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
Japan a great stone garden in the sea.
Echoes of hoes and weeding,
Centuries of leading hill-creeks down
To ditch and pool in fragile knee deep fields.
Leafy sunshine rustling on a man
Chipping a foot-square rough hinoki beam;
I thought I heard an axe chop in the woods
It broke the dream; and woke up dreaming on a train.
It must have been a thousand years ago
In some old mountain sawmill of Japan.
A horde of excess poets and unwed girls
And I that night prowled Tokyo like a bear
Tracking the human future
Of intelligence and despair.