Shugakuin Imperial Villa

Photo: np&djjewell on Flickr

Shugakuin Imperial Villa

Bjorn Koolen

As the largest Imperial villa in Kyoto, Shugakuin has an excellent view over Kyoto throughout the year. Designed in the mid-17th century by Emperor Go-Mizunoo himself working together with some of the finest architects and artisans to build a tranquil home to retire. The Emperor was highly intelligent and devoted to the arts, motivating him greatly, to build a marble of architecture.

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Photo: np&djjewell on Flickr
Originally, the idea was to construct the villa near Mount Kinugasa in northwestern Kyoto, but as no suitable site was found many years passed by. That is, until 14 years later when the Emperor went to the Enshoji nunnery located at the base of Mount Hiei where his daughter lived as a nun. While eating his breakfast at dawn one day in March, the surroundings bathed in superb light of the spring sun and it was decided that the villa should be built here.

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Photo: np&djjewell on Flickr
The nunnery itself was moved to Nara, while the a large dam was erected to create a pond with several small islands for the upper sections of the villa. This section was the first to be completed in 1659 and its opening reception amazed many of its visitors. The middle section was constructed in around 1680, after the Emperor’s death, and has a more religious atmosphere as it became a temple, Rinkyuji, founded by his daughter Princess Mitsuko and managed by priests of the Imperial Family even though it originally was meant to be a palace of Princess Ake.

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Photo: np&djjewell on Flickr
Scattered across the villa’s domain you will discover several tea houses where the Emperor ensured his guests were well entertained while viewing the villa’s most spectacular feature, its gardens on the three terraces. The villa’s gardens were designed with great expertise featuring ponds with small bridges connecting the islands by two long pathways lined with pine trees and rice plantations. From here you can see the surrounding rice plantations, hills and downtown Kyoto. Autumn when the maple trees’ leaves along the mountain ridge turn orange and yellow is, therefore, the best season to visit Shugakuin.

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Photo: np&djjewell on Flickr
Reservation, access and opening hours

Before heading out to Shugakuin you need to make a reservation for a free guided tour with your passport. This reservation can be done online through the imperial Household website or at the Imperial Household Agency office in Kyoto’s Imperial Park open on weekdays from 8:45 to 17:00 with an hour break at 12:00. The guided tours are held five times a day, being at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 13:30 and 15:00 in Japanese only and none on Sundays or national holidays.

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Photo: np&djjewell on Flickr

Shugakuin is just 15 minute walk away from the Shugakuin Station on the Eizan Railway Line, which is a bit tricky to reach. From Kyoto Station you can take the Nara Line to Tofukuji Station and from there transfer to the Keihan Line to the end of the line at Demachiyanagi Station, where you transfer to the Eizan Railway Line.