The 10 Most Magnificent Japanese Gardens
Beautiful Japanese gardens are more than just an art form. Heavily influenced by Japanese 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 popularly considered akin to tragedy.
The Top 10 Beautiful Gardens to Visit When 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. The name itself means “Garden of Six Sublimities,” and within the expansive grounds, a vast variety of classically Japanese views awaits visitors. Views ranging from majestic to serene, to evocative and nostalgic.
With the garden roughly located at the heart of Kanazawa, a visit of Kenroku-en could also be easily combined with other city attractions, such as the reconstructed Kanazawa Castle and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Of note, one of Kenroku-en’s most famous sights is that of towering pine trees sheathed by triangular winter snow protectors. The city is freezing cold in winter with heavy snowfall. However, this sight alone makes it worth visiting Kanazawa during winter 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. Viewed from the right spots, the expansive feeling is emotionally uplifting.
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. From Osaka, the nearest tourist hub, it’s still 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.
Named the best garden in Japan by the “Journal of Japanese Gardening” for over 15 consecutive years, the main garden of the museum is a breathtaking panorama that fills the horizon—one in which every shrub, every bush, every tree is itself a masterpiece.
To encourage different perspectives, the museum has installed numerous special viewing windows that magically transform the view from outside into scenic paintings on the wall. Last but not least, the main garden is conceptualized to feature a unique ambiance each season. Appreciating it during summer versus during winter makes for a totally different experience.
Do note that unlike other famous Japanese gardens, the main garden of Adachi Museum of Art is not accessible by foot. Smaller gardens of the museum, on the other hand, can be entered.
4. Ritsurin Kōen, Takamatsu (栗林公園)
The most famous and beloved historical garden of the Shikoku Region, Ritsurin Kōen is an artistic masterpiece exemplifying the 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 often the perfect complement for the features of the garden.
With several sizable ponds and streams, the garden is also a favorite spot for Koi feeding, a particularly enjoyable recreation 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 destinations 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.
For visitors with sturdy legs, Shukkei-en is also 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. The entire route could easily fill up a day.
6. Suizen-ji Jōju-en, Kumamoto City (水前寺成趣園)
Compact Suizen-ji Garden was damaged by the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, with subterranean changes reducing water supply to the main pond. Fortunately, the water level returned to normal within weeks and the garden is now back to its former glory. Renowned for its miniature representation of Mount Fuji, this gem of Kumamoto City is acknowledged as one of the best examples of a classic Japanese strolling garden, its various strolling routes leading visitors through a myriad of traditional sights.
When visiting this lovely Japanese garden in Southern Japan, don’t forget to check out the food stalls located alongside the pedestrian path leading to the main entrance too. You can find classic Japanese snacks such as Manju buns and Matcha soft cream here. The more adventurous can also try exotic delicacies like Kyushu-style dried horse meat.
7. Koko-en, Himeji (好古園)
There are two reasons why you shouldn’t miss skip Koko-en when visiting Himeji. Firstly, it is conveniently next door to 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 practically a tutorial in styles of Japanese garden landscaping. Housed within it are no less than nine different mini-gardens, every single one visually splendid and clearly differentiated.
To put it in another way, if you are ever confused by the many terms about Japanese gardens found on travel brochures, this 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 said to be nothing short of 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 spend your days at when in Kyoto. If you have time for only one garden visit, though, head right to Tenryū-ji on the outskirts of the historical capital. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Tenryū-ji’s Sogenchi Garden is celebrated as one of the best surviving examples of Japanese landscaping during the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods, a visual feast especially stunning during spring and fall.
In addition, while the temple is often crowded, the grounds are expansive enough that it isn't hard to find pockets of serenity. Finally, Tenryū-ji is conveniently located beside the world-famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The pathway through the forest is often listed as one of Japan’s most atmospheric sights.
9. Rikugi-en, Tokyo (六義園)
Considered by some to be Tokyo’s most beautiful landscape garden, 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 features large swathes of dense foliage, and at the right spot, it is not at all difficult to imagine oneself lost in the deep wilderness of the Japanese countryside. During November, the garden is also one of the top spots for autumn leaves viewing in the Kanto Region, an activity particularly enjoyable when the garden is atmospherically lit up after sunset. In short, Rikugi-en is a wonderful refuge when 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 a neighboring hillside as a majestic backdrop for seasonal displays.
Apart from these, the layout of the park also presents a classic strolling route, one that takes visitors through different themes and moods. Of note, Ashikaga Flower Park hosts one of the largest winter/Christmas illumination events each year. An evening visit during the year-end is for many visitors, an utterly magical joy.
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© 2019 Kuan Leong Yong