Sengan-en & the Shimazu Clan | Exploring Kagoshima’s History

A samurai from the Shimazu clan stands in front of one of the buildings at Kagoshima Prefecture’s Sengan-en traditional gardens

When push comes to shove, my absolute favorite thing about traveling in Japan is the nation’s long and undeniably palpable history. While it often requires one do a bit of digging, reverberations from Japan’s feudal era can still be felt throughout the country. For example, the bullet trains traveling to Kyoto follow an important trade route known as the Tokaido that has been utilized for hundreds of years. These echoes of the past can be found just about everywhere in Japan if one looks hard enough. Yet, there remain some places where the historical connections are far more tangible. One such location is the beautiful Sengan-en. Located down in Kyushu’s southernmost prefecture of Kagoshima, these gardens is the perfect addition to the itinerary of any history buff and/or cultural connoisseur.

Now to properly understand the significance of Sengan-en, you’ll need to first understand a bit about the Shimazu clan as the two are inexorably linked. While I won’t bore you with a full historical exposé of their many accolades, know that this clan ruled over much of southern Kyushu for nearly 700 years. Allegedly, the Shimazu clan hails from the illustrious Minamoto family. Its progenitor, Shimazu Tadahisa, is said to be a son of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. For much of history, the Shimazu clan enjoyed an unbroken reign over one of the most powerful feudal domains in all of Japan. Moreover, unlike with many other historical bloodlines, the Shimazu continue to be very influential in the modern day as well.

Anyway, let’s get back to Sengan-en. As astute readers may already be able to guess, these traditional Japanese gardens was built by none other than the Shimazu clan. Erected in the early Edo period (1603–1868), Sengan-en is connected to the neighboring former residence of the Shimazu which visitors can explore today. Additionally, Sengan-en also played a counter-intuitive but important role in Japan’s industrial revolution. These historical trappings add an entire different dimension to what is otherwise a beautiful garden. Oh and for the coffee addicts like me, there’s even a dope Starbucks right by Sengan-en that’s in a historic building. Just saying…

How to Get There

As mentioned before, Sengan-en is located in Kagoshima prefecture which lies at the southernmost tip of Japan. While it is possible to get there by bullet train in approximately seven hours, you’re likely better off flying in to save time. Both ANA and JAL offer multiple flights a day that will get you there in under two hours. Kagoshima’s airport is located quite a distance from the city and the prefecture does not have the best public transportation. Though a series of highway buses do run to and from the airport, you’ll likely need a rental car to explore anything outside the urban areas. Sengan-en itself can be reached within several minutes drive time from the city center. Alternatively, those opting for public transport should take either the City View Bus or the Machimeguri Bus.

Now, one issue with destinations in Kyushu is that they are often not all that appealing to JR Rail pass holders. After all, taking the train from major urban centers like Tokyo is very time consuming and there’s so much else to see en route. Luckily though, there’s an easy workaround for this. You see, one can simply fly to a location like Kagoshima and work your way back to Tokyo via train. By opting for an airplane instead of the alternatives, you can reduce the amount of time wasted on travel and in turn, get the most out of your vacation. What’s more, you could even consider flying out of Kagoshima and overnighting in a city such as Hong Kong.

Exploring Sengan-en’s Many Allures

The landscape of Sengan-en with Kagoshima Prefecture’s iconic volcano, Sakurajima, in the background

As can be seen in the shot above, Sengan-en is a place of extreme beauty. One of the site’s most distinguishing features is that it incorporates views of the nearby volcano, Sakurajima, which is the symbol of Kagoshima and Kagoshima Bay as so-called borrowed scenery. This peculiar design choice was made so that Sengan-en could check off a number of features that are considered to be must-haves in traditional Japanese gardens, namely a coastline and a peak. Furthermore, because of its prime real estate, Sengan-en also boasts a spectacular view of Sakurajima, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes. You could easily kill an hour lazily gazing out at the beautiful volcanic island; if you’re lucky, you may even catch a small eruption too!

In addition to cultivating a wide variety of rare flora which is nestled among beautifully maintained grounds, Sengan-en is also home to a lot of traditional iconography and architecture. While exploring the gardens, you’ll encounter a former residence of the Shimazu family, a gift pavilion from Okinawa, and a number of other historical artifacts . If you’re lucky, you may even stumble upon one of many events hosted by the gardens. Additionally, Sengan-en also features a number of restaurants and gift shops that offer a selection of local goods, crafts, and delectables. During my visit, I had lunch at a venue called Shofuken which sports an assortment of delectable dishes accompanied by beautiful views of Sakurajima.

