Last Tuesday, after my tandem meeting, I went down Imadegawa street. Somewhere between the university and the river, there is a large garden with large trees, surrounded by walls and high hedges. I pass this place every time I go to my soroban class, and for a long time I was wondering what it could be.

A temple? No, their gates are much more obvious and also usually invitingly open. A hotel or ryokan or kaiseki restaurant? Possible, but no restaurant name or noren curtain in sight. A private residence? Most likely, but then, where is the mailbox?

On Tuesday, I decided to make another attempt to solve the problem. I went to the largest gate and tried to decipher the kanji on the large stone next to it. Of course, I could not read any but a single one, but I copied them as faithfully as possible. A number of cars were parked there and through the hedges I could see people moving about, but as the gate was closed I did not dare venture further. Suddenly however, I could hear voices – two people were talking and after a short while a side door opened and an old man walked to his car.

Old people are somewhat dangerous. They don’t speak English, but when asked, they like to explain things at length, and then they talk a lot of very fast Japanese. Anyway, I thought I could at least ask him whether this garden belonged to a temple or ryokan. No, he said, this was no temple, but a “seifuso”. Kyoto university’s seifuso, to be precise, and he pointed at the stone next to the entrance.

Okay, I thought, at least I now know the reading of those kanji, this will make it easier to look them up later. And I bowed and thanked him and was ready to leave when he looked at me a little mischievously and asked: “Want to see?” And with this he turned around and bid me follow him into the garden.

It was enormous, just like I had suspected. The purpose of the buildings at the entrance I could not make out, but then we soon passed a spot with three tiny traditional tea houses surrounding a beautiful Japanese moss garden complete with stone lanterns. Further, we went along a little stream next to low hills with pine trees, that were being cut. We finally climbed the last hill to overlook the main part of the garden: A large pond fed by water flowing down the hill; behind the pond an expanse of carefully cut grass with meandering pebble paths and groups of small rocks and bushes for the eyes to rest upon. And beyond that, two large, two-storied wooden houses in traditional Japanese style, with large rooms and windows overlooking the garden. It was truly beautiful, but unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, although my guide invited me to take pictures.

I have since found out the following: Seifuso villa was completed by 1914 and comprises 12 houses in total. It was built as a private residence – although seifuso apparently means dormitory – for a Mr. Kinmochi Saionji, was donated to Kyoto University in 1944, and since 2012 is registered as an Important Cultural Property. On this page of Kyoto University, there is more information, and also a photo of the main house.

Why the title of the post? Well, somewhere halfway through our tour I realised that my guide would carefully avoid all the other workers in the garden. We did not go down onto the grass or approached the houses. He tried to stay as invisible as possible. I think that, while the old man himself was allowed to enter the premises, he was no permitted to bring anyone else. His “Want to see?” was obviously done in the spur of the moment. Old people do have some leeway here in Japan, but still, he was certainly very naughty be inviting me inside…