, 9 am - 4 pm
Closed: Tuesdays and public holidays.
Entrance fee: 500 yen
Address: 8-27 Honcho, Nikko, Tochigi
Tamozawa's location and surrounding sights
360° tour ofTamozawa villa
Have you been to Nikko, and Tamozawa? What was your favourite part?
Let us know in the comments below!