Sengan-en: A Day at a Feudal Lord’s Home
Kagoshima is one of Japan's most historically interesting places, given its place as the birthplace of several prime figures of the Meiji Restoration and as the site of the final large-scale Samurai rebellion in Japan. Kagoshima city holds a large number of interesting historical sites, but few of them are as big as Sengan-en, a sprawling Japanese garden and house on the northern edge of the city. It is one of Kagoshima's most popular tourist spots and aside from the attraction within the gardens itself, it commands a wonderful view of Sakurajima, Kagoshima's iconic volcano.
Sengan-en is a former home of the Shimadzu family, the historical rulers of Satsuma prefecture which is now modern day Kagoshima. The Shimadzu were an enormously powerful Daimyo family that ruled over most of southern Kyushu throughout the Edo period and the head of the family built Sengan-en in the late 1600s. It was used by generations of the family as a residence. The gardens themselves are massive and a number of interesting features are spread throughout including shrines, various pavilions and sites relating to Japan's modernization in which the Shimadzu and Kagoshima itself played a big part.
Sengan-en celebrates all things related to Satsuma. Near the main entrance are a large number of shops and restaurants proudly displaying and selling famous Satsuma handicrafts and produce such as Satsuma kiriko glassware. There's even a small display dedicated to Jigen-ryu, a school of swordsmanship practiced by Satsuma samurai. Venturing further into the gardens presents some beautiful scenery covering a wide range of landscapes from large open spaces, to dense bamboo groves. Throughout the grounds are beautiful ponds, sites related to Kagoshima's early industrialization and even a shrine for cats. As a garden, Sengan-en is particularly notable for its use of 'borrowed scenery', most notably in its use of Sakurajima as a feature of the garden and the volcano can be viewed prominently in the background from most parts of the garden.
Stepping into the residence itself, it’s easy to feel transported back into the past with its elegant wooden construction and long hallways. Following a set path throughout the house, you can see the various rooms up close, including the bedrooms and bathroom as well as a central garden that radiates tranquillity. The house contains a lot of information on the history of both the residence and the Shimadzu clan as well as details of the visits of the many foreign dignitaries and the emperors who have visited throughout its long history.
A large number of events are held at Sengan-en throughout the year so it's always a good idea to check the website before planning your visit. Due to the garden's large size, your visit can be as long or as short as you want it. For those feeling a little adventurous, you can even make a thirty minute hike to the site of the Shusendai pavilion located up in the hills overlooking the garden. The pavilion is long gone but the trek takes you through a much more wild landscape and grants you a wonderful view of Sakurajima from the top.
Sengan-en is one of the most well curated historical sites in Kagoshima City. Whether you have a long or short stay in the city, it’s easy to recommend.