12 Most Beautiful Japanese Gardens You Shouldn't Miss When Visiting Japan
Any trip to Japan would not be complete without at least one visit to a traditional Japanese garden. For many visitors, Japanese gardens prove to be one of the highlights of the whole visit, and considering the riches Japan has to offer it is not hard to see why. Gardens in Japan range from immaculately laid out strolling gardens to moss-strewn expanses of forested green. While the vibe might be very different at each of them, they are all thoughtfully conceived and lovingly cared for, offering an insight into traditional Japanese culture that can be enjoyed by anyone. In this article, we introduce the 12 Japanese gardens you shouldn’t miss when visiting Japan!
Feb 09 2022 (Jan 27 2023)
1. Kenrokuen Garden - Japan’s Most Prized Landscape Garden (Ishikawa Prefecture)
This picturesque garden in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture is an exceptional example of an Edo Period (1603 - 1868) Japanese stroll garden, a garden where different views can be enjoyed one after another by promenading along the path circling a pond. Established in the late 1600's by the Maeda family, the feudal lords who ruled the area, it has been maintained carefully by the family for generations. The name “Kenrokuen” means the “Garden of Six Qualities,” namely flowing water, sense of space, seclusion, ingenuity, scenic views, and an air of antiquity. It is rightfully one of the three most famous gardens in Japan, and is located next to the remains of the old Kanazawa Castle as it was once the castle's outer garden.
One of the most famous sights of the garden is the one featuring the Kasumiga Pond and the Kotoji lantern, a stone lantern floating in the water, but with its area of 11.4 hectares, the garden offers something to explore in every season! Visitors can enjoy the view of plum and cherry blossoms in spring, the colorful panorama of azaleas and irises popping out the lush greenery in summer, the red hues of the leaves in autumn, and the snow-covered scenery of the Japanese pine trees protected by the “yukizuri” (traditional winter protections to prevent damage by snow) in winter.
2. Tenryuji Temple - One of Kyoto’s Most Important Zen Gardens (Kyoto Prefecture)
Designed by the Zen priest Muso Soseki in the mid 14th century, this garden in Arashiyama, Kyoto boasts elements of pond gardens and dry landscape Zen gardens. By surrounding the picturesque Sogenchi Pond, the garden’s path allows visitors to see the scenery from different perspectives, while the meticulously arranged white sand represents a pattern of gentle waves and the stones arranged around the pond portray the coastline of China. Having maintained its original form and beauty throughout the centuries, the garden lies at the base of the forested hills of Arashiyama. In one of the earliest examples of “shakkei” (borrowed scenery technique), these hills are incorporated into the design of the garden adding a sense of depth. There is also a dry landscape waterfall, a natural stone bridge, and other impressive rock formations that replicate the Dragon Gate Falls on the Yellow River in China.
As an early example of Zen garden design, it is both historically significant and eloquently peaceful. Visitors can soak in the tranquil atmosphere of the garden by sitting on the wooden benches located in front of the pond and explore the beautiful buildings of the temple that are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden is particularly appreciated during the autumn months for its beautiful autumnal colors and in spring for its delicate weeping cherry blossoms.
3. Ryoanji Temple - Japan’s Most Famous Rock Garden (Kyoto Prefecture)
The extensive gardens at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto include a rectangular and flat Zen rock garden of 248 square meters, which is today probably the most famous rock garden in all of Japan, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally, the temple was an aristocrat’s villa, but it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto, an important warlord in the Ashikaga Shogunate. It’s not clear when the rock garden was made, who designed it, or what the designer's intentions were.
The rock garden was intricately designed to ensure that, regardless of the visitor’s vantage point, only 14 of the 15 rocks will be visible. People have interpreted this unique layout in many different ways. According to one theory, it represents some mountains rising from the sea. Another theory says that it shows a tiger crossing a river with her cubs. Others think that it might refer to the state of human imperfection which doesn’t allow us to see all the stones in the garden at the same time. Except for the moss growing at the base of the rocks, there are no other plants or water features in this garden. It is meant to be viewed from the deck in front of the main temple building, where visitors can sit and contemplate the pure beauty of simplicity and experience the principles of Zen meditation.
