Katsura Imperial Villa is an exemplar of traditional Japanese architecture and garden design in Kyoto, but can only be visited by joining a guided tour. The good news is that these tours are free (update: from November 1, 2018 there will be a 1,000 yen fee charged per person). The bad news is that advance reservations book far in advance, and same-day availability is limited to the villa, which is also known as Katsura Rikyū or Katsura Detached Palace. In this post, we’ll share photos from our visit, detail how to gain access (either in advance or via the same-day process), and offer our thoughts on whether Katsura Imperial Villa is worth your time and effort.
To be honest, we almost didn’t visit Katsura Imperial Villa. We had failed a couple of times to secure advance reservations, and questioned whether it’d really be worth the effort to venture down to Southwestern Kyoto–an hour commute from our Airbnb–pretty much just for Katsura. We hadn’t been blown away by Kyoto’s other imperial properties, and knowing that we very well might waste our time and come up empty-handed had us debating whether it’d be worthwhile.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but what ultimately tipped the scales was the fact that one of our favorite spots in Epcot at Walt Disney World is modeled after Katsura Rikyū. Well, being huge Disney geeks paid off yet again; not only were we able to get same day admission, but we found Katsura Imperial Villa to be absolutely exceptional–far and away the best imperial property in Kyoto.
Let’s start with the reservation process; there are three options, and we’re going to cover them all. First, if you’re reading this far in advance of your trip to Japan, you should absolutely go to the online application here. Note that this is a lottery, so even if there are slots available, you’re not guaranteed a spot. To the contrary, we’ve played this lotto a few times times months in advance, and struck out every single time. Perhaps that’s just poor luck; I’m not sure.
Our recommendation would be to apply as far in advance as possible and for a time that has ample availability. (Then again, do you really want our “recommendation” given that our strategies have failed us repeatedly?!) If you fail, have someone else in your party apply for another date that has availability.
The second option is to apply for a visit to Katsura Rikyū in person at Imperial Household Agency Kyoto Office, which is near Kyoto Imperial Palace. This is worth checking out if you’re already in Japan and visiting Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, but we would not recommend going out of your way to try this method.
The in-person application is basically a holdover from the days before the Imperial Household Agency had an online application, and applying in-person was the only option. If you have the internet (a safe assumption since you’re reading this) you might as well just apply online.
Your final and best option is the same-day application in-person at Katsura Imperial Villa. This is how we were able to visit, and it proved surprisingly easy. Each day, there are 3 tours for Katsura Imperial Villa with same-day availability, and each of those have 20 same-day slots. Return tickets for these tours are distributed at 11 a.m. (That’s as of the time of publication; double-check that info here.)
To play it safe, we arrived at Katsura Imperial Villa at 10:30 a.m., and the line had 18 people in front of us. As we lined up, a staff person asked which time we’d like, and we were given a card with that tour time. (Every single person in front of us chose the 1:30 p.m. tour.)
At 11 a.m. sharp, the line started moving as the staff took our cards and started signing people up for the tours by writing down passport info. It was a relatively quick process, and we were done by around 11:15 a.m.
We ended up choosing the 3:30 p.m. tour, with our rationale being that it’d offer the best afternoon light for photography and also would give us the most time to get to Arashiyama and do stuff there before returning to Katsura Rikyū. (My thinking with regard to the photography was questionable–I was shooting into the sun way too much.)
Interestingly, only 2 people got in line behind us (I don’t know which tour they chose), meaning that there were still 38 available slots for the day as of 11:15 a.m. I wouldn’t be surprised if tickets for the afternoon tours were available until at least noon on the day we visited.
This was on a weekday during shoulder season, so it’s definitely not representative of a mid-November weekend or Golden Week. I don’t want to generalize too much based upon our experience, but I’m guessing what we experienced is pretty normal, and it’s easy to get same-day tickets no matter the season if you arrive before 11 a.m.
My basis for this is the location of Katsura Detached Palace location. This is pretty much the suburbs, and is within walking distance of no other major points of interest. The only tourists who will be out here are here for the tour.
I think this is important because it’s not like increased foot traffic in Arashiyama during peak seasons will have any impact on Katsura Imperial Villa sign-ups. For the most part, people are not going to be doing this impulsively.
The bigger challenge is how you fit Katsura Imperial Villa into your itinerary without knowing what time you’ll be visiting. We’ll have a full itinerary for Southwestern Kyoto soon, but our basic recommendation would be choosing the latest return time, as we did.
