Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years (although there are locals who say Kyoto is still the capital and the emperor is just on a business trip to Tokyo). It is this long history, and in particular, the religious and cultural sophistication that developed over the centuries, that still attracts tourists to this day.
Yet, I have noticed when accompanying Japan novices, that it doesn’t take long for them to begin to feel “templed out” in Kyoto. To eyes unaccustomed to picking up the subtleties of different shrines and temples, they soon all begin to look alike.
This is when the tourist needs a quiet escape; a chance to just chill out and relax a bit. But for most visitors, time is limited and one doesn’t want to waste it. Murin-an, the villa of influential Meiji Period (1868-1912) political figure, Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922), may be just the escape needed.
A little off the beaten track, here tourists can relax in a quiet garden, maybe even have a bowl of traditional Japanese green tea, and recharge their batteries by soaking up the atmosphere. The garden’s extended hours (see below) also make it a sightseeing option for the die-hard tourist when other sights are closed.
Murin-an is located in the foothills of Higashiyama, a 7 minute walk from Keage subway station. The nearest tourist destinations include Nanzenji temple, the Kyoto City Zoo and Heian Shrine. The entrance is down a narrow laneway, and once inside, the garden is peaceful and quiet, far removed from the bustle of the city.
Yamagata was offered this land in the early 1890s. At this time he had already served as prime minister once but would have had no inkling that a further prime ministerial stint awaited him.
Turing the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), this part of Kyoto was all within the precincts of Nanzenji, a massive complex of Buddhist learning comprising more than 30 temples.
Early in the Meiji period the move to make Shintoism, with its strong affiliations to the emperor, into a state religion, Buddhism was suppressed and many temples closed. In Nanzenji’s case, it was simply scaled down, leaving the government with confiscated land it needed to re-purpose. Yamagata was well-known as a garden designer (everybody’s got to have a hobby!) and was offered this tract of land. Doubtless there was some notion that if Yamagata built here, others of his class, including politicians and industrialists, might also become interested in the area. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Yamagata developed his garden villa between 1894 and 1898, with the help of professional garden designer Ogawa Jihei.
With this history in mind, let’s explore the garden. Like many traditional Japanese gardens it has different zones, including a lawn area, valley scenery, mountain scenery, and tea garden scenery, with a fast flowing stream and a large pond to both break it up and tie it together.
The water, from the Lake Biwa Canal, enters the property via a 3-tiered waterfall in the wooded southeast corner of the garden. It bubbles and gurgles its way to a placid pond where, if you’re lucky, you might spot some birds playing on its shores. Then it flows on past the houses at the front of the garden and disappears, emerging to water the ponds and gardens of the restaurant across the lane.
There are three houses in the garden: a tea house, a two-story store-house (referred to as the “Western-style house”), and a traditional-style Japanese house, complete with a small atrium which serves to promote air movement to keep the house cool during Kyoto’s hot, humid summers.
It is here that visitors can relax with tea.
While the traditional tea house is not currently in use and cannot be entered, the doors and windows are often open to allow visitors to peek inside and get a feel for the design of these structures, with features like small doors requiring visitors to “enter humbly” and alcoves for seasonal artwork to round out the tea experience.
Be sure to stop in the Western style house, as well. The second floor was Yamagata’s working space. It was in his opulently decorated office here that, on April 21, 1903, Yamagata met with three other genro (elder statesmen) to discuss Japanese foreign policy, effectively determining to wage war against Russia if diplomatic efforts to oust them from Manchuria and Korea failed. (The Japanese subsequently defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05–the first time an Asian power defeated a Western power.)
On the first floor of the Western house is a display outlining the details of the garden’s design and maintenance, as well, a boon to those who enjoy gardens and want to understand what they’re looking at.
December – March: 8:30 ~ 17:00
April – June: 8:30 ~ 18:00
July – August: 7:30 ~ 19:00
September – October: 8:30 ~ 18:00
November: 7:30 ~ 18:00
December 29th – December 31st.