Now I know gardens aren’t at the top of everyones list of things to do while travelling but Japanese gardens are so integral to the culture, landscape and history that it would be difficult to say you’d experienced Japan without a few making it onto your itinerary. Many Japanese gardens are associated with historically significant locations including castles and temples so they may even sneak in under the radar. Many of these gardens featured below were designed centuries ago and maintained or restored to their current beauty . Narrowing the list down to our top 10 gardens was difficult but these ones stood out to us.
If you have an interest in Japans feudal era, the time of the samurai and ninja, you’ll probably enjoy the castle gardens, or those associated with the palaces and villas of the feudal lords. If your interests tend more towards the zen arts then there are some fabulous temple gardens to explore. And if you have a love of the seasons, of koyo (autumns coloured leaves) and sakura (the spring blossoms) then there is plenty for you too.
In choosing our top 10 we’ve intentionally stayed within Honshu, the main island of Japan, to make them accessible to the majority of travellers. A couple of them may involve longer day trips but they can all be visited from a base in either Tokyo or Kyoto. The gardens we’ve chosen have historical significance, they include top examples of Japanese garden design styles and many of them are designated as special places of scenic beauty a title that is well deserved as they really are beautiful.
The top 3 gardens in Japan
If you’ve been to Japan, or even if you’ve just started a bit of research for your trip you’ve probably come across the Japanese fascination with the top 3 lists. The top 3 castles, the top 3 natural views, the top 3 sake towns and of course the top 3 famous gardens in Japan.
When the Japanese scholar, Gaho Hayashi, wrote of the top 3 scenic views in Japan in the 17th century he probably didn’t see the ‘list of three’ catching on the way it has. Many writers and commentators have put forward their own top 3 in Japan lists over the years and as a result many of the inclusions are quite vigorously contested. It’s worth noting that the top three lists aren’t sequential, and there’s no universal grading or ranking process. While this has left several variations to some of the lists, the top Japanese gardens list does have almost universal agreement. So the first three locations I would add to a garden lovers trip to Japan would be:
1. Kenrokuen in Kanazawa
Dating back to feudal times this garden was maintained for the lords of the Maeda clan. Set on 11.4 hectares it’s an impressive size and showcases many of the features that define Japanese garden design. Kenrokuen means having 6 attributes and those are the 6 design elements sought after in a Japanese style garden. They are space, tranquility, history, intrigue, the flow of water and great views.
It’s a longer day trip but you can get to Kanazawa from Kyoto in just over 2 hours. Read more about Kenrokuen and other things to do in Kanazawa in this post.
2. Korakuen in Okayama
Korakuen in Okayama is another feudal era garden. Its name means garden of pleasure after which comes from a Confucius saying which explains that a wise ruler will tend to his subjects needs before his own interests. The views across the garden taking in the Okayama castle in the background make this one something special and well worth the visit. During cherry blossom season this garden has a beautiful grove that allows hanami parties under the sakura trees. Water features strongly in the garden and I thought the original Ryuten rest house was particularly interesting, you could almost envisage the samurai sitting around soaking their weary feet in the flowing waters.
Okayama can be experienced as a day trip from Kyoto, the bullet train between the two cities only takes an hour. Details for planning a visit to the Okayama gardens and some of its key attractions are covered in this post.
3. Kairakuen in Mito prefecture
Located in Ibaraki prefecture, Mito City is about 9o minutes from central Tokyo by fast train. One of the interesting differences about this feudal age garden is that it’s always been open to the public, rather than being built for the exclusive use of the ruling lord as the other gardens have been. While enjoyable in all seasons Kairakuen is best known for its 3000 plum (ume) blossom trees which flower before the sakura. We’ve not visited this garden yet but we’ve enjoyed the other two so much that we’ll definitely make a trip up to Ibaraki when we’re back in Japan.
Gardens of Kyoto
It’s not surprising that Kyoto has more than its fair share of beautiful natural spaces. Kyoto was the old capital of Japan during the Heian period, a period in history when so much of the culture and art that we associate with Japan today was evolving. It was hard to limit myself to only 4 gardens from this beautiful city, we’ve been to so many more over the years and they were all special.