As impressive as it is, Sengan-en’s outward charm alone is not exactly enough to distinguish it from other famous gardens. After all, there are numerous options like Mito’s Kairaku-en that are logistically less challenged and much closer to Tokyo. Instead, what sets Sengan-en apart from the others is the garden’s attention to the little things. You see, the facility is very adamant about staying true to its historical roots and thus ensuring accuracy. The gardeners have a policy of “right thing, right place” whereby the grounds are kept as authentic as possible. For example, all Sengan-en’s koi fish are of the darker shades that were common throughout history. Comparatively, the brightly colored koi patterns are not historically accurate and therefore have no place in Sengan-en.

Given the manic level of detail that goes into the presentation of Sengan-en, it would behoove you, the reader, to take your time during a visit. Budget for at least a two hours (and possibly more if you intend to dine on site). Note that entry to the gardens will cost you 1,000 yen and checking out the former residence will run you an additional 300 yen.

Sengan-en’s Shuseikan museum in Kagoshima Prefecture

One of Sengan-en’s more interesting aspects is that the site played a major role in Japan’s Industrial Revolution during the Meiji period (1868–1912). In fact, Sengan-en and a collection of nearby locations were so influential that they were recently recognized as World Cultural Heritage Sites. How exactly did a traditional garden become associated with the the Industrial Revolution? Well, in the late 1800’s, this area served as one of Japan’s major points of entry for western industrial technology. Given Kagoshima’s proximity to Asia, it is actually not all to surprising and the Shimazu were quick to take advantage of this opportunity. At their behest, western technology was diligently studied and the clan sought to reproduce whatever they could nearby the grounds of Sengan-en

Today, this tradition of industrialization continues to be honored at Sengan-en. The gardens have transformed a 150 year-old stone building that was originally used as an on-site machine factory into a museum. Located just outside of the gardens, the museum does an excellent job of curating both the legacy of the Shimazu clan as well as the Kagoshima area’s role in Japan’s rapid modernization at the close of the 19th century. The facility is known as the Shoku Shuseikan and was constructed as part of an early effort to produce iron for shipbuilding and cannon castings. Entry to the museum is included in the Sengan-en admission fee.

Sengan-en’s Satsuma Kiriko traditional glassworks workshop in Kagoshima Prefecture

In addition to the gardens and the aforementioned museum, there’s one other site at Sengan-en that I highly suggest you check out. Known as the Shimazu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks, this workshop produces many amazing glass art pieces. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to learn how the local craft of Satsuma Kiriko is made while gawking in awe as master craftsmen skillfully transform glass into masterpieces. After witnessing the items being produced firsthand, you’ll even have the chance to purchase the finished products at the neighboring gallery. A quick visit to Shimazu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks facility is a great way to start or end a visit to Sengan-en.

Oh and in case you didn’t know, Satsuma Kiriko is a type of cut glass that was manufactured in the area during the final years of the Edo period (1603–1868) and the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912). Satsuma Kiriko is a fusion of traditional Japanese and Western techniques and was heavily influenced by Dutch and English glassmaking. It was very popular overseas at the time when western hunger for Japanese art showed itself in the form of “Japonisme.” In the late 1900’s, under the supervision of the present day Shimazu family leaders, the practice of making Satsuma Kiriko was revived. Today, the Shimazu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks produces both reproductions of original styles as well as new designs and colors based on that style.

Other Nearby Attractions

The venerable Kirishima Jingu in the Kirishima mountains of Kagoshima Prefecture

If you’re going to come all the way down to Kagoshima, it would probably be wise to schedule a few more adventures than just a trip to Sengan-en. As impressive as the gardens are, there are many additional tourism options within the prefecture. Unfortunately, most of the cool spots require a rental car. While public transportation exists in some form, it is both challenging to understand and infrequent. This is a double whammy that is often simply too much hassle for foreign tourists. Because of this, I highly recommend that you suck it up and rent a car for the duration of your stay in Kagoshima.

Anyway, here are two suggestions to get you started…

  • Kirishima
    Kirishima is volcanic mountain range that has some killer hot springs. The mountains sit on the border of Miyazaki and Kagoshima and play an important role in the founding of Japan. They are said to be the site where the god Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of the sun goddess, was sent to rule over the earth and establish the imperial bloodline. This lore is celebrated at the nearby Kirishima Jingu (pictured above) which was made way back during the Muromachi period (1336–1573). In addition to its deep roots and amazing hot springs, Kirishima also proves to be an amazing trek for outdoor enthusiasts who are itching for a spiriting hike across volcanic landscapes.
  • Sakurajima
    Ever wanted to check out an active volcano? Well here’s your chance. After exploring Sengan-en, you can easily hop a ferry out to Sakurajima, the symbol of Kagoshima prefecture. Travelers visiting Sakurajima will find many attractions just around its Ferry Terminal, including hot springs and foot baths, a collection of short hiking trails, and an information center. Note that if you’d like to explore more of the volcano, you’ll need to travel across the bay with your rental car.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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