Approximately 1 mile north of central Kagoshima, you will find the former summer villa of the Shimazu clan. The history of Kagoshima is largely impacted by the Shimazu family, with scholars, politicians, warriors, reformers and modernizers among their generations. Constructed in 1658 as the family villa, Isoteien is incorporated into Senganen, a beautiful Edo period garden occupying 50,000 square meters of land and utilizing Sakurajima and Kinko Bay as borrowed scenery.
The garden layout includes shrines, ponds, running streams, stone bridges, bamboo, plum and early blooming cherry blossom trees.
The main entrance gate is approximately 150 years old and was featured in the NHK drama, Atsuhime (2008). There is a large cannon nearby that is said to have been used to defend Kagoshima from a British fleet that attacked the town in 1863, demanding reparation for the murder of a Shanghai merchant, Charles Richardson, by the Shimazu clan samurai near Yokohama the year prior. Behind the 150-pound cannon is the site of a former reverberating furnace that was used to cast that particular piece of artillery.
There is a separate garden that was built in 1702 by the 21st Shimazu lord. It is called Kyokusui Garden (meandering stream garden) and served as the location for various poetry parties. The guests at these parties were seated along the banks of the stream and a lacquered sake cup was set afloat in the water from the highest point of the stream. As the cup floated downstream, the guests were required to write and read aloud a five line Tanka poem before the cup reached them. Failure to do so meant that the sake had to be drunk.
The garden is home to a cat shrine that is visited by thousands of cat lovers throughout the year. The 17th Shimazu lord was a general during the war with Korea at the end of the 16th century. It is said that he brought seven cats with him to serve as clocks. In China and Japan, it was believed that the irises of a cat’s eye responded to changes in light therefore it was easy to gauge the current time by the shape of the cat’s irises. Only two of the seven cats returned to Japan after the war. After the cats passed away, they were enshrined in their own shrine at the castle. When the family moved to the estate at Senganen, they brought the cat shrine with them and it has remained there ever since. Annually on June 10th, watch and clock makers gather at the shrine for a ceremony. There is a gift shop next to the shrine, which sells cat related souvenirs and plaques, which can be hung at the shrine.
Located just outside of the entrance to the gardens, on the site of the former Shimazu Family School, you will find the Tsurugane Shrine. Founded in 1869, it was moved to the present site in 1917. Generations of the Shimazu family are enshrined there. In recent times, one of the family members in particular has become popular, Kamujuhime, the youngest daughter of Yoshihisa. She was renowned for her remarkable beauty, consequently, the shrine draws women from all over Japan who come to pray for beauty.
Included with the cost of admission to Senganen is entry to the Shoko Shuseikan Museum. The museum houses a vast collection of Shimazu clan heirlooms including scrolls, weapons, maps, documents, Satsumayaki ceramics, kiriko (cut glass), dolls and tools. The museum showcases the Shimazu clan’s efforts to modernize and industrialize Japan. For an extra ¥500 you can go on a twenty-minute guided tour of the residence, Isoteien. The tour is in Japanese but you will be provided with a guide sheet in English.
Senganen is open from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM daily. Last entry is at 5:00 PM. There are a number of buses, which make stops at the Senganen-mae bus stop including the Kagoshima City View Bus from Kagoshima Chuo Station, Kagoshima Aquarium and the Shiroyama Observatory. From Kagoshima Airport, Senganen is approximately a 40-minute car ride.