This garden and residence were first built in 1658 by Mitsuhisa Shimazu, the 19th patriarch of the Shimazu family, a powerful clan in Kyushu. The current site is estimated to be only a third of the size of the original, but it impresses, nonetheless. Weighing in at 48 hectares, it includes artificial mountains, rivers and borrowed landscapes that highlight the still active Sakurajima volcano.
Expansions were made to the estate in 1702 by Yoshitaka, the 21st head of the family. He also built a second garden nearby called Kyokusui, where Heian period kyokusui-no-en parties were re-enacted. At these events, guests would sit on opposite sides of a winding stream - the kyokusui or gyokusui - and write poetry while enjoying sake and food. Each guest would alternate writing a line of a poem and then floating it down the stream to the next guest who would add another line. The garden was buried by a landslide a few years after its construction and was never rebuilt. Its existence was confirmed in 1959 and excavation and restoration work followed in the 1960's. Today, a Kyokusui Festival is held at Senganen, celebrating this very old tradition. [BTW, kyokusui festivals are also held at Okayama's Korakuen and at Motsuji Temple. rc] Yoshitaka is also remembered in Japan for his introduction from China of giant moso bamboo, the bamboo used in bamboo shoots.
In addition to the kyokusui restoration, there are several other notable elements to this site. The lower garden has two important historic toro (stone lanterns). The first is known as the 'Lion Lantern', designed by the then head gardener, Oda Kisanji, in 1884. The lantern is noted for its use of a massive rock from the nearby seashore as its capstone. The second lantern, the 'Crane Lantern', is somewhat older and perhaps more interesting. Its name derives from the crane-shaped, brown capstone. But it is interesting for the installation of a gas lamp in the lantern by Nariakira Shimazu (27th lord). It is said to be the first use of piped gas in Japan.
In addition to a oft ignored semi-tropical woodland above the garden, the grounds include several notable plants. An large evergreen cherry known as bakuchi-no-ki ('gambling tree' - this tree loses all of its bark each spring and reminding us of the losses one can suffer from gambling) is planted in the Kyokusui restoration. A tall Amami pine (yakutane-goyo or amami-goyo; Pinus armandii var. amamiana) dominates the area near the residence. It is thought to be 300 years old and is still in good health. The Amamipine has five stiff needles. The name 'yakutane' is derived from the islands Yakushima and Tanegashima, where it originates. There is some disagreement among botanist concerning whether this is a distinct species or a variety of Chinese white pine. Another interesting species here is the noshi-ran (Ophiopogon jaburan), a giant relative of Liriope muscari.
Narioki, the 26th Shimazu lord, created another oddity in 1814. Rarely seen in Japan, but much more common in China, he employed 3,800 workers to carve the huge kanji characters 'Senjingan (1000 Foot Crag) on a cliffside. Each character is 11 meters high. Tadayoshi, the 29th Shimazu, was no less audacious. He harnessed the Kenkura River, which flows through the garden, to generate electricity for the Shuseijo Factory, one of the ealiers Japanese efforts to develop Western-style industrial enterprises. The dam is no longer there but the ruins can be seen in the garden.
The Shimazu family was one of the most powerful and long-lasting families in Japanese history, holding sway in what is now Kagoshima and Miyaz
A Pair of Stones
Two chunks of gray-green stone,
their shapes grotesque and unsightly,
wholly unfit for practical uses --
ordinary people despise them, leave them untouched.
Formed in the time of primal chaos,
they took their place at the mouth of Lake Taihu,
ten thousand ages resting by the lakeshore,
in one morning coming into my hands!
Pole-bearers have brought them to my prefectural office
where I wash and scrub away mud and stains.
The hollows are black, deeply scarred in mist,
crevices green with the rich hue of moss.
Aged dragons coiled to form their feet,
old swords stuck in for the crown,
I suddenly wonder if they didn't plummet from Heaven,
so different from anything in this human realm!
One will do to prop up my lute,
one to be a reservoir for my wine.
The tip of one shoots up several yards,
the other has a hollow, will hold a gallon of liquid!
My five-stringed instrument leaning on the left one,
my single wine cup set on the right,
I'll dip from the hollowed cask and it will never go dry,
though drunkenness long since has toppled me over.
Every person has something he loves,
and things all yearn for a companion.
More and more I fear that gatherings of the young
no longer will welcome a white-haired gentleman.
I turn my head, ask this pair of stones
if they'd consent to keep an old man company.
And though the stones are powerless to speak,
they agree that we three should be friends.