4. Saihoji Temple - Kyoto’s Enchanted Moss Garden (Kyoto Prefecture)
Saihoji Temple in Kyoto is better known as the “Kokedera” (Moss Temple) due to the 120 varieties of moss that carpet the serene temple gardens. One of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites today, the temple was originally the site of Prince Shotoku's villa before becoming a temple in the Nara period. It was later restored into a Zen temple by the Zen priest Muso Soseki in 1339. The garden’s famed moss covering is said to have been a happy accident of the Meiji period (1868 - 1912) due to the lack of funds to maintain the gardens, and not part of the original garden design. Whether or not this is the case, the extraordinary green hues have certainly created an other-worldly atmosphere, unique to this mountain-side temple garden.
The garden is split into two sections. The upper section is a dry landscape garden, while the lower section features paths around a pond which is shaped like the kanji for “heart.” Visitors can explore the expansive garden, admire all the different shades of green which become even more vivid after a rainy day, as well as admire seasonal flowers such as irises, hydrangeas, and lotus flowers or take part in the temple’s activities including chanting and copying Buddhist sutras, touring the temple’s main hall, or participating in zen meditation.
5. Entsuji Temple - A Stunning Example of a Borrowed-Landscape Garden in Kyoto (Kyoto Prefecture)
Built on the site of a former imperial villa, Entsuji Temple in Kyoto is best known for the masterful implementation of the borrowed scenery technique in its garden. In this garden, the surrounding natural landscape merges with the low hedges, shrubs, and moss covered stones of the garden. Looking out onto the garden, visitors are aware of only natural scenery and a beautiful view, which today is an exceptionally rare feat. Entsuji Temple houses a dry and flat garden with rocks and moss which aims to show the beauty of a perfectly flat landscape. To enhance its flat silhouette, the designer chose to place all the rocks following a horizontal layout.
The sacred Mount Hiei becomes a prominent component in the garden design, which is arranged to ensure that no buildings or structures are within its sightline. For this reason, the trees in the garden are placed in a way that allow visitors to spot the outline of the mountain beautifully framed by the greenery. The garden is also appreciated for its stunning autumnal scenery, so visitors should consider paying a visit to this impressive temple during the autumn months.
6. Katsura Imperial Villa - A Garden of High Aesthetic Beauty Built for the Imperial Family (Kyoto Prefecture)
Katsura Imperial Villa was designed to be the ideal Japanese villa by incorporating skillfully designed details, exotic trees such as palm trees, and a lake with an adorned shoreline which allows you to see incredible panoramas when strolling around the garden. This Edo-period stroll garden is considered to be a masterpiece of the Japanese garden. Commissioned by Prince Toshihito, developed under the guidance of his son Prince Toshitada, and expanded by two generations of the family during the early and mid-seventeenth century, the garden incorporates a variety of styles inspired by early Shinto shrines and the philosophy and aesthetic of Zen Buddhism.
The garden is arranged around a large pond that twists and winds around the garden, creating inlets, islands, and secret views. Garden structures such as the main villa and teahouses can be found at scenic, strategic points around the garden, and stepping stones and bridges connect the strolling path. It has long been much admired, and became the basis for many Edo period strolling gardens.
7. Okayama Korakuen - A Japanese Garden Overviewing the Spectacular Okayama Castle (Okayama Prefecture)
Located on a bend on the Asahi River across from the impressive Okayama Castle, Okayama Korakuen is one of Japan’s best known stroll gardens. Built for Lord Ikeda Tsunamasa in the late 17th century, the garden covers 13 hectares and was primarily used for entertaining and relaxing.
Ownership was transferred to Okayama Prefecture in 1884, and it has been open to the public as a stroll garden ever since. This garden is unusual for featuring a number of wide lawns in addition to the more usual ponds, bridges, azalea-clad viewing hills, and garden structures. Also found in the garden are groves of plum and cherry trees that tinge the garden with their delicate colors when in bloom, maple trees that make the garden a great foliage spot, tea and rice fields, as well as a crane aviary. Visitors shouldn’t miss a stop at the garden’s teahouse to experience matcha tea and strolling atop Yuishinzan Hill to get a panoramic view of the entire garden. The many circuitous paths can cover several kilometers, so bring your walking shoes!
8. Ritsurin Garden - A Garden that Beautifully Blends Japanese Pine Trees, Ponds, and Bridges (Kagawa Prefecture)
Completed in 1745, Ritsurin Garden took nearly 100 years to build, and today it is known as one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. It is designed as a large stroll garden, with numerous ponds, bridges, hills, and exquisitely sculpted black pines maintained for over 300 years. Particularly impressive is the Neagari Goyo-Matsu, a Japanese white pine that used to be a bonsai when the 11th shogun presented it to the Takamatsu Domain (a feudal domain in present-day Kagawa Prefecture) in 1833, but now has grown into a large tree. Mount Shiun looms as an impressive backdrop, and a number of garden structures are dotted around the large 75 hectare site.
