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Sengan’en, a garden and former residence of the Shimazu lords of Kagoshima, is located on the shores of Kinko Bay, the innermost part of Kagoshima Bay. Officially called Sengan’en, it is also known as Iso Gardens. It was designated a national scenic landmark in 1958.

The distant view of Mount Sakurajima in Kagoshima Bay is part of the charm of Sengan’en.

Japanese history buffs are well aware of the house of Shimazu, one of the most enduring of Japan’s powerful families. Their story began in the Kamakura Period (1192- 1333). Soon after Minamoto no Yoritomo became the first Kamakura shogun, he made his vassal Koremune Tadahisa lord of the Shimazu shoen (manor) and shugo (military governor) of the provinces of Satsuma, Osumi and Hyuga (present-day Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures). Tadahisa adopted the name Shimazu, and the family subsequently became the most powerful in southern Kyushu.

Even today the Shimazu family is influential in Kagoshima. Sengan’en is owned and managed by the Shimazu Kanko Co., and Nobuhisa Shimazu is the company president.

Mitsuhisa Shimazu, the 19th head of the Shimazu house, built the first residence here in 1658. This house served as a retreat until the latter days of the Tokugawa Period. The present house is estimated to be one-third the size of the original; even so, it covers 1,000 sq. meters. Built in traditional Japanese style, the building is wooden and surrounds a tranquil inner garden with a pool filled with carp.

Lion lantern, by Kisanji Oda, 1884, incorporates a rock from the nearby beach as capstone.

One of the oldest features of Sengan’en is a teahouse built in 1702 by Yoshitaka, the 21st Shimazu lord. Yoshitaka is also credited with introducing the giant moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) to Japan in 1736 from Okinawa, which was part of the Shimazu holdings. The plant, originally from China, is the source of the delicious take no ko (bamboo shoots) that are a harbinger of spring in Japan.

Yoshitaka also built a garden within Sengan’en called Kyokusui in 1702. Sometime after its construction, however, the garden was buried by a landslide. The scars from the landslide are clearly visible on the mountain above, but the garden’s existence was only confirmed in 1959, and excavation and reconstruction work commenced in 1963.

Kyokusui was built to hold kyokusui-no-en, or “parties by the winding stream.” Although of Chinese origin, such parties were enjoyed by the nobles of the Heian court; guests would sit on either side of the stream in a kyokusui garden, writing poetry and sipping sake. One guest would begin by writing a line, then floating the poem downstream to the next guest, who would add another line or two and so on. Today an annual kyokusui festival is held at Sengan’en; Okayama’s Korakuen and Motsuji Temple in Iwate also have similar festivals.

An evergreen cherry tree (Prunus zippeliana) can be found in Kyokusui. Known as bakuchi-no-ki in Japanese, it has no common English name, but a direct translation would be “gambling tree”: In gambling you can lose the clothes off your back, and this tree “loses” its bark every spring. Bakuchi-no-ki grows naturally in this garden and in other warm temperate areas of Japan. The exfoliating bark is a bright rusty-orange color and very noticeable. Its leaves are leathery and 10-20 cm long; its white flowers are borne in dense racemes from September to October. The bakuchi-no-ki in Sengan’en is over 10 meters tall.

In 1814, Narioki, the 26th Shimazu lord, conceived the idea of carving Chinese letters on the rock high above Sengan’en. This practice originated in China and is rarely seen in Japanese gardens. Some 3,900 workers were employed in this task, erecting a scaffold of bamboo and Japanese cedar to engrave the characters “Senjingan (1,000-Foot Crag)” on the rock face. The characters are 11 meters tall, and the rock face is 200 meters above sea level.

Sengan’en covers approximately 48 hectares and incorporates artificial mountains, rivers and borrowed scenery. Its superb views of the volcano Sakurajima just beyond Kinko Bay, in fact, are a classic example of borrowed scenery.

Tadayoshi, the 29th Shimazu lord, occupied the 25-room house full-time from 1871, and the former retreat became the main residence of the Shimazu family. In one room, which has a tatami floor and sliding doors, you can see a glass chandelier over a luxury carpet, laid directly on top of the tatami, with a formal English-style table all set with English-style cutlery, ready for a nice evening dinner!

In 1889 Tadayoshi harnessed the water from Kenkura River, which flows through the garden, to generate electricity to light the Shuseijo Factory, now a museum located opposite the main entrance. The factory was part of an early effort to develop new Western-style industries in Kagoshima. The ruins of the dam can still be seen in the garden.

The lower part of the garden boasts two historic toro (stone lanterns). The first is the Lion Lantern, designed by Tadayoshi’s head gardener Oda Kisanji in 1884. A massive rock was taken from the seashore and used as a capstone for the lantern.

The second toro is older and is known as the Crane Lantern. Its brown capstone resembles a crane in flight. Nariakira Shimazu, the 27th lord and one of the key figures in the period leading up to the Meiji Restoration, installed a gas lamp in this lantern that is said to be the first use of piped gas in Japan.

This stately Amami pine has stood by the Shimazu lords’ garden retreat for 300 years.

To the immediate right of the residence is a tall Amami pine tree (yakutane-goyo or Amami goyo, Pinus armandii var. amamiana), reckoned to be 300 years old and still in good health. Japanese names use either matsu or goyo as part of the compound name for pine. “Goyo” simply means five leaves; the Amami pine has five stiff leaves, or needles. The name “yakutane” is derived from Yakushima and Tanegashima, the two southern islands where this pine originates. It is thought by some botanists to be a distinct species, while others see it as a natural variety of the Chinese white pine (P. armandii).

Many of you will be familiar with the big blue turf lily (yaburan, Liriope muscari), a rhizomatous, shade-loving evergreen perennial very popular in smaller gardens. In Sengan’en you can see a giant relative of the species, noshi-ran (Ophiopogon jaburan). Like the turf lily, its leaves are evergreen, but much longer, at 30-90 cm. This plant gives the woodland section of Sengan’en a semi-tropical atmosphere.

In May, visitors can see the large gogatsu-nobori, the local equivalent of the koinobori carp streamers that are popular nationwide. There are two 10-meter-long streamers with the Shimazu family emblem (a circle with a cross in it), two dragon streamers, two with paulownia tree (kiri) emblems and one five-colored streamer for Tadashige Shimazu, the 30th and final lord.

In the center of the garden, almost hidden by trees, is a small Shinto shrine known as Oniwa Shrine. At one time there were over 13 shrines scattered through the garden, but they were consolidated into one in 1918. Few visitors take the time to visit this shrine, and fewer still walk up through the woodland above the garden, but both are worth seeing.