Seifuso Villa
Architectural Design and the Garden

So elegant and graceful, Seifuso Villa is situated amid a garden embodying the techniques and philosophy of garden designer Jihei Ogawa VII, a superlative master of his art.


Collaboration of a sukiya-zukuri master and a superlative garden designer

Every visitor to Seifuso Villa is struck by the omnipresence of nature, an attribute its creators achieved by conceiving of the garden and buildings as a single work of art. Since in the Japanese architectural tradition, the garden was originally the star and the buildings were but a stage from which to appreciate its charms, it follows that if the building’s purpose as a residence were to become too evident, its function, as a stage for contemplating the garden, would be compromised. But master carpenter Jinbee Yagi, Jr. and virtuoso garden designer Jihei (Ueji) Ogawa VII, sharing a profound understanding of the intentions of Kinmochi Saionji and Tomoito Sumitomo, created a flawless fusion of garden and architecture.

Celebrated for his expertise in sukiya-zukuri, Jinbee Yagi, Jr. subtly deployed his technical mastery to reflect the beauty of nature in the architectural design. He hit precisely the right note, creating an eminently practical residence while emphasizing the natural characteristics of timber, such as its knotty quirks and inconsistencies. As a result, among the many surviving sukiya-zukuri buildings, Seifuso Villa stands out by virtue of its exceptional elegance and tranquil ambience.

Embracing the beauty of nature to emphasize continuity of house and garden


Entering through the main gate, you will leave hustle and bustle far behind. Savor the secluded atmosphere, replete with twittering birds and chirping insects.
Traverse the courtyard bordered by clumps of black bamboo and proceed to the genkan, the traditional entrance to a Japanese house. On entering the main building, follow the corridor until you find yourself in the residence’s principal chamber, which was used as a reception room. Affording broad vistas to the east and the south, the room is imbued with a palpable sense of openness to the natural world, offering a memorable view of the entire main garden, framed by branches of red pine. The contrast with the muted illumination of the corridor is a revelation.


There is nothing ostentatious here. Rare types of timber are used in abundance, yet always with restrained good taste: Yakushima cedar for the ceiling, Kitayama cedar for the tokobashira (alcove post), and solid beams with tamamoku* patterns for the tokonoma (alcove). Bamboo is used for the frames of ranma (transoms).

*Exquisite wood grain with swirls and ripples

The living room is a cozy six-tatami space. Polished logs, timber finished with the naguri method, and lumber with the bark still on it are used to conjure up a rustic ambience of inviting informality. As if taking its cue from this atmosphere, the tsuchibisashi (pent roof) projects above a hardpacked earthen floor. The indoor-like outside area created by the tsuchibisashi achieves continuity between the living quarters and the garden, with the eaves lowering the vantage point, subtly leading the eye toward the stone lantern and the chouzubachi water basin in the near distance. Sutebashira (pillars) supporting the eave purlin are simple in design, their knots trimmed with a hatchet. The base stones anchoring the sutebashira are of varied shape and texture, like the stones used in gardens, revealing the aesthetic dividend of intimate collaboration between the carpenter and the gardener.

Kinmochi’s living quarters were in the annex, a two-story building. The first floor is notable for its saruboo saobuchi ceiling whose battens are arranged in such a fashion as to suggest the face of a monkey. The ranma (transoms) feature a comb-shaped pattern, a signature motif of Jinbee Yagi, Jr. Together with the marumado circular window of the tokonoma alcove, all these elements combine to create an elegant space. The south-facing engawa veranda is in the keshou nokiura style, leaving the underside of the eaves exposed. The continuity with the garden is readily apparent here, too. The orderly arrangement of polished cedar nokigeta (pole plates) and taruki (rafters) complete the aesthetically pleasing effect.

The view from the second floor is delightful. Open the windows, which extend to the floor, and a gentle breeze flows through the room. You will feel its comforting caress, even if you are seated in the center of the room, as you gaze out over the lawn toward the pond and the tsukiyama (artificial hill). Higashiyama was visible in its entirety when Seifuso Villa was constructed, indicating the importance accorded to the view, which is a major theme in modern Japanese architecture.

Kirishima cedar is used for the ceiling, loquat for the floor, and paulownia sapwood for the ranma (transoms). Though paulownia sapwood tends not to be highly prized and, indeed, is often discarded, Jinbee Yagi, Jr., alert to its potential, had purchased a plentiful supply with the intention of using it when the opportunity arose. He thought Seifuso Villa where the residence and garden are conceived as a single entity, was just such an opportunity and it was here that he created an excellent design for the ranma using paulownia sapwood.


A garden not just for viewing but for strolling too


Jihei (Ueji) Ogawa VII, creator of the Seifuso Villa garden, was a pioneer of modern garden design. Moreover, he was sensitive to nascent trends in garden design, possessed a sure grasp of what his clients had in mind, and was a highly productive and energetic creative artist. Whenever necessary, he scouted sites and secured the best ones for the gardens he was commissioned to design.

He is most noteworthy for championing the trend toward more naturalistic designs, opening a new chapter in Japanese garden design that contrasted with the symbolic aesthetic dominant in garden design before the Edo period.

Turning his back on the tradition of gardens mimicking celebrated scenic views, which had largely defined previous Japanese gardens, Ueji aimed to create a rural landscape imbued with nostalgia. He also transformed the garden from a static ensemble to be viewed into a space in which to stroll and experience aesthetic delight through engagement of all five senses.

Creating the atmosphere of a rural retreat with fireflies

Ueji’s signature style pervades the garden of Seifuso Villa.

Pass through the inner gate and follow the gently curving stone pavement toward the teahouse. The reddish hue of interlocking stones delights the eye while the soft sound of running water emanating from the stream flowing beside the teahouse caresses the ears.

Cross the stream and stroll toward the tsukiyama where there is a mass planting of red pine trees and Rhododendron macrosepalum shrubs. Higashiyama, which can be viewed from the garden, used to be forested with red pine. With the background vista, the garden gives one the sense being in a spacious landscape. As you continue through the woods, the chirping of insects and the twittering of birds grows louder and the scents of tree sap and soil more insistent. The path undulates as if you were walking in the mountains. As every now and then you come to a fork in the path, your sense of direction comes into play as you endeavor not lose your way.

Take the sawatobi (a path made of stepping stones traversing a pond). The water garden plays to Ueji’s strengths as a garden designer. You may experience a slight unease as you step from stone to stone, taking care to keep your footing and not get your feet wet. Some of the stepping stones Ueji laid are not flat topped, heightening the lack of uniformity contributing to the rustic ambience.

Stand on the lawn and you can see the pond in the near distance and Mt. Daimonji to the east across the skyline of red pine. Laid around the pond are Moriyama stones with their alternating veins of black and white. Ueji favored these stones from a particular area of Shiga Prefecture for use in gardens. The stones for the Seifuso Villa garden were transported to the site in Kyoto via the recently completed Lake Biwa canal. Their use attests to Ueji’s outstanding artistry.

A series of large stones extend into the pond in the direction of the nakajima (island) as if forming a pier. The idea is that one stands on these stones to view the trees and the moon reflected in the waters of the pond.

As a finishing touch to the garden, Ueji released fish in the pond and fireflies along the course of the stream to emulate the lush nature typical of a rural retreat deep in the mountains.