Kagoshima City Top 10 Shimadzu Places to Visit
Our top ten recommendations for discovering the history of the Shimadzu Clan in Kagoshima City
Over a relatively short period of history Kagoshima City has had its fair share of hard knocks. Burnt down by the British Royal Navy 1863, partially burnt down again during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, rocked by the Taisho Eruption of Sakurajima in 1914, and finally carpet bombed in 1945, few historical buildings remain in the city limits. This isn’t to say that Kagoshima lacks history however, and there are plenty of sites where visitors can discover the rich backstory of this fascinating city.
With that said, here is out list of the top ten places in Kagoshima City related to the lords of the Shimadzu clan.
10. Ishibashi Park
Ishibashi Park is a popular spot for locals with small children to gather in the summer months due to the shallow paddling pool that runs under the three historic stone bridges on display there. The on-site museum is also very informative and worth a visit.
The bridges themselves were constructed by stonemason from the neighbouring Higo domain called Iwanaga Sangoro. Iwanaga was hired by the 28th head of the Shimadzu family, Narioki to construct five stone bridges around Kagoshima. The grandest of these bridges was Nishidabashi which was crossed by the lord’s yearly procession setting off to the capital Edo to pay tribute to the Shogun.
During the construction of the bridges a rumour spread that the Shimadzu family were planning to assassinate Iwanaga once the work was complete, as he had unwittingly passed on information about the Satsuma domain to their enemies. Iwanaga made excuses and sent his fellow workers from Higo home, but stayed to complete the work. Once finished he was finally allowed to leave but was captured by samurai assassins at Izumi on the border between the Satsuma and Higo domains. Iwanaga apparently begged for his life and explained that he was innocent, satisfying the samurai, who then let him cross the border to Higo and return home.
The five bridges stood the test of time for well over 100 years, until a large flood in 1993 destroyed two of the five bridges and badly damaged the remaining three. The three remaining bridges were restored and moved to Ishibashi Park for display.
Tenmonkan is the town centre of Kagoshima City, and is a fairly compact hub of shops, restaurants, and bars branching out from a central shopping arcade. Easily walkable and with hundreds of dining and drinking options Tenmonkan is easily Kagoshima’s liveliest night spot.
Tenmonkan wasn’t always this way however, and there is a hint to its origins in its name which literally means “astronomy hall”. Tenmonkan was built in 1779 under the orders of the 25th head of the Shimadzu family, Shigehide.
Originally called the Meijikan, the now busy drinking district was initially home to serious scientific study using sundials, armillary spheres, and other complicated kit for measuring the night sky. There was also a four-meter-high terrace from which to carry out the experiments intended to produce a more accurate calendar and better measurement of time.
The terrace may have been replaced by rooftop beer gardens and serious scientists by merry revelers, but there is still a tangible sense of history to the Tenmonkan area. Certainly something to think about when sipping on a warm glass shochu late into the night.
8. Saigo Takamori Statue
Saigo Takamori was one of the most famous retainers of the Shimadzu clan, and is often referred to as being the “last samurai”. While his story was most certainly the model for the Hollywood movie of the same name, Saigo’s actual life bears little resemblance to the film.
Born a middle to low ranking samurai in the Kajiya area of Kagoshima, Saigo quickly gained the attention of lord Shimadzu Nariakira, and became one of his trusted attendants. Through his deft political maneuvering, the Satsuma domain and their allies were able to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate and open Japan to the outside world.
Unfortunately for Saigo and his followers, the same government they had helped to establish was keen to remove the status of the samurai classes and employ a modern conscript army in their place.
Saigo himself had no real desire to fight against the government, but felt an obligation to the samurai of Satsuma, who looked up to him for leadership. After an ill-fated campaign around Kyushu, Saigo and his army were forced to retreat to Shiroyama, where they were overpowered by the much larger government forces.
Saigo met his end on Shiroyama after asking his friend Beppu Shinsuke to behead him. This statue of Saigo looking out towards Sakurajima is a famous landmark and popular photo spot for visitors to Kagoshima.
7. Jigen-ryu Swordsmanship Museum
As the leaders of a powerful samurai clan, the Shimadzu wanted to make sure that they not only had strong warriors in their service, but also leaders capable of providing a role model for the peasant and merchant classes.
The education of the samurai in Satsuma began from childhood with young boys attending local schools called goju. Here they would learn the basic morals of the samurai, such as the Iroha-no-uta, while practicing martial and cultural arts.
The martial art with perhaps the largest influence on the samurai way of thought was swordsmanship, and in Satsuma Jigen-ryu was the school of choice for the elite warriors of the domain.
Jigen-ryu became the official style of swordsmanship for Satsuma in 1604, and founder Togo Chui was employed as the domain fencing instructor. Jigen-ryu has been passed down in the Togo family until the present day and 13th generation headmaster Togo Shigetaka.
The Jigen-ryu Swordsmanship Museum was opened to display hundreds of historical records from the school and give visitors a glimpse of the dojo where the art is still practiced today as it was over 400 years ago.
6. Tsurugane Shrine
Originally built in 1869 next to Kagoshima Castle, the shrine was moved to its present location next to Sengan-en in 1917. 31 generations of the Shimadzu family enshrined here along with their family members. Five chief retainers known for their service to the family and 45 junior retainers who committed junshi (ritual suicide on the death of the lord) are also revered at the shrine.
Alongside brave warriors, inspirational leaders, and loyal followers, the shrine is also home to Kamejuhime, a princess of the Shimadzu clan known for her sagacity and beauty. Kamejuhime was very popular with the common people, and statues of her likeness can be found around Kagoshima.
The Shimadzu family still perform Shinto rites at the shrine to this day, and lucky visitors might be able to see historic rituals being performed.
