A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Beautiful Japanese gardens are more than just an art form. Heavily influenced by religious ideals and conceptualized to complement other forms of Japanese art, Nihon Teien (日本庭園) are the synthesis of the country’s Zen philosophy, cultural accomplishments, and spiritual thought.
Not visiting at least one when in Japan is widely considered akin to tragedy.
Top 10 Most Beautiful Gardens in Japan
- Kenroku-en, Kanazawa (兼六園)
- Kōraku-en, Okayama City (後楽園)
- Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi (足立美術館)
- Ritsurin Kōen, Takamatsu (栗林公園)
- Shukkei-en, Hiroshima City (縮景園)
- Suizen-ji Jōju-en, Kumamoto City (水前寺成趣園)
- Koko-en, Himeji (好古園)
- Tenryū-ji, Kyoto (天龍寺)
- Rikugi-en, Tokyo (六義園)
- Ashikaga Flower Park, Ashikaga (足利フラワーパーク)
1. Kenroku-en, Kanazawa (兼六園)
The star attraction of Kanazawa, and one of the most famous Japanese gardens in the world, Kenroku-en has long been recognized as one of the Top Three Gardens of Japan, and one of the best worldwide. The name itself means “Garden of Six Sublimities,” and within the expansive grounds, a vast variety of classically Japanese views awaits. Views ranging from majestic to serene, to evocative and nostalgic.
With the garden roughly at the heart of Kanazawa, a visit of Kenroku-en could easily be combined with other city attractions too. For example, the reconstructed Kanazawa Castle and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. And for those into architecture, a 19th-century villa is on show at the southern stretches of the garden. The serene elegance of this gem makes it as much a must-see as Kenroku-en itself.
Of note, one of the garden’s most famous sights is that of towering pine trees sheathed by triangular snow protectors. These protectors, in turn, are often laden with snow during winter.
Kanazawa is freezing cold in winter with heavy and wet snowfall. However, this splendid sight alone makes it worth visiting Kanazawa even during chilly months.
2. Kōraku-en, Okayama City (後楽園)
Like Kenroku-en, Kōraku-en enjoys the accolade of being one of the Top Three Gardens of Japan.
Designed using the “Scenic Promenade Style” of Japanese landscaping, the thoughtful placement of waterways, trees, and other landscaping adornments offers a different view at every turn, thus ensuring no visit to the garden is ever the same.
When viewed from the top of nearby Okayama Castle, the overall layout of Kōraku-en also reflects the geography of the region. Most notably, the Kibi Plains and Lake Biwa.
Finally, the spacious lawns of Kōraku-en are an unusual feature in traditional Japanese landscaping. Experienced from the right spots, the expansive feeling is nothing short of inspirational.
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3. Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi (足立美術館)
Traveling to the Adachi Museum of Art from Japan’s major cities can be a hassle. Even from Osaka, the nearest tourist hub, it’s three hours by train, followed by a 20-minute shuttle bus ride.
Take the effort though, and you’ll be rewarded by what is hands-down one of the most mesmerizing sights in the world. Consistently named the best garden in Japan by the “Journal of Japanese Gardening” since 2003, the main garden is a breathtaking panorama that fills the entire horizon. One in which every single shrub, bush, and even tree is also a masterpiece.
To encourage different perspectives, the museum also has numerous special viewing windows that magically transform the view from outside into scenic paintings on the wall. Lastly, and like many other breathtaking Japanese gardens, the spectacular main garden is conceptualized to feature a unique ambiance each season.
Appreciating it during summer versus during winter thus makes for totally different experiences.
4. Ritsurin Kōen, Takamatsu (栗林公園)
The most famous and beautiful Japanese garden of the Shikoku Region, Ritsurin Kōen is an artistic showpiece exemplifying the Japanese landscaping concept of “Borrowed Scenery.” Nearby Mount Shuin isn’t part of the grounds but no matter where you turn, the lush hillside forms a soothing background. Its gentle curves are always the perfect complement for the features of the garden too.
With several sizable ponds and streams, Ritsurin Kōen is also a favorite spot for Koi feeding, an activity particularly enjoyable when the garden is awash with vibrant colors during spring and autumn. Together with Kotohira, Ritsurin Kōen is widely considered one of the two must-visit attractions of Kagawa Prefecture.
Takamatsu itself is a railway hub of Shikoku. Easily accessible from the Honshu mainland from Okayama City.
5. Shukkei-en, Hiroshima City (縮景園)
Shukkei-en means "the Garden of Shrunken Sceneries". Indeed, there is no better name to describe this delightful oasis located within walking distance from Hiroshima Train Station.
A collection of miniaturized sceneries surrounding a central lake, Shukkei-en is said to be modeled after Lake Xihu of China, containing within it a variety of geological formations, panoramic views, and even the reconstruction of a historical teahouse. During Hanami i.e. Sakura season, the garden is without surprise, one of the top viewing spots of the Hiroshima region too. In these weeks, the entrance piazza becomes a heavenly grove of pink.
