Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Must-See Spots in Shugakuin Imperial Villa

Shugakuin Imperial Villa (修学院離宮) at the west foot of Mt. Hiei (比叡山) is a facility belonging to the Japanese imperial family that has earned a 2-Star rating from the Michelin Green Guide. It was designed by the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o (後水尾上皇) with the idea of a villa in the countryside with beautiful scenery in every season during the mid-17 century. Like Katsura Imperial Villa (桂離宮) and Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace (仙洞御所), Shugakuin Imperial Villa is another place in Kyoto to adore the amazingly built traditional palaces and gardens.

In addition to the garden and traditional buildings constructed between 1655 and 1659, Shugakuin Imperial Palace is renowned for its magnificent mountainous rural scenery at the backdrop. This is why the villa’s garden is known as the ‘Emperor’s Garden (帝王の庭園)’.

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How to Get to Shugakuin Imperial Villa

  • To get to Shugakuin Imperial Villa from Kyoto Station, you can take the below bus routes and get off at Shugakuinrikyu-michi (修学院離宮道). From there, it is a 15-minute walk to Shugakuin Imperial Villa.
    • Kyoto City Bus Route 5 bound for Iwakura Sōshaba-mae (岩倉操車場前) or Route 17 bound for Ohara (大原).
    • You can also take Kyoto City Subway to Kokusaikaikan Station (国際会館駅) or Sanjo Keihan Station (三条京阪駅) and take Kyoto Bus City Route 5 from there.
  • If you plan to visit the attractions along Eizan Dentetsu’s rail line, get off at Shūgakuin Station (修学院駅). From there, it is a 20-minute walk to Shugakuin Imperial Villa.

How to Get a Permit to Visit Shugakuin Imperial Villa

To visit Shugakuin Imperial Villa, you must join one of the guided tours conducted by the Imperial Household Agency. And don’t worry about language barriers, as an English audio guide can be rented when you arrive!

A permit is required to enter Shugakuin Imperial Villa. Application is open at 5 am on the 1st of the month three months beforehand. If you plan to travel between mid-November to early December, applying by the 1st of August is recommended (or the 1st of September for a visit in December). The competition to secure a permit is incredibly fierce during the fall foliage season, with most permits gone on the 1st day!

To apply, follow the steps on Imperial Household Agency’s website HERE. Note that the address you put through must be found on Google Maps for the system to process your application.

Tip: If you were not able to get Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s permit via advanced reservation, you could also try the same-day application. Please refer to point 3 of the above link.

Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s Brief Profile

As mentioned, Shugakuin Imperial Villa was designed by the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o. Apparently, he even disguised as a maid and traveled to the villa during its construction and gave instructions to the builders!

Most buildings in the villa have its name engraved on a wooden plaque hung below the roof. The calligraphy was written by the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o, so it isn’t hard to see that he had a strong attachment to Shugakuin Imperial Villa.

That said, the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o never spent a night at Shugakuin Imperial Villa. After its completion, he visited the villa 31 times, each time being a day visit.

“Shugakuin” isn’t the villa’s name but the area that the villa is located.

Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s Three Villas

Surrounding by a vast crop field, Shugakuin Imperial Villa comprises three complexes, Lower Villa (Shimo Rikyu, 下離宮), Middle Villa (Naka Rikyu, 中離宮), and Upper Villa (Kami Rikyu, 上離宮). Constructed on the side of a hill, the “Lower”, “Middle”, and “Upper” in the villas’ names do not refer to a rank but rather its altitudes. A narrow pine-lined pathway connects the villas, forming a rough upside-down triangle.

When Shugakuin Imperial Villa was first built, it only comprised the Upper and Lower Villa. The Middle Villa was the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o’s daughter’s villa. It was included in Shugakuin Imperial Villa in 1885. Apparently, the paddy fields between the three villas were purchased by the Imperial Household Agency (宮内庁) in 1964, making the entire site a generous size of 545,000 square meters. With the help of contracted local farmers, the rural landscape that the imperial family enjoyed since the Edo period was maintained. The farmers can sell rice from the paddy fields as they please.

Shugakuin Imperial Villa has over 400 pine trees planted. Although pine trees are usually tall, the ones at the villa are short. This is because the gardeners would spend every May pruning the trees, making them short and wide.

The reason behind this is to avoid one being able to see the other’s complex in the villa so that you can focus on what is around you.

The pathway has been covered by gravel since the villa’s completion to prevent the retired emperor’s clothing from becoming dirty and muddy. As it is really hard to walk on the gravel without making a sound, the gravel was also used to prevent thieves.

On the Day of Visiting Shugakuin Imperial Villa

Compared to the tours in other imperial palaces and villas, such as Katsura Imperial Villa, Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s tour is slightly longer. The 80-minute tour will take you to all three villas. As the three villas are not close to each other, please expect a lot of walking involved (3km). But because the path is pine-lined, it should be a refreshing walk!

If you are lucky enough to get a permit to enter Shugakuin Imperial Villa, please be at the gate indicated on your permit 20 minutes before the tour’s starting time.