Perhaps everyone in front of us had a better tactical approach, but we are guessing they just chose that tour because it was the soonest time, and they intended upon hanging out in the area, killing time before the tour. That’s certainly one option, but killing 2.5 hours in the suburb sounds like a waste of about 1.5 hours. You wander aimlessly, looking for somewhere to eat lunch, settle on somewhere that’s meh, and then what?
Instead, choose the last tour, walk to Katsura Station, and go Arashiyama Station. You’ll be there in 20 minutes, and will have several hours to explore this wonderful area. You can have lunch somewhere good, visit temples you skipped on your dedicated Arashiyama day, or even play with monkeys. The world is your oyster and all that.
Shortly before your tour time, you return to pick up an audio guide (also free) and watch a brief orientation video that provides some background and history of Katsura Imperial Villa. You’ll also have a chance to use the restroom and free lockers. Since it’s covered at length during the tour and the ‘how to visit’ section got away from me, I’m going to forgo the normal “history” section here.
However, I won’t gloss over the architecture of Katsura Imperial Villa. We’ve visited many highly regarded places throughout Japan, but I would considered Katsura the exemplar of Japanese architecture, carefully melding different styles, from traditional to modern, across the grounds of a stroll garden that reveals new beauty around each turn.
You don’t have to be a subscriber to Architectural Digest to appreciate the sublimity of Katsura Detached Palace’s design. While I appreciate architecture and design, my understanding of it is fairly rudimentary, and plenty jumped right out at me. (And was further enhanced via the audio guide.)
I’m sure academics and those who read the many scholarly works on Katsura’s design will have a far deeper appreciation. The first aspect of Katsura I found most fascinating is its amalgamation of styles. Prince Hachijo Toshihito clearly had specific goals for each individual aspect of Katsura Imperial Villa while building it and wanted it modeled after passages from the Tale of the Genji.
His architect, Kobori Enshu, designed the three main component buildings, Ko-shoin, Chu-shoin and Shin-goten, to each harmonize with their distinct natural settings and vis-à-vis their intended purposes. The simplicity of the design is striking, yet it still manages to be elegant and refined.
The second aspect of Katsura Rikyū I appreciated the most–downright loved about it–is the engaging design of the stroll garden and the spatial relationship of the buildings within that. The gardens are great, but what I really enjoyed here is how every window, platform, column, etc., works to emphasize and frame a natural vignette outside each building.
Prince Hachijo Toshihito famously wanted to re-create a moon-viewing party scene from the Tale of the Genji at Kyoto Detached Palace. Accordingly, he had the Tsukimidai terrace built in Ko-shoin facing the pond that would be the best point for harvest moon viewing.
Modern computer calculations have corroborated that this is the “best” moon-viewing point, as the moon from the terrace can be seen both in the sky and reflected in the pond.
That’s a well-known anecdote, which leads me to wonder how many other stories about the meticulous design mandates of Katsura Imperial Villa have simply been lost to time. Every angle appears picture-perfect, as if it’s staged for a photo shoot or filming.
It’s stunning, and even if the majority of the design is lost on you (as it might’ve been me), you’ll pick up a lot. You’re going to leave with a far greater appreciation of Japanese architecture and gardens, and it will leave you hungry for more.
With all of this praise, we do have to admit that the guided tour can be frustrating, particularly if you want photos. Katsura Imperial Villa is spread over 17 acres, and between the expansive grounds and suburban location, would likely be pretty uncrowded if its visitors were naturally spread throughout the day and not clustered into 50-person tour groups.
For most of the photos here, I jockeyed towards the beginning of the herd or end of it to capture scenes without other tourists. Don’t let these photos fool you; most of the time we were walking in a single file line, in a cluster around the guide, or just generally in close proximity to others.
Since we couldn’t understand the guide, anyway, we tended to hang back and listen to our audio guides. On the plus side, our tour group was incredibly quiet and respectful (I’m assuming this is a normal byproduct of self-selection), so don’t let any preconceptions you might have about tour groups discourage you from visiting.
Ultimately, we both loved Katsura Imperial Villa and consider it to be a top 10 highlight of Kyoto. On its own, it’s a master-class in Japanese design that is clever and stunning, but the tour is also the type of educational and provoking experiences that further piqued our curiosity about Japan’s architectural styles. While there are other villas and stroll gardens throughout Kyoto, most notably the nearby Okochi Sanso Villa, none of them hold a candle to Katsura Rikyū (and we really like Okochi Sanso Villa). If you have limited time, the location and hassle of reservations will make it tough to justify the trip to the Detached Palace. Even though it’s one of our new favorite places in Kyoto, we’d still only recommend it to average tourists with 4 or more days in Kyoto. Students of architecture or design should make a point of visiting Katsura Imperial Villa no matter what.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto? How did you book your tour? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!