Stately home and gardens of the Shimadzu Clan

By Alexander Bradshaw   Nov 22, 2018 - 3 min read

Deep in the south of Kyushu, in the city of Kagoshima, across the bay from a smoking active volcano, lies one of Japan’s most treasured stately homes and landscape gardens – Sengan-en.

Sengan-en is home to the Shimadzu clan, the samurai warlords who ruled Kagoshima for 700 years up until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The house and gardens are still owned and operated by the family, now in its 33rd generation. Their cross in a circle family crest appears all over Kagoshima even today.

The garden's most striking feature is its use of the active volcano Sakurajima and Kinko Bay as “borrowed scenery”. The background scenery is framed by the garden in the foreground, creating an impressive spectacle unlike anywhere else in Japan. Smoking Sakurajima towers over the bay in the distance, and the contrast between the raw power of nature and the manicured gardens is palpable. The arched stone bridges, bubbling streams and curated flower beds at the front of the garden graduate into wild, moss-lined pathways that wind around the back, leading to a hidden hiking trail that climbs up to the site of a former pavilion, where magnificent panoramic views of Sakurajima and the bay lay in wait.

With their sensitivity for the gentle shift between seasons, it is no surprise that the gardens at Sengan-en change throughout the year. Delicate plum and cherry blossoms in spring are replaced by rainy season-loving hydrangeas in June, and irises through summer into autumn before the chrysanthemum festival when 15,000 of the Imperial Family’s emblem, and symbol of longevity, cover the garden.

During the chrysanthemum festival impressive display pieces, mannequins wearing flower kimono, and carefully manicured bonsai bring a wave of colour to gardens. In order for the chrysanthemums to bloom at the same time, dedicated gardeners spend weeks wiring each bud closed to prevent them blooming too early in a process called osae.

Kagoshima played a central role in the birth of modern Japan in the late 1800s, and Sengan-en has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the nearby factory complex, one of Japan’s first, built to spur on modernization. One of the items produced here was the sparkling crystal glass Satsuma Kiriko, and craftsmen can still be observed at work in the glassworks next to Sengan-en.

The enterprising spirit of Kagoshima piqued the interest of the west, and royalty such as Nicholas II of Russia, Prince Arthur of Connaught, and Edward VIII were entertained at the house at Sengan-en when they made visits to Japan. This tradition of hospitality has continued until today, and fine dining kaiseki dining courses are offered in the modern Ohkatei Restaurant with stunning views of the gardens and volcano beyond.

Sengan-en is a true one-of-kind location where the history and culture of the Shimadzu Clan live on. Almost every aspect of the house and gardens have a story behind it, making it an endlessly fascinating place to explore and come back to when in Kyushu.

Getting there

For public transport from Kagoshima city centre, use the City View bus and get off at Sengan-en Mae bus stop.

An alternative option is a taxi, around ¥1,500 from Tenmonkan or Kagoshima Chuo Station.

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Alexander Bradshaw

Alexander Bradshaw @Alexander Bradshaw

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