Japan has seen a massive boom in tourism in recent years, and while many tourists set their sights on the northern and central regions of the country, the more discerning traveller is heading southwards – to the island of Kyushu.
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 active volcano Sakurajima and Kinko Bay as “borrowed scenery”. Background scenery is framed by the garden in the foreground, creating an impressive spectacle unlike anywhere else in Japan.
With smoking Sakurajima puffing away in the near distance, the garden feels almost otherworldly. A manicured traditional Japanese garden with arched stone bridges, bubbling streams and curated flower beds at the front of the garden graduates into wild, moss-lined pathways that wind around the back, leading to a hidden hiking trail that climbs all 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 modernisation.
The enterprising spirit of Kagoshima piqued the interest of the west, and royalty such as Edward VIII when Prince of Wales, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Prince Arthur of Connaught were entertained at the house at Sengan-en when they made visits to Japan.
This tradition of hospitality has continued until today, and fine kaiseki dining courses are offered in both the modern Ohkatei Restaurant and traditional house.
Sengan-en is a true one-of-kind historical and cultural complex where a compelling past is presented in an immersive and impactful way. Every doorway, piece of furniture, shrine, flower and tree has a story behind it, making it an endlessly fascinating place to explore and come back to when in Kyushu.
Daily 8:30am–5.30pm (all year round).
¥1,000 + ¥300 entry for the house.
9700-1 Yoshino-cho, Kagoshima City, Japan 892-0871.
How to get 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.