There are four locations managed by the Imperial Household Agency in Kyoto – the Imperial Palace, Sento Imperial Palace, Shugakuin Imperial Villa, and Katsura Imperial Villa. I was able to arrange a visit to Shugakuin once – I wound up luck, as someone had cancelled at the last minute (normally these reservations are fairly hard to come by).
Unlike the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was a pretty big waste of time, Shugakuin was most definitely not. It’s outside and there is a fair bit of walking involved, including up and down stairs. It’s rather unique in that most villas were used for entertaining, but Shugakuin wasn’t – it was just for personal use. There are some buildings and some ponds, so it’s pretty nice. The ponds used to be used for boats, but they really aren’t any more. One thing I found a bit interesting was the history of it – parts of it were sold off and turned into farmland, which is still used. They’re between parts of the Villa, so you walk along a path surrounded by farmland. According to the guide, there used to be some ponds and cherry blossom trees where the farmland is now.
The tour took about an hour, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it was in Japanese only, although there was an English pamphlet.
Unfortunately Shugakuin is a bit difficult to get to from other places – you have to take the Eizan Densha (tram/train) from Demachiyanagi station (it costs 210 yen). It’s then a 20 minute walk or so, and the walk can be a bit confusing, although the part of Kyoto you walk through is definitely different from other places in Kyoto – a lot more peaceful. It’s not really near other places, but if you get back on the train you can combine it with a trip to Mt. Hiei, Kurama, or Kibune.
Reservations are required and can be difficult to get (link to the Imperial Household Agency is here).