Okochi Sanso Villa (大河内山荘) is a garden and the former residence of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous Japanese actor, located in Kyoto, Japan. In this post, we’ll share photos from Okochi Sanso Villa & Gardens, plus thoughts from our visit, and whether it’s worth the money.
For many visitors to Japan, a stop at one of Kyoto’s famed villas, Katsura Imperial Villa and Shugakuin Imperial Villa, is of particular interest. While the “free” price tag on these experiences is alluring, they have application processes that present a barrier to entry for many foreigners.
Open to the general public, Okochi Sanso Villa is a great alternative to these, and is arguably the nicest villa in Kyoto, anyway. It’s also more convenient to access, being a short walk from major points of interest in Arashiyama. For these reasons–coupled with its high quality–Okochi Sanso Villa is a stop we recommend to anyone with 3 or more days in Kyoto.
If Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California speaks volumes (both good and bad) about the spirit of American ingenuity and consumption, I’d say Okochi Sanso Villa is its Japanese counterpart. Likewise perched in the hills, built over a span of decades, and costing a fortune, that’s about where the similarities end…
Denjirō Ōkōchi, the movie star who built Okochi Sanso Villa, was one of the biggest stars in Japan for four decades. He entered the Nikkatsu studio in 1925 and soon came to fame in samurai films, and was a leading actor in the a sub-genre emphasizing tate (realistic sword-fighting action).
Rather than being a portrait of excess, Okochi Sanso Villa highlights traditionally-restrained Japanese styles. The buildings are beautiful, and the style is excellent, but it’s in the more understated and low-key sense that typifies Japanese villas.
This is not to say that the villa or its gardens are underwhelming. To the contrary, the design is stately and impressive, but that relates more to its classic Japanese architecture and traditionalism. The grounds are also beautiful, with perfectly-manicured gardens, panoramic views of Kyoto on one side and the Hozu River on the other.
It’s obvious Denjirō Ōkōchi cared about his villa deeply, as he spent 30 years in the design and construction of the villa and its gardens on the south side of Mount Ogura. He utilized traditional Momoyama and Kamakura styles for the buildings, and drew inspiration for his gardens from Kyoto’s four seasons. These highlight cherry blossoms for spring, azaleas for summer, Japanese maple trees for fall, and pine trees for winter.
Tips & Info
To access Okochi Sanso Villa, take the JR San-In Line from Kyoto Station to Saga Arashiyama Station. It’s 15-minute walk from there. It’s also about the same distance from the Keifuku Railways Arashiyama Station.
However, there’s no reason you should be coming from Kyoto Station to get to Okochi Sanso Villa. As a practical matter, most of you will be leaving Tenryu-ji Temple through its north gate before walking through the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, at the end of which you will see the sign above pointing to Okochi Sanso Villa. The entrance is a couple of minutes from that point.
While Okochi Sanso Villa is quite large and doesn’t draw a ton of visitors, it’s worth noting that the main path that winds through the grounds is very narrow at times. This can lead to congestion even when the villa is not busy, especially during the height of fall colors season. Even then, the crowd levels here should be minuscule as compared to nearby Tenryu-ji Temple.
In addition to Okochi Sanso Villa’s lower profile in guidebooks and other travel resources, there’s the matter of cost. Admission is 1,000 yen per adult and 500 yen per child, and this no doubt discourages some potential visitors. Okochi Sanso Villa is open daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
We both initially balked at the 1,000 yen cost of visiting Okochi Sanso Villa, to the point that Sarah suggested maybe I should just go by myself for the sake of research so we didn’t drop ~$20 on the visit. We opted against doing that, and are glad we did.
Okochi Sanso Villa ended up being one of our favorite stops in Arashiyama, and it ranks very highly among all things to do in Kyoto. The setting is absolutely gorgeous, the landscaped design is lovely, and the meticulous design of the villa, tea house, and Buddhist halls is worthy of appreciation.
As pretty as the gardens and buildings are, my favorite aspect of our visit was the way the path meanders through the sprawling property. “Meanders” is probably the wrong word, because it’s all probably very deliberate, even if it gives you the feel that you’re wandering.
As you pass the season-inspired gardens, wind around hills, and approach buildings, stunning views of Arashiyama, Mount Hei, and the Hozu River are doled out along the way.
Each little vignette is lovely, but at the end we both had the sense that the whole of the experience was more than the sum of its parts. We also really appreciated the visit culminating with a stop in the tea house, where we had a chance to digest what we had seen, and chat about the experience.
We stress how important it is to slow down in Kyoto to contemplate the experience, and this “forces” visitors to do exactly that. It doesn’t hurt that the setting was a charming teahouse with bamboo out the back window and a blaze of fall colors out the front door. It was also nice that the Matcha here is good quality, and not an afterthought presented in a paper cup.
Given that praise of Okochi Sanso Villa, our answer to whether it’s worth the money might seem obvious. Nonetheless, the 1,000 yen admission price is going to be a tough sell for many visitors, especially those with larger families or tighter budget.
If it helps, think of the Matcha tea and small snack you receive at the teahouse as being worth about 400 yen of the entrance fee, and the admission itself costing 600 yen. (You also receive a postcard, which is worth another 100 yen, so really, you’re getting quite the bargain at Okochi Sanso Villa!)
Not only is this a reasonable allocation of value, but it puts the proportionate cost of each element at Okochi Sanso Villa very much in line with what you’d pay elsewhere. As compared to other teahouses and temples, the experience at Okochi Sanso Villa is absolutely commensurate with the cost.
For these reasons and the beautiful design of the villa’s grounds and gardens, we highly recommend a visit to Okochi Sanso Villa. This is a location that missed our Top 10 Things to Do in Kyoto list, but would almost certainly earn a spot in the top 20. It’s the best villa in Kyoto, imperial or otherwise, and presents a unique option that will be a highlight of your day in Arashiyama.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited the Okochi Sanso Villa? Did you think it was worth the money? Would you recommend it as part of a 1-day Arashiyama itinerary? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this villa interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!