Highlights include the Kikugetsu-tei Teahouse where you can enjoy matcha tea while soaking in the garden’s beauty and Hirai-ho Hill where you can enjoy one of the garden's best panoramic views. Visitors also get the chance to admire the garden from an unusual perspective when boarding one of the Japanese-style boats that float across the garden’s ponds.
9. Adachi Museum of Art - A Japanese Garden Where Nature and Art Become One (Shimane Prefecture)
The 10 acres of gardens surrounding the Adachi Museum of Art in Shimane Prefecture were designed in 1970 by Nakane Kinsaku for the museum’s founder, Adachi Zenko, who hoped that viewing the gardens and artwork together would expand peoples' appreciation for Japanese art. The gardens were designed to enhance the experience of visiting the museum, and to complement the traditional Japanese art on display.
The garden is intended to form natural “paintings” when viewed from the windows of the museum, and for that reason only a few sections are actually open to pedestrians. It is a distinctly modern concept, and so while much of the garden is traditional in design, visiting the garden and museum provides an altogether different experience to many of Japan’s other great gardens. Both the scenery of the garden and the impressive collection of 1,300 artworks change depending on the season, so visitors alway get to see some new and different.
10. Koishikawa Korakuen Garden - A Peaceful, Hidden Retreat in the Center of Tokyo (Tokyo)
Located in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, this grand stroll garden was completed by the feudal lord Mitsukuni Tokugawa in the 17th century. It is designed around a pond, with various settings suggesting famous scenic spots around the country. Highlights include the steeply arched Engetsukyo Bridge, or Round Moon Bridge, which reflects in the water to present the image of a full moon.
Another intriguing aspect of this garden is the incorporation of a rice field, designed to instruct Mitsukuni’s daughter in law about the hardships of farming, and continues to educate children about rice production to this day. The garden is particularly distinguished for its many flowering plants and trees, which herald the change in the seasons. For this reason, it is especially attractive during the autumn season as many maple trees are planted near the ponds and reflect their vibrant colors on the water surface. Koishikawa Korakuen also offers pleasant spring views when plum trees and cherry trees are in bloom.
11. Rikugien Garden - One of Tokyo’s Most Beautiful Edo-Period Landscape Gardens (Tokyo)
Another Edo-period Tokyo stroll garden, Rikugien was built around 1700 by the 5th Tokugawa shogun’s chief counsel, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. Its name means "six poems garden," as Rikugien is particularly notable for the 88 miniature landscape scenes that reproduce scenes from famous poems and can be encountered on a stroll around the large central pond. Tea houses, pavilions, a viewing hill, immaculately manicured lawns and shaped pine trees greet visitors to this beautiful garden.
Rikugien Garden is also known for its autumn colors. Visitors can choose to admire the beautiful autumnal hues of the garden by sitting at Fukiage Chaya Tea House while drinking some matcha tea or celebrate them during the garden’s nighttime illumination event. The garden is also extremely charming during spring as it boasts beautiful cherry blossoms and colorful azalea flowers.
12. Hama-rikyu Gardens - A Unique Japanese Garden by the Sea Overlooking the Bay of Tokyo (Tokyo)
Located on reclaimed marshland on Tokyo Bay, Hama-rikyu is known for its unusual seawater tidal ponds which change level with the tides, and for its beautiful spring flowers. The garden has served many purposes over the centuries. It was once used as a feudal lord’s residence by the 4th Tokugawa shogun’s younger brother and a wildfowl hunting preserve by the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period. Later, starting from the Meiji period, it served as a strolling garden and detached palace for the imperial family, until it became a public garden in 1946. A number of elements of this history are still evident in the garden, as it has remained basically the same up to the present time.
If you time your visit right in early spring, you may be able to witness the beautiful sight of delicate plum blossoms opening against the vibrant backdrop of blooming nanohana (rapeseed flowers). Impressive is also the stark contrast between the traditional scenery of the garden and the skyscrapers towering from the nearby Shiodome area.
Visit the Best Japanese Gardens During Your Trip in Japan
The gardens listed above are all exceptional examples of beautiful Japanese gardens, showcasing Japan’s incredible heritage and gardening skill. Adorned by charming flowers and impressive autumn colors, they all offer the chance to escape to quiet corners and along secret paths, far from the modern city. Whichever city, town, or prefecture you visit, make sure to look up this list introducing Japan’s most beautiful gardens open to the public and discover your own secret slice of beautiful Japan.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.