Historical Houses and Beautiful Gardens
Chiran, a small town nestled in an expansive valley, south of Kagoshima where the prestigious Sato samurai family built a semi-fortified village during the Edo period. A number of these historical houses and their beautiful gardens have survived the tooth of time and the fall of the old social class system. Today, they still proudly stand along Bukeyashiki Street and although the houses are closed to visitors, seven of the manicured gardens are open to be discovered by curious travellers.
Detour to Satsuma Peninsula
Chiran’s seven samurai gardens might have been an overlong extension to our drive from Kumamoto to Kagoshima. However, after a brief stay in Kagoshima years ago we knew that the Kagoshima itself does not have much to go for in terms of interesting sights, we were also unsure whether we would returning to Kyushu and the Satsuma Peninsula in the near future. Samurais are a fascinating, albeit at times fantastically over exaggerated, part of Japan’s history. Jerome certainly has always enjoyed stories, mangas and films featuring the Japanese warriors.
Local Cuisine at Takian
After our lengthy drive we first stopped for lunch at Takian, a restaurant on samurai street in a traditional thatched building overlooking a beautiful garden, a taster of our upcoming tour. Takian served delicious local Satsuma cuisine accompanied by local green tea, seated on tatami mats with views of the lovely garden. Housed inside an ancient samurai house from the Meiji period, it also provided us with an insight of its basic comforts, yet splendid fusuma doors, woodcarvings and other exquisite decorations.
Where to Buy Entry Tickets
While we could have sat and enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere, we were excited to wander and explore the seven samurai gardens. Hidden from sight behind tall stonewalls, topped with meticulously clipped hedges, stand the former warrior residences. Entry tickets (Adult 500JPY Children 300JPY) to the seven samurai gardens can be purchased at one of the ticket stands along Bukeyashiki Street.
Dry Stone Gardens
English signs indicate each of the gardens and stepping through the gates in the hedges, the ancient and noble world of samurai would open up, the wooden mansions and their scenic gardens. The creations based on the plans of famous designers from Kyoto, they portray the classic scenes of mountain peaks, valleys and waterfalls, inspired by Chinese landscape paintings. The hills surrounding Chiran with the aid of stones, large rocks and shrubs have been incorporated to form a miniature landscape in the dry stone gardens. Additional features like stone lanterns and small wishing wells add another interesting dimension to the otherwise similar designs.
Mori Shigemitsu Garden
During our circuit of the seven samurai gardens, the shrubs presented themselves in their rich, evergreen coat. The azaleas must be at their most mesmerising sight in full bloom during May or on the rare occasion in winter when doused in sprinkles of snow. An avid lover of Japanese Gardens I felt that a vital part was missing and it was not until the last garden, when I realised, that water as a feature was essential. The Mori Shigemitsu garden’s design sets the spotlight onto an artificially created, “real waterfall”, flowing into a koi pond, where kids would enjoy to feed the fish.
Other Sights in Chiran
Besides the samurai residences and their adjoining gardens, Chiran’s other famous sight has a more gruesome history. On the outskirts of town, based at a former airfield, a museum commemorates and documents the lives of kamikaze suicide bombers in WWII. Their lives and stories are an equally important part of Japan’s interesting history, like Hiroshima. We sadly did not have enough time to venture to the Special Attack Peace Hall before closing time. Chiran’s high street in its retro 50’s and 60’s design is equally worth for a stroll and reminded us of Yanaka, a picturesque town near majestic Mount Fuji.
Karakuri Doll Theatre at Toyodahime Shrine
Before leaving Chiran we stopped at the Toyodahime Shrine, home to a rare sight, a puppet theatre with karakuri dolls, they magically move by a watermill. Upon our arrival the puppet theatre was closed off by shutters from view, a friendly employee noticed us peeking through the gaps into the sacred stage. Not only did he open up and turn on the lights for us to witness the enchanting scenery, he also led us into the heart of the theatre below, to show us the complex mechanics of the waterwheel and the puppets. It must be a true spectacle to watch the performance of the karakuri dolls, which only happens once a year in July. Exceptionally grateful to the shrine employee for his kindness we happily left Chiran chasing our next family adventure.
Where we stayed in Kyushu:
Sankara Resort treat yourself to a truly luxurious stay on the island.
Kirishima Kokusei for those wanting to stay in Kirishima Onsen
Ryokan Shinsen if you fancy a luxury ryokan experience
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