To the northeast of Kyoto, in the shadow of Mt. Hiei, lies Shugakuin Imperial Villa. The Villa occupies a vast swath of land overlooking Kyoto and is managed by the Imperial Household Agency. Not open to the public, for access you must apply for a permit to a guided tour. The on-line advance reservations are difficult to come by but we were fortunate enough to secure a reserved tour during our stay in Kyoto. It is also possible to apply for a tour permit at the Imperial Household Agency office in Kyoto for same day passes. The tour is conducted in Japanese but other language audio tours are available and quite helpful.
The Villa was built by retired emperor Gomizuno and the name Shugakuin comes from a former temple built on the same site in the 10th century.1 There are three separate villas, each situated at different elevations and each with it’s own set of gardens. Shugakuin is revered for it’s display of the Japanese gardening art of shakkei, or “borrowing scenery.”
Both the lower and middle villas, Jugetsu-kan and Rakushi-ken2, feature outer and inner gardens, architectural features such as raised tatani platform for the emperor, the “shelf of mist” made from zelkova wood, artwork by Kano Tanshin3, Ganku and other fine drawings on wood panels. While both are wonderful displays of Japanese architecture, art, and landscape gardening, it is the upper villa that steals the show.
The spectacular Upper Garden is reached through a simple gate and short climb before the entire garden vista is revealed. At the highest point of the garden sits Kyusui-tei, a tea pavilion which affords us a magnificent view of the man-made Yokuryuchi pond. The pond is ornamented with the Chitose-bashi, an ornate bridge of two large, stone piers capped with small pavilions, one of which is topped with a copper phoenix. The pond’s west bank is long and exceptional only for the reflected views running atop the large, earthen-work dam that created the pond.
Here at Shugakuin, one can feel the serene beauty of nature and the artistic hand of man at the same time. It reminds me that more often than not in Japanese culture, the beauty is in the details. From the sculpted view of far distant mountains through natural vistas to the chevron lattice of the garden gate to the ethereal etchings on room panels, beauty and painstaking care in every tiny detail.
When planning your trip to Japan, be sure to stop in Kyoto and see the Imperial Household Agency for your tour of Shugakuin and see the wonders of shakkei.
1 G. Melyan, Kyoto University Alumni, guide, and friend
2 Informational brochure provided by Imperial Household Agency
3 Informational brochure provided by Imperial Household Agency
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Til next time ~Peace ~JPP