While Kyoto’s temples will charge you a hefty entrance fee, visiting royal property, believe it or not, is free of charge! However, you cannot just walk in as and when you please. Kyoto’s Imperial villas and gardens are locked up and only visitors with a permit from the Royal Household Agency are allowed in on guided tours. Getting the permit is not difficult though and it is well worth the effort.
If you have visited Sento Imperial Palace and Kyoto Omiya Imperial Palace, and you liked the traditional Japanese garden there, then you might also like the widespread design, embedded in the natural landscape, of the grounds of Shugakuin Imperial Villa.
Built in the 1650s as a royal pleasure garden, Shugakuin Imperial Villa is set at the foothills of Higashiyama Mountains. You might think that it cannot get more natural, but the whole compound is in fact carefully designed.
Here nature feels close yet distant at the same time. This principle of borrowed natural scenery (shakkai) is popular in Japanese garden design, and at Shugakuin one can experience it firsthand.
Three detached villas, lower, middle and upper, are situated at different altitudes in their own picturesque gardens connected by pathways and surrounded by paddy fields.
The Jugetsu-kan is the lower villa; Rakushi-ken and Kyaku-den, two buildings that make up the middle villa, and Rinun-tei is the upper villa.
At the highest point of the garden sits Kyusui-tei, a tea pavilion. From there one has an excellent view over the whole area and especially over the Yokuryuchi pond stretching out in front of the Kyusui-tei.
The Upper Villa’s garden is also a prime territory for autumn leave appreciation and there is an excellent view of sacred Mount Hiei to the northeast of Kyoto. Autumn is indeed the recommended season for visiting Shugakuin Imperial Villa. A blaze of red covers the maple trees in Maple Valley when their leaves change color. Kaede-bashi, a wooden bridge, is another excellent viewing point for maple leaves appreciation.
What I like most is that for once Shugakuin Imperial Villa is not cramped in between a concrete sprawl like many other scenic spots in Japan. Kyoto City bought up the land surrounding Shugakuin, which now consists of farm land. Hence, the sense of space and beauty as intended by the creators of the villa and surrounding garden prevails.
Take some time out from the crowds at Kyoto’s famous temples and catch a breath of fresh air while strolling along the garden paths of Shugakuin in Royal style – well, almost!
More information and an online signup for an access permit can be found on the Imperial Household Agency homepage: https://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/guide/shugakuin.html