During the late 16th century the sixth son of a minor Japanese prince was adopted as an heir by that country’s ruling warlord. When the warlord’s wife gave birth to a natural son the warlord reversed the adoption, but he also presented his ousted adoptee with a generous cash settlement.
This young man had grown up reading The Tale of Genji, and he was enchanted by the world of the so-called Shining Prince. So it’s hardly surprising he decided to use his windfall to purchase property in Katsura, a neighborhood in Kyoto where many scenes from The Tale of Genji take place, to build a home like the ones described in the novel. The house and garden complex he and his heirs created is known as Katsura Rikyu, or the Katsura Detached Palace.
Katsura is a masterpiece of traditional Japanese design. The three main buildings and four surrounding tea houses are rustic and yet austerely elegant, featuring clean lines and stark rectangular spaces enlivened by natural wood surfaces and tatami mats. Even more renown than the buildings are the Katsura gardens, which feature a large man-made pond and many uneven stone stepping paths, including one where visitors must step from stone to stone to cross a section of the pond.
Decoration at Katsura is minimal, and the decoration that is there often has an irregular or natural shape to play against the rectangular lines of the buildings. This hashioki is in the shape of a hikite, or hand pull for a fusuma or sliding door. It is probably the most famous decorative shape associated with Katsura. It is meant to suggest the shape of a rising moon (tsuki) or the kanji character that represents a moon. When The Tale of Genji was written many aristocrats owned villa’s in the area where the palace was built so they could view the reflection of the moon in the Katsura River that borders the neighborhood.
At some point a special set of five hashioki was created as homage to Katsura Rikyu. I happened to see one of these sets for sale on eBay several years ago, but someone else snapped it up while I was hesitating over the price. When I saw another set for sale on Etsy last year I didn’t hesitate to buy it.
The shapes in this Katsura set are (left to right): moon, matsuba pine needles, marsh grass, and an oar (used for boats in Katsura’s pond). The fifth piece on the bottom is an ichimegasa, or traditional hat with a wide brim and high crown that Japanese women have worn to market since Heian times
All six of these hashioki are glazed ceramics. The original hikite were enameled metal. During my last visit to Katsura in October 2016 I spotted on the original oar-shaped hikite in a fusama in one of the buildings.
Visiting Katsura isn’t easy. You have to apply to Japan’s Imperial Household Agency far in advance in order to secure one of the very limited visitor slots. I’ve been twice, and I can’t wait to have another opportunity to visit again. It’s well worth it.