Founded in 1655 by the deposed Emperor Gomizuno-o, Shugaku-in Rikyu is located in the Higashiyama hills, north east of Kyoto city. Today Shugaku-in is a series of three villa locations, known as the Lower, Middle and Upper, each linked by a pine-lined path. The overall atmosphere echoes the refined and sophisticated grandeur of Katsura Rikyu over to the west of the city, Shugaku-in indulges in its larger hillside site and in some ways it presents a more naturalistic, less formal, approach to its landscaping. It is a large site and the main villas are separated by terraced rice fields which lend a strong rural tone to the whole site.Each of the three main sites are linked by pine-flanked pathways. None of the original buildings have survived the passage of time, and the present buildings all date to subsequent restorations, mainly carried out in the 19th century.
If the glory of Shugaku-in is in its setting, then there is no better exploitation of the dramatic potential of a site than is found in the siting of the Upper Villa, the aptly named Rinun-tei, “The Pavilion Among the Clouds” ( reconstructed 1824 ). The approach to the pavilion is via a narrow, steep staircase, framed on both sides by tall hedges. As the visitor reaches the top of the flight of steps and the pavilion, a panoramic view is set out before. Below the Rinun-tei is a large pond, created by the damming of a mountain stream, the pond contains two islands linked by an imposing bridge ( Chitose bashi , lit: “The Bridge of a Thousand Years”), added in 1824. The larger of the two islands ( Bansho-u), has a small pavilion, Kyusui-tei, one of the original buildings from the founding of the estate. The west bank of the pond is supported by an embankment covered by extensive hedges.
The visitor looking down from Rinun-tei has the sense of being in a very high place, the surface of the pond reflects the sky and clouds, and the shakkei to the north is of ranges of hills and mountains unfolding. The whole scene being held in place by the overarching sky. The magnificence of the natural landscape has been captured and enhanced by the sensitivity of a designer’s eye steeped in the Chinese and Japanese landscape painting tradition.
The great triumph of Shugaku-in is captured in this glorious view. It is nothing but a show stopper, a moment when the heart misses a beat. Ranged against the weight and solidity of the sweeping panorama of pond and distant mountains, is the great glory of the sky itself. In this breathless view is the interplay of yin and yang forces, acted out for the viewer in all its cosmic subtlety. Here are innumerable and venerable landscape paintings writ large. Except, of course, the scenery shifts and alters every moment with the ever-changing light of the day passing. Great gardens are created by great views, they exploit every nuance of the potential of the site. Shugaku-in is a great garden.
Garden tours are free of charge, and can only be visited by prior arrangement through the Imperial Palace Agency. The office is located in the Kyōto Gosho park, central Kyoto.
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