5. Terukuni Shrine
Terukuni Shrine is easily recognizable due to its giant white torii gate brazenly jutting out of the road in stark contrast to the greenery of Shiroyama behind. The shrine was built in 1863 on the site of a Buddhist temple called Nanzen-in, located in the western wing of Kagoshima Castle.
The shrine building has been rebuilt several times and the present building was constructed in 1953. The 28th head of the Shimadzu family, Nariakira is enshrined here. Nariakira became the lord of the Satsuma domain following an intense power struggle eventually resulting in the forced resignation of his father, Narioki.
Influenced by his great-grandfather and architect of Tenmonkan, Shimadzu Shigehide, Nariakira had an affection for western technology and science from a young age. He went on to lay the foundations for the modernization of Japan through his Shuseikan Project, the remains of which can still be seen at the Shoko Shuseikan Museum and Sengan-en.
Terukuni Shrine is known for the major festivals of Hatsumode (New Year) and Setsubun (bean throwing), but most unique is perhaps Rokugatsu-do – a lantern festival held each July to celebrate the birth of the first generation head of the Shimadzu family, Tadahisa.
Make sure to head around the back of the main shrine to see the smaller stone hokora shrines to the water and mountain gods, before heading over to the neighbouring park to see the statues of Nariakira, his brother Hisamitsu and nephew Tadayoshi.
4. Site of Fukushoji Temple
Gyokuryuzan Fukushoji was a Soto sect Zen Buddhist temple that held funeral rites for the Shimadzu clan for hundreds of years. Fukushoji was founded in 1394 when the highly religious 7th head of the Shimadzu clan, Motohisa, invited Zen monk Sekioku Shinryo to Kagoshima.
The temple complex was one of Japan’s largest, featuring a huge entrance gate and main hall, a zazen hall, and many other buildings. Over 1,500 monks were in residence at the sprawling complex. It is said that the monks then went on to found their own temples in both Shikoku and Honshu, and close to 3,000 temples trace their roots back to Fukushoji.
The temple was unfortunately closed down in the Meiji period and eventually dismantled due to the anti-Buddhist movement of the time. The site is presently occupied by Gyokuryu High School, but the expansive Shimadzu family graveyard remains.
A walk around the graveyard with its impressive stone monuments shows the long history of the Shimadzu clan and just how large the original temple complex was.
3. Goromon Gate and Kagoshima Castle
Kagoshima Castle was built in 1601 under the orders of the 18th head of the Shimadzu clan, Iehisa. Iehisa’s father Yoshihiro was opposed to the location of the new castle, sandwiched between the steep slope of Shiroyama behind and Kagoshima Bay in front. Yoshihiro thought that the castle was prone to attack from the sea, but despite his opposition the headstrong Iehisa went ahead with construction as planned.
The unusual one-storey castle stood without incident for most of the Edo period, but Yoshihiro’s prediction turned out to be correct some 260 years later when it was bombarded by the British Royal Navy, then attacked in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.
The main gate of the castle was lost to fire, but a restored version was completed in March 2020 showing the entrance to the seat of power of the Shimadzu family in its full glory. Stroll across the bride spanning the moat and through the gate, making note of the deep scars in the stonework caused by gunfire during the Satsuma Rebellion, last stand of the samurai. The Reimeikan Museum is located inside the castle walls.
2. Tamazato Garden
This hidden gem is almost entirely off the tourist trail and offers a small oasis of tranquillity in a built-up residential area. The Tamazato Residence and accompanying garden were built in 1835 for the 27th head of the Shimadzu family, Narioki.
After Nariakira’s death, his younger sister Katsuhime lived at Tamazato for a short while, but it was deemed to be too dangerous once the Satsuma Rebellion broke out in 1877, and the house was abandoned.
Nariakira’s brother Hisamitsu spent a large amount of money renovating the property in the following years. The unusual black entrance gate was constructed for Hisamitsu’s state funeral along with the straight road leading to it.
During the second world war the Tamazato area suffered heavy bombing, and much of the main residence was lost. Presently part of the garden and a reconstruction of the tearoom remain, and a walk around the site gives an idea of how Narioki might have spent his time relaxing or pondering the future of his domain.
1. Sengan-en and Shoko Shuseikan Museum
The number one spot of course goes to Sengan-en and the Shoko Shuseikan Museum.
Sengan-en was built in 1658 for the 19th head of the Shimadzu family, Mitsuhisa. The property has been passed down in the Shimadzu family for over 360 years, with each generation adding their own innovations over the years.
The house at the centre of the gardens was renovated in 1884 when the 29th head of the Shimadzu family, Tadayoshi came to live here full time. Visitors can take a stroll around the house and see how the lords of the Shimadzu lived and how they welcomed important dignitaries, including royalty from overseas.
After visiting the house explore the expansive 12-acre gardens and see the incredible view of Sakurajima that inspired Shimadzu Mitsuhisa. The gardens feature a wide variety of different plant and flowers throughout the year, so garden enthusiasts should make sure to check the yearly calendar to find out what to look for.
Sengan-en is unique in that it is the only property of its kind to still be fully owned and operated by the family that originally built it, now in their 32nd generation. Sengan-en has a real living connection to the past, and visitors can rest assured that they can experience the authentic tradition and culture of Kagoshima while exploring the award-winning property.
Make sure to also visit the neighbouring Shoko Shuseikan Museum for a whirlwind tour of the 800-year history of the Shimadzu clan, culminating in Nariakira’s Shuseikan Project, and the modernisation of Japan.
That brings us to the end of our top ten Shimadzu related spots in Kagoshima City, but there are plenty more sites around the rest of Kagoshima Prefecture and even other regions of Japan to discover. Make sure to follow us on social media for more stories and the latest event information here at Sengan-en.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.