For visitors with sturdy legs, Shukkei-en is furthermore at the start of an L-shaped tourist route, one that ends at Hiroshima’s most visited attraction—the Peace Memorial Park. Along the way, one can visit other major attractions such as Hiroshima Castle and the Hiroshima Museum of Art.
In other words, this landscaping masterpiece can be the perfect start or end to a full day in Hiroshima. Whichever time you choose to visit, it will assuredly be a rejuvenating experience.
6. Suizen-ji Jōju-en, Kumamoto City (水前寺成趣園)
Constructed in the 17th century by the Hosokawa family, compact Suizen-ji Garden is one of the top two attractions in Kumamoto City. Widely beloved for its verdant strolling path that meanders around a lake
Famous too for its reproduction of Tokaido * sights, particularly its miniature Mount Fuji, the garden is quiet on most days despite its fame. If you’re heading over after a visit to busy Kumamoto Castle, an hour here can be a totally different experience.
In addition, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Hosokawa family is located within the grounds. While this reconstructed structure wouldn’t take your breath away, it is still picturesque to behold. Visitors can also have fun cleansing themselves with the “water of longevity” provided here, which is said to come all the way from Mount Aso.
Lastly, the pedestrian path leading to the garden is flanked by food and souvenir stalls. Here, you can try classic Japanese snacks such as Manju buns and Matcha soft cream. The more adventurous can also sample exotic delicacies like Kyushu-style dried horse meat.
* The historical road connecting Kyoto and Tokyo (Edo).
7. Koko-en, Himeji (好古園)
There are two reasons why you shouldn’t skip Koko-en when visiting Himeji.
Firstly, it is conveniently located next door to the world-famous Himeji Castle, with discounted combination tickets for both attractions sold throughout the city.
Secondly, the garden, constructed in 1992 to commemorate the city’s centennial, is a visual tutorial in different styles of Japanese garden landscaping. Housed within it are no less than nine different mini-gardens. Every single one is visually splendid and clearly differentiated.
In other words, if you are ever confused by the many terms about beautiful Japanese gardens found on travel brochures, Koko-en is the best attraction to head to for “clarifications.” On another note, relaxing beside one of the garden’s waterfalls is always a wonderful way to recuperate after a sweaty climb up Himeji Castle. The experience could be even described as therapeutic.
8. Tenryū-ji, Kyoto (天龍寺)
In a city where every other temple hides an outstanding garden, it could be hard to decide where to head to when in Kyoto.
If you have time for only one garden visit, though, head right to Tenryū-ji Temple on the outskirts of the historical capital. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Tenryū-ji’s Sogenchi Garden is not only a top autumn foliage viewing spot of Kyoto, it is also one of the best surviving examples of Kamakura and Muromachi era Japanese landscaping.
What’s more, the rear exit of the temple directly connects to the Arashiyama Bamboo forest, nowadays famous worldwide as a top selfie/photography spot of Japan.
Needless to say, Tenryū-ji is but one of many lovely temples in the Arashiyama District too. If you have the time to explore, many nearby temples are also home to splendid gardens and estates.
9. Rikugi-en, Tokyo (六義園)
Considered by many to be the best Japanese garden in Tokyo, Rikugi-en is a lush oasis just minutes away by subway from the crowded tourist hubs of Ikebukuro and Ueno.
Inspired by 88 scenes from classic Japanese poetry, this lovely garden is home to large swathes of dense foliage as well. At the right spots, it is not at all difficult to imagine oneself lost in the deep wilderness of the Japanese countryside.
During November, the garden is furthermore one of the top spots for autumn leaves viewing in Tokyo, an activity particularly enjoyable when the garden is atmospherically lit up after sunset.
In short, Rikugi-en is a wonderful refuge whenever one is overwhelmed by the never-ending crowds of Tokyo. Bring with you a bottle of green tea during your visit and you’d instantly be as one with nature.
10. Ashikaga Flower Park, Ashikaga (足利フラワーパーク)
Few Japanese would consider Ashikaga Flower Park a Japanese Garden. To begin with, it’s not even named as so.
However, take a quick stroll through the grounds and you’d immediately notice traditional Japanese landscaping techniques harmoniously coexisting with western principles—techniques such as concealed views, reflective ponds, and the “borrowing” of neighboring hills as majestic backdrops for seasonal displays. As westernized as the whole attraction might seem, Ashikaga Flower Park is unmistakably Japanese in origin. It even comes with a classic Japanese garden strolling route, one that whisks you through different themes and moods.
On top of which, the park also hosts one of the largest winter/Christmas illumination events each year, during which every corner of the park is adorned by tens of thousands of fairy lights and festive decorations.
For many visitors, an evening winter visit to Ashikaga is thus an unforgettable magical experience. Should you be able to stand among the illuminated groves, you will surely agree too.
Japan's Most Beautiful Gardens
© 2019 Ced Yong