4. Ginkakuji – The silver pavilion
Many of the zen art forms, including garden design, trace their origins and evolution back to this temple. It really is one not to be missed even if it was only for it’s historic significance and cultural contribution. But that’s not the only impressive aspect, the gardens really are something special, from the immaculate Ginshadan dry sand garden to the steep slopes and created forest vistas across the ponds.
The Ryoanji temple is best known for it’s zen garden, a dry sand and rock garden overlooked by a meditation platform that was originally built in the 15th century. I’ve spent a bit of quiet time sitting there and it’s true that although not large you can’t see and appreciate the entire thing from any one spot. There is more to Ryoanji than the dry garden though. The rest of the Japanese gardens and the pond garden are already substantial but feel much larger by drawing on the borrowed scenery of the hills beyond. This part of the garden is even older than the Zen garden, it dates back to the 12th century when it was part of the Fujiwara estate and the earlier Daiju-in temple on the site.
6. Ninamaru gardens of Nijo Castle
We saw this garden in spring time when many of the trees were still bare and the grass had died off during the cold winter. I’d like to see it again later in the year when the new growth had established. The ninamaru lies between the inner moat and the outer moat and fortification. Of the three gardens at Nijo castle the Ninamaru is the oldest, built during the Edo period. In the center of the garden is a large pond which includes three islands connected by bridges. The central island is Horai representing eternal happiness, the two islands surrounding it are Turtle Island (Kame-jima) and Crane Island (Tsuru-jima). Both the turtle and the crane are symbols of longevity.
7. Tenryuji temple in Arashiyama
Arashaiyama is a suburb in western Kyoto. It’s a beautiful area with a river that’s especially pretty during spring and fall, and a high density of temples and gardens. Tenryuji is an important zen temple built in 1339. It’s gardens were created by Muso Soseki who designed the gardens of many other important temples in the area. Soseki was also the first head priest at Tenryuji. The gardens are large and if you leave via the back exit you can walk through Arashiyamas famous (and well photographed) bamboo groves.
More information for planning a visit to Arashiyama and things to do in the area are included in the linked post.
Gardens of Hiroshima
We really enjoy spending time in Hiroshima and this garden is was a great find, it had to make the list. Hiroshima is a compact and flat city making it easy to get around. This garden is an easy walk from either the main train station or from the Peace Park.
We timed out visit perfectly for the sakura blossom which was lucky but the gardens are versatile enough that I would definitely go back to see it in another season. It’s smaller than the top 3 gardens but I’d rate it right up there with them for it’s traditional garden design and beauty. Shukkeien was destroyed by the A-bomb blast during WW2 but has been recreated in the original design. This garden might even be my overall favourite it I had to pick just one.
You can see more of Shukkeien in this post and find out how to incorporate it into our self guided walking tour around Hiroshima city.
Gardens of Tokyo
Tokyo is best known for its neon lights, crowds, electronics shopping and modern architecture. It’s easy to overlook the natural aspects of such a huge city but Tokyo can also claim some beautiful examples of Japanese gardens. Here are a few to add to your list of must see gardens, parks and natural spaces in the capital city.
9. Imperial Palace East Gardens
While the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds themselves are secure and can only be accessed on an organised tour, the east gardens are a public park. This area is well worth taking a walk around as an oasis of green in the midst of the city. The area was the site of Edo castles inner circle of defense and while none of the castle buildings are still standing, the foundations of the original tower are still there along with a number of the walls, entrance gates and guard houses. It’s a huge garden at 21 hectares with many sections to discover if you have the time. Like so many Japanese gardens it changes subtly with the seasons so you could easily go back here several times without seeing everything.
We haven’t made it out to Rikugien on our previous visits to Tokyo but plan to next time. We’ve been saving it for a November trip as it’s said to be Tokyo’s top garden for autumn colour. The garden was built around 1700 for the 5th Tokugawa shogun and presents in miniature the scenes from 88 historic poems. The strolling garden weaves in meandering paths around a central pond and includes the usual elements of small hills and tree groupings to break up the view and create many different vistas within a relatively small city space.
If you’re interested this is a link to the official park guide in English.
Japanese Gardens … in conclusion
So there we have it, 10 of our top picks for gardens to visit in Japan. There are of course many more to choose from and narrowing it down to only these few was difficult.
What are your thoughts? Are any of these on your list of Japanese gardens to visit? Do you have others that you’ve been to that you think should make the list?