If you arrive early, the gate may be closed. But it will open by the time of your reservation. Please either bring a print-out version of the permit or note down the permit number beforehand. An ID with your name printed is also necessary on the day.

After the registration is completed, there is a resting area beyond the gate. Toilet facilities and coin lockers are available there. It is also where you can rent out an audio guide.

The Must-See Spots in Lower Villa (下離宮)

Omotemon Gate (表門)

Lower Villa’s Omotemon Gate is where you enter Shugakuin Imperial Villa. The gate was reconstructed in the Taishō period (1912 – 1926). It bears the same appearance as Katsura Imperial Villa’s Omotemon. So if you didn’t get a chance to take a good look at the one in Katsura Imperial Villa, you can examine the one in Shugakuin Imperial Villa instead.

Miyukimon Gate (御幸門)

Miyukimon Gate atop the stone stairs was only used by emperors or retired emperors. Nowadays, however, we tourists are allowed to use it when we visit Shugakuin Imperial Villa via a tour!

The gate was originally located right to where it is now. When the retired Emperor Reigen (零元上皇) resided there, he moved the gate to its current location. The flower pattern openwork (花菱模様の透し彫り) on the gate was curved according to the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o’s taste.


Chūmon Gate (中門)

The next gate you will encounter is Chūmon, the gate to the inner court. The wooden gate’s transom also has an elegant openwork. The tree at the gate’s left used to be a Linden tree but was later replaced by a Japanese lime.

Jugetsukan (寿月観)

Okoshiyose (御輿寄) is Jugetsukan’s gate. It was where palanquins were placed, allowing the retired emperors and their guests to be able to enter the building straight after they got off their palanquins. This is why the roof of Okoshiyose was made extra wide, sheltering the palanquins from bad weather.

Proceeding further from Okoshiyose to the bridge to the island in the middle of the pond, the stone lantern on the other end of the bridge is called Sodegata Tōrō (袖形灯篭). The shape looks just like a Japanese kimono’s sleeve! And because it also looks like a crocodile with its mouth open, it is also called Waniguchi (鰐口).

Jugetsukan, the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o’s living quarter and office, is the only building left in the Lower Villa. It consists of a hip-and-gable roof building and a hip-roof building. The two buildings formed a L-shape. The current building was rebuilt in 1824 during the major renovation by Tokugawa Ienari and is a lot smaller than the original one.

On the left of Jugetsukan is Lower Villa’s garden. Standing inside the building, the garden looks like a painting within the frame formed by Jugetsukan’s pillars and roof. The garden’s scenery consists of the mountains at the back, including one of Japan’s Three Holiest Places, Mt. Hiei.

A triangular stone is placed at the top of the waterfall in the garden, representing Mt. Fuji (although it was apparently replaced afterwards).

The Must-See Spots in Middle Villa (中離宮)

As mentioned, the Middle Villa was not initially a part of the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. After the princess became a nun, the villa was turned into a temple called Rinkyuji (林丘寺). By 1885, around half of the temple’s precinct was returned to the imperial family, which was then transformed into Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s Middle Villa.

At the end of the pine-lined path, the temple is slightly visible.

Rakushiken (楽只軒)

Rakushiken, completed around 1668 or the year before, is the oldest building in the Middle Villa. Initially, it was the retired Emperor Go-Mizuinoo’s office which was then gifted to his daughter in 1668. This is why there are flower pattern openwork in the building. At the connecting points of the roof tiles, you will see chrysanthemum crests embeded, representing the imperial family.

The southern part of Rakushiken has a lower floor. This creates a visual effect that the garden is an extension of the building.


Kyakuden (客殿)

Kyakuden was completed in 1677 as a part of Emperor Go-Mizunoo’s wife’s palace. After she passed away in 1678, the building was relocated to the Middle Villa in 1682 for their daughter. The design and paintings on the doors were dedicated to all her favorites.

What you need to pay attention to in Middle Villa’s Kyakuden’s (客殿) Ichinoma room (一の間) is the unique shelf. As the five shelf boards of various lengths are arranged in a way that resembles morning mist, it was named Kasumi-dana (霞棚). Together with the Katsura-dana (桂棚) in Katsura Imperial Villa and Daigo-dana (醍醐棚) in Sanbo-in (三宝院) in Daigo Temple (醍醐寺), they are known as the Three Great Shelves in Japan (天下の三大名棚).

Furthermore, the room is decorated with Japanese Waka and Chinese poems on colored paper. Together with the gorgeous ornaments, the paintings on the doors, and other architectural details, it is most befitting as a residence of a princess from the Tokugawa shogunate.

What to pay attention to in the Ninoma room is the paintings on the cedar sliding doors, especially the one with a carp drawn. It is said that the carps were too energetic that they swam out of the door at night, so painters were later called to have a net drawn. But if you look at the door closely, the net is broken, which means that there is still a chance that a fish has or can escape from the net!

