Simanaitis Says

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IT SEEMS to me there are contrasting sides to Japanese aesthetics. The same fellow who appreciates the simplicity of rocks in carefully raked sand also derives pleasure from art forms that most westerners find aesthetically overwhelming.

Japanese cars seem to reflect this, even in these days of their designers coming from all around the world. While you’re reading this, think about Japanese cars that fit into one category or the other.


The serenity of the Ryōan-ji zen garden in Kyoto, Japan, gets us in a contemplative frame of mind. Image from Katsura.

Examples of this aesthetic dichotomy are Katsura Rikyu and Nikko Tōshō-gū, the latter, a historical site about 90 miles north of Tokyo ( Nikko Tōshō-gū’s temples and shrines honor the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan from 1600 until 1868. The place gave rise to the phrase “Never say ‘kekko’ [Japanese for ‘I am satisfied’] until you’ve seen Nikko.”


Above, Nikko Tōshō-gū Yomeimon; the shrine founded in 1617. Below, Nikko Karamon carving. The craftsmanship is evident; the aesthetics may be a bit much for western taste.


Though Katsura Rikyu, in central Japan outside of Kyoto, was built at the same time, its aesthetics couldn’t be more contrasting. This Detached Palace is the architectural equivalent of a Japanese rock garden.


Katsura Rikyu, started in 1617, reminds me of a Mondrian painting.

The lines of Katsura Rikyu are simple and elegant. Its proportions are based on the traditional tatami mat, with approximate 2:1 relationships. Note the contrast with the western appeal for the Golden Ratio of 8:5 (see


Rooms of Katsura show its tatami proportions as well as integration of interior and exterior. Image by Stephen Cooper,

The aesthetics of Katsura have been studied by many of the world’s designers and architects. No less than Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture, is coauthor of a book that’s said to have influenced a whole generation of designers.


Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture, by Walter Gropius, Kenzo Tange and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, book designed by Herbert Bayer, Yale University Press, 1960. Both and list it.

Observes Walter Gropius in the book, Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Archietecture, “Though its owner was an imperial prince, there is no pomp, no superfluous luxury; with great simplicity and restraint of means, a truly noble edifice has been created in which a sense of freedom and peace reside as an inherent quality.”


The view from Katsura’s New Palace toward the Middle Shoin “…reveals a world of perfect time-space relationship.” Image and quote from Katsura.

Another beautiful book on the subject is part of the Spanish Coleccion “Fotoscop” series.  The book Daitokuji Katsura takes a historical approach linking the Japanese architecture of Daitokuji, a Buddist temple founded in 1326, with Katsura, built 300 years later.


Daitokuji Katsura, Fotoscop, by Maria Lluïsa Borràs, photographs by Yukio Futagawa, edited by J. Prats Vallès, Tudor Publishing, 1970. Both and list it.

In Daitokuji Katsura, author Borràs notes that Prince Hachijō Toshihito, Katsura’s first resident, enjoyed reading classical Japanese literature, particular the works of Murasaki Shikibu. Lady Murasaki is regarded as Japan’s first—indeed, in many ways, the world’s first—author of a novel. In The Tale of the Genji, written 1000-1012, there’s the line “Far away, in the country village of Katsura, the reflection of the moon upon the water is clear and tranquil.”


Katsura’s Tsukimida (platform of the moon), its bamboo texture linking the structure and garden. Image from Daitokuji Katsura.

I have a neat 1/100-scale paper model kit of Katsura. Thus far, I’ve been intimidated by its 31 pages of instruction—in Japanese—and 30 sheets of artfully printed construction paper.


The Katsura Villa, 1/100-Scale Model, Shubunsha, 1995. It’s listed at

Maybe I’ll be encouraged to bring out my metal straightedge and Xacto knife. In the meantime, I’ll work up a selection of Japanese car designs, some Katsura and others Nikko. You’re encouraged to do the same. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

2 comments on “AESTHETICS OF JAPAN

  1. daniel schnee
    July 29, 2013

    Look up Donald Richie’s “A Tractate On Japanese Aesthetics.” It is small, but jammed packed with terms and discussion of what we can safely call uniquely “Japanese” aesthetics. (RIP D.Richie: 1924 – 2013)

  2. Pingback: The Imperial Villa of Katsura, Japan (1616-1660) – SOCKS

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This entry was posted on July 7, 2013 by in And Furthermore..., Just Trippin' and tagged , , .
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