The Nishimura House in Kyoto

Shake (pronounced as shark-ei) is a residence of a Shinto priest who serves in a Shinto shrine. There is a district near Kamigamo Shrine where a number of shake are located, which is called shake-machi (shake town).

shake street in Kamigamo, Kyoto (上賀茂の社家町)
A street of Shake Machi.

The Nishimura House is the only shake in this district which is open to the public. Its main attraction is the Japanese garden, which is thought to have been constructed in 1181 by a Shinto priest serving at Kamigamo Shrine at that time.

The entrance gate of the Nishimura House (西村家門、京都)
The entrance to the Nishimura House.

Some of the characteristics which were often seen in the aristocratic mansions of the Heian Period (794 to 1185) can also be seen here: especially the brook that meanders through the garden. The source of the brook’s water is the stream outside, and after circulating around the garden, it again rejoins its source.

The brook flowing the garden of the Nishimura House in Kyoto. (西村家庭園)
The brook in the garden.

Here it should be noted that we are talking about the era that preceded the introduction of Zen Buddhism and the advent of the “dry landscape garden”. It is said the brook was used for a Kyokusui-no-En, a tanka-writing party beside a brook. In this game the participants had to make up tanka poems before the cup of sake floating along the water reached them.

The garden of the Nishimura House in Kyoto (京都西村家庭園)

Since the Nishimura House is basically a private property, it is different in some ways from typical tourist spots. if you get there, the first thing you have to do is to push an intercom button at the gate to inform the residents of your arrival. Entering into the entrance hall, you will hear a man’s voice say “Douzo.”

Fuji X-T1 & XF35mm F2 R WR

So you take off your shoes and step up on the floor. After a while, a man clad in dark attire suddenly appears from nowhere. You pay him 500 yen as an admission fee, and he will say, “Douzo goranni natte kudasai” (“please look around”). 

A place for a cold-water ablution. (水垢離場)
The place for mizugori in the garden.

Then you can appreciate the tokonoma alcove and a scroll hanging there in the main building. It is also good to sit down on the floor to view the garden. In a corner of the garden, you may notice a pit that has a stone wall. That is where people performed mizugori, which is a cold-water ablution. It is a kind of practice to purify oneself by pouring cold water upon one’s naked body.

traditional garden in Kyoto

The Nishimura House is a very quiet place lying in a quaint, very typical Kyoto district. So if you are a little fed up with places crowded with tourists, the Nishimura House might become one of the candidates for your future Kyoto trip.

How to Get There

The Nishimura House is about a 5 minute drive from Kitayama Station on the Karasuma Line, Kyoto City Subway. You can use a bus or a taxi. But please note that, as of 2016, it is only open from March 15 to December 8.

Other Photos Taken There

Shake Machi in Kamigamo, near the Nishimura House.
A path leading to the Nishimura House.
A path leading to the Nishimura House.
A Japanese garden in the Heian Period, Kyoto.
Looking into the garden from the Nishimura House.
Interior of the Nishimura House in Kyoto (京都西村家)
The interior of the Nishimura House.
Traditional Japanese House in Kyoto.
The interior of the Nishimura House.
The backyard of the Nishimura House in Kyoto (京都西村家)
The backyard of the Nishimura House.

Nearby Locations

If you want to visit other places nearby, some interesting spots are within walking distance of the Nishimura House. Kamigamo Shrine is one of the oldest and most important shrine in Kyoto. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. The shrine’s compound is large, and it includes the woods, a stream and many historically important buildings.

Kamigamo Shrine (上賀茂神社)
Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto.

Strolling through the Shake Machi is in itself one of the highlights of a trip. Among all the shake-machi in Japan, this one in Kamigamo is particularly distinctive in that it has maintained well the historical atmosphere and characteristics of the old days. For this reason, this area was designated by the nation as an “Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings.”

A giant camphor tree in Kyoto (社家町の大クスノキ)
A 500-year-old camphor tree at the edge of Shake Machi.

Ota Shrine is one of the auxiliary shrines of Kamigamo Shrine. Probably for most people, it is recognized as a place where one can see the beautiful water iris flowers which bloom in May.

Ota Shrine in Kyoto (京都大田神社)
Ota Shrine.

If you are interested in a guided tour in and around the Nishimura House, please send an e-mail from Rates/Contact page of this site.

Photographs: taken at the Nishimura House, by Koji Ikuma,
with Fuji X-T1 & XF35mm F2 R WR

Chiiwa-kyo mountain gorgeChiiwa-kyo Mountain Gorge


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