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Visiting the Kyoto State Guest House

A few years ago one of the members of Writers in Kyoto shared a broadcast from NHK’s Core Kyoto S05E02 Kyoto State Guest House: Hospitality Imbued with Beauty and Craftsmanship. This is a special compound located in the Kyoto Imperial Palace but run by the Cabinet Office. It is where the Japanese government receives foreign dignitaries on state visits. Presidents, ministers, and royalty have stayed here, taking exquisite meals and performances, enjoying the most refined of Japanese culture in a singular setting.

Luckily tours are open to the public, so was able to get in!

The Core Kyoto documentary program describes the construction of the guest house and efforts of the craftspeople to create something to remember, to put their mark on history.

The original State Guest House is Akasaka Palace in Tokyo. It was constructed of stone in 1909 in a neo-Baroque European style. Japan had defeated Russia in war just five years previous and now joined the ranks of the colonial powers of Europe. Nearly a hundred years later the Kyoto State Guest House was designed to feature Japanese aesthetics, exemplifying Japan’s cultural rather than military power. Furthermore it demonstrates Kyoto’s pre-eminence as Japan’s cultural capital — next year the Agency for Cultural Affairs will be moving to Kyoto from Kasumigaseki.

I think I watched that 30 minute Core Kyoto documentary about eight times, enraptured by the level of craftsmanship, complex joinery, and high attention to detail. Immediately I shared it with my father and especially my brother, a natural talent in anything he picks up. I shared it to all sorts of people. And now I am sharing it with you. (EDIT: unfortunately it has been taken down, so here is the 5m teaser video on the CORE KYOTO episode page)

I highly recommend it. Given the generations of training, and the honour of being chosen for the task, the craftspeople involved in the construction of the Guest House have complete freedom to express themselves. And the results are stunning. So when I got the chance to actually visit the place last week, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Tour

The attention to detail starts at the very beginning of the tour, as you are put through a grueling obstacle course of bureaucracy. First you make a reservation. A few days later you go to the information center. After checking in, a woman helps you buy a ticket from the automated (?) machine. She gives you a yellow thread to put around your next and invites you to pass through a door. You are instructed by another attendant to put your stuff in a locker (only a few personal items are allowed to be carried in — no drinks!). Directed to a booth you have the option to take a tablet providing explanations in many different languages. We declined and moved to another area where we were given another form to fill out the same stuff that we submitted online for the reservation. We exchanged our yellow necklaces for radios with ear pieces, then instructed thoroughly in their use. The tour guide whispered into our ears. (Yes, the entire tour was conducted in a whisper!). Next was a spoiler-filled five minute video to get you excited to go see the real thing that is just a short walk away. Finally, the tour guide led us out of the information center and we made our way through the Imperial Palace Grounds towards the walled compound of the State Guest House. The tour had begun! But not quite. After marching into the compound, made a tight left turn then down a ramp into the underground parking lot to the security check. A few minutes getting scanned with empty pockets, and then we trooped back up the ramp to the front door. Phew! Now the tour begins! Oh wait, not quite. There is a second set of lockers where you can trade your shoes for slippers and get another locker key. Okay, for real this time! GO!

A tour group is maxed out at 20 people, but being a weekday with the country still closed (for just a couple of weeks more!) we had just 6 people in our group. There were two other groups in the building. We moved on a timed circuit, never interacting with any other groups. There is a tour guide in front, ever so quietly filling our ears with facts, and a second guide who is more like a security detail bringing up the rear. We were shown the following rooms in the order below:

1. Yubae no Ma

The first room we entered was the Yubae no Ma, or Room of the Setting Sun, is a rectangular room with a high ceiling. To the north is a rock garden, to the south are wide windows with paper screens pulled back to reveal a view of the garden pond. The floor is carpeted thickly with a handwoven design meant to elicit light reflecting off the sand of a shallow pool. But the treasures in this room are the tapestries to the east and west. One tapestry depicts the moon above Mount Hiei, the holy mountain covered in Buddhist temples northeast of Kyoto, protecting the city’s kimon 鬼門 or “devil gate”, the direction from which bad luck comes from. Across the room is a picture of the sun setting behind Mount Atago, which is located to the west of Kyoto. On this mountain is an important Shinto Shrine. A famous tengu is said to live on this mountain, and it is frequented by yamabushi. Funny story, but back in 2000 I hiked up this mountain in the snow with my wife on our first date!

2. Fuji no Ma

The Wisteria Room is a large banquet hall meant for hosting up to 60 guests in the western style. The entrance is 22 meters wide and architected in a way to not need any support posts! The beam in this entrance is featured heavily in the documentary. Upon entering you are blown away by the massive tapestry on the far wall depicting wisteria and 38 other flower varieties. This tapestry took a team a year and a half to complete. To the left is a stage for traditional performances, featuring sliding wooden doors decorated with gold kirikane. No CNC machine… this is all hand-crafted!

3. Kiri no Ma

For Japanese banquets guests will be taken to the Paulownia Room. Paulownia flowers are featured on the seal of the Cabinet Office, which is headed up by the Prime Minister. This room features a massive 12 meter long table made from a single piece of wood and lacquered to a brilliant sheen (see the documentary for how they made this amazing table). It is surrounded by up to twenty four chairs that are also lacquered, each featuring a unique paulownia design on the back. The garden pond can be seen from the table, and an alcove to the back features seasonal or occasional artwork. The traditional ranma is done in the kirikane style, with a sun design on one side, and a moon on the other.

4. The garden with the mountain bridge and the Boat Launch

The garden pond at the center of the complex is bisected by a curved walking bridge. Above is a wooden ceiling evoking the image of mountains. There are cute little insect cutouts at the four corners of the ceiling. Here dignitaries can feed the carp, which are are of a very healthy size. Two of them have unusually silky tails. They are a cross-breed of Japanese carp gifted by an envoy of Indonesia. On one side of the bridge the pond has rocks suggesting islands and the sea. On the other side is a kind of grass planted conjuring the image of a rice paddy. Honoured guests can have the opportunity of taking a little flat-bottomed boat out on the pond. Just inside the building by the boat launch there is a display showing a nice pic of the beautiful King and Queen of Bhutan on the water.

5. Juraku no Ma

The very end of our tour was the waiting room, just inside and to the right of the main entrance. The room features very wide cushioned chairs with gorgeous gold threading. Art hung on the wall in an alcove and normally there would be a large ikebana piece, but today there was an amazing piece of lacquerware by Sayoko Eri, a “Living National Treasure” who also did the kirikane or gold-inlaid doors in the Yubae no Ma.

End of the tour

There were so, so many details. The wide and tall doors were made from a single tree; lamps combined tradition skills with modern elements; beam joints are decorated with glass ornaments subtly eliciting some aspect of Japan. It is endless. Japan is famous for its history of craftsmanship, but this place is on another level. I wonder what it will be like a hundred, or five hundred years from now?

As mentioned before I think it is worth your time to see the documentary. I have shared a lot of photos above, but not all. You can see all these photos in higher res on Flickr, as well as more images and videos →


One response to “Visiting the Kyoto State Guest House”

  1. Dave Olson Avatar

    Gosh, what an incredible building… It seems a shame that only “dignitaries” can enjoy such splendor in its intended use (dining/entertainment etc.) but I suppose it’s nice that it’s open for tours, as logistically complicated as they are 🙂 thanks for your nuanced coverage