At the back of Ichinoma is an altar room called Gonaibutsu no Ma (御内仏の間). The northern open veranda’s low handrail is another must-check thing at Kaykuden. The design looks like a dried fishing net, so it was named Aboshi no Rankan (網干の欄干), which later became a popular feature of a Sukiya style of building (数寄屋建築).

The Must-See Spots in Upper Villa (上離宮)

The altitude difference between the Upper and the Lower Villas is as much as 40 meters. The teahouse, Rinuntei, at the highest point overlooking the pond in the garden, has an elevation of 150 meters!

Yokuryuchi Pond (浴龍池)

Similar to Katsura Imperial Villa, Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s strolling garden feature surrounds Yokuryuchi Pond, a pond made by damming a river. In the past, music and Waka poem parties were held on the traditional boats that traveled between the small artificial islands in the garden. Apparently, the boat had a capacity of 25 people!

On the left side of the pond, there is a small hut. It was where all the boats of the villa were parked. A larger vertical standing stone can be found close to the hut. It is the boat dock where the traditional boat was tied temporarily.

If you visit Shugakuin Imperial Villa during the fall foliage season, the Kaedebashi Bridge (楓橋) connecting the northern part of the island to the teahouse Kyusuitei at the east bank is a must-visit spot. It will offer you incredible maple leave scenery!

The hill covered by various evergreen trees against the promenade on the pond’s left is called Ōkarikomi (大刈込). It was created to hide the stone wall that dammed the river.

Tip: If you want a good photo of Ōkarikomi, the best photo spots are around the intersection of the three pine-lined paths.

Teahouse: Rinuntei (隣雲亭)

The Upper Villa’s Rinuntei is located at the highest point of the villa. Like many buildings in the villa, it has a hip-and-gable roof structure. This gives a panoramic view of the entire Shugakuin Imperial Villa with the mountain afar as a backdrop. You can even see Kyoto‘s city center from there!

With the magnificent view in front of you, you would agree that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Shogakuin Imperial Villa’s garden scale is the largest in Japan.

The current Rinuntei is the 4th generation completed in 1824. The teahouse almost has no decoration. This was done purposely so that your main focus is on this picturesque scenery!


As you rest there, remember to check out the colorful little stones embeded in the ground. Some are by themselves. A couple have two stones next to each other, whereas the rest are in a group of three. The design was named Hifumi-Ishi (一二三石), meaning one-two-three stones.

The northern room of Rinuntei is a wood-floored room called Senshidai (洗詩台) overlooking a stream. It was where the retired emperor composed Waka poems, hence the room’s name. When all the sliding doors are opened, the water sound from the 6-meter-tall Odaki Falls (雄滝) can be heard clearly. As you walk down from Rinuntei, you can see the flowing down waterfall stone arrangement (滝石組), which eventually flows to the Otowa River (音羽川).

Tip: If you want to take a clear photo of the waterfall’s upper tier at the far back, get your camera ready at Rinuntei. You will need a telephoto lens.

Chitosebashi Bridge (千歳橋)


In 1824, Shugakuin Imperial Villa went through significant renovations by the 11th Shogun, Tokugawa Ienari (徳川家斉). The Jugetsukan (寿月観) in the Lower Villa was also constructed during that renovation. In addition, the Chitosebashi Bridge that connects the two islands on Yokuryuchi Pond was gifted by Kyoto’s administrative agency established by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

While the bridge is of a Chinese style, it still adds to the charm of the entire garden and coexists with other Japanese-style elements naturally.

Teahouse: Kyusuitei (窮邃亭)

The Kyusuitei on the northern island on the Yokuryuchi Pond is the original building completed by the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o in the mid-17th century. It was also where the retired emperor rested. The decoration above the roof has a couple of chrysanthemum crests embeded. You will also notice that the building has a large eave, which was used to prevent the internal space from being affected by the dazzling sunlight.

Apparently, the retired emperor isn’t the only one who likes to rest at Kyusuitei. Nowadays, the local animals such as birds and monkeys, would take a nap in the tearoom. Sometimes when the staff come to close the windows and doors, there can be as many as 15 of them sleeping in Kyusuitei!

Discover Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Click the photo for more information about Kyoto Imperial Palace!

Katsura Imperial Villa isn’t the only facility related to Japan’s imperial family you can visit. The Kyoto Gyoen National Garden and Kyoto Imperial Palace in the city center were where Japanese emperors lived for centuries. As no permit is required to enter Kyoto Imperial Palace, remember to check it out before leaving Kyoto!

You can refer to our Guide to Kyoto Imperial Palace for the must-see spots in this part of Kyoto Gyoen National Garden!

Discover the Must-See Spots in Katsura Imperial Villa

Around 45 minutes by public transportation from Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, Katsura Imperial Villa is another facility related to Japan’s imperial family you can visit. It is where you can encounter amazingly designed gardens and buildings from the early Edo period!

So refer to our Katsura Imperial Villa article for more information about the perfect place to feel the beauty of traditional Japan!

Click the photo for more information about Katsura Imperial Villa!