Retreat by Design
Photos by Forrest Anderson
I love touring historical sites, but it’s rare that I see one that I’d like to move right into. Daikaku-ji, a former retreat of the Japanese Emperor Saga (785-842) and other emperors, is one I would. Strolling through this serene, calming temple compound in Kyoto, Japan, was one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve had in years and has caused me to think more deeply about how architectural and garden design can combine to create a soul-satisfying retreat.
Currently a Shingon Buddhist temple, the retreat dates back to the year 814, when Emperor Saga had a palace built on the current site. He retired to there (who wouldn't if they had the choice?). After Emperor Saga died, his daughter, who was a consort of his successor, converted the retreat to an imperial temple. A number of subsequent emperors also retired to the temple and became monks but also continued to engage in what was called “cloistered rule.” This meant that they turned ceremonial day-to-day duties over to a successor but continued to wield real power on key decisions.
The current temple contains buildings from various eras, some transferred from the imperial palace in Kyoto. The buildings are set among a secluded natural garden rather than the formal arrangement of an official palace where the emperor carried out more structured state ceremonies and business. Both Japan and China, from whom Japan got many of its imperial court customs, long had the practice of emperors having both official, very structured palace compounds in their capitals for official business and retreats where they could live a more relaxed life. These retreats were typically beautiful gardens with a natural park setting into which were set rustic but still exquisite timber frame buildings. A number of Japan and China's most famous historical sites reflect one or the other of these two types of palaces.
This means that while the imperial palace was intended primarily to impress, with its massive ornate gates and halls and large formal courtyards, the retreat's palaces were tucked among the trees for privacy.
Check out these related items
Imagine you're sitting in Los Angeles traffic on a hot day. Take a break and head for a cool green oasis - Suihoen Japanese Garden
Architect Kengo Kuma's village at the Portland Japanese Garden blends modern architecture with traditional Japanese design.
Meditation is the theme of the Ryoanji dry rock garden. Find out why the garden inspires meditation and how to meditate.
Modernist architects admired Katsura Villa as the pinnacle of Japanese architecture and design. It is more complex than they thought.
An emperor built a giant Buddha to unify his struggling country, as the center of a network of Buddhist temples throughout Japan.
Traces of an ancient Chinese superpower remain far away in Japan, the eastern end of the Silk Road.