In the far northeast of Kyoto, the foothills of Hiei-zan provide a superb setting for Shūgaku-in Rikyū (修学院離宮), one of Japan’s finest examples of garden design using “borrowed scenery”; a technique which incorporates the existing landscape to give the impression of a much larger space.
Emperor Go-mizuno’o, who reigned between 1611 and 1629, built Shūgaku-in Rikyū in the late 1650s as a pleasure garden rather than a residence. Just 15 years old when he ascended the throne, the artistic and highly cultured Go-mizuno’o fiercely resented the new shogunate’s constant meddling in imperial affairs – not least being forced to marry the shogun’s daughter. After Go-mizuno’o abdicated in 1630, however, the shogun encouraged him to establish an imperial villa. He eventually settled on the site of a ruined temple, Shūgaku-in, and set about designing a series of gardens, which survived more than a century of neglect before the government rescued them in the 1820s. Though some of the original pavilions have been lost, Go-mizuno’o’s overall design remains – a delightfully naturalistic garden that blends seamlessly into the wooded hills.
In fact, Shūgaku-in Rikyū is made up of three separate gardens, each in their own enclosure among the terraced rice-fields. Of these, the top lake-garden is the star attraction. Climbing up the path towards the upper villa, you pass between tall, clipped hedges before suddenly emerging at the compound’s highest point. An airy pavilion, Rin-un-Tei, occupies the little promontory, with views over the lake, the forested, rolling hills in the middle distance and the mountains beyond. Walking back down through the garden, the grand vistas continue with every twist and turn of the path, passing the intricate Chitose bridge, intimate tea-ceremony pavilions and rustic boathouses.