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. 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 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.
Of note, one of Kenroku-en’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 wet snowfall. However, this splendid sight alone makes it worth visiting Kanazawa 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. Last but not least, the spacious lawns of Kōraku-en are an unusual feature in traditional Japanese landscaping. Viewed from the right spots, the expansive feeling is nothing short of 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. 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. To give a hint of what to expect, the main garden of the museum has been named the best garden in Japan by the “Journal of Japanese Gardening” for 15 consecutive years. It is a breathtaking panorama that fills the horizon. One in which every shrub, every bush, and every tree is itself a masterpiece.
Read More from WanderWisdom
To encourage different perspectives, the museum has also installed numerous special viewing windows that magically transform the view from outside into scenic paintings on the wall. Finally, 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 makes for a totally different experience.
4. Ritsurin Kōen, Takamatsu (栗林公園)
The most famous and beautiful Japanese garden of the Shikoku Region, Ritsurin Kōen is an artistic masterpiece 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.
For visitors with sturdy legs, Shukkei-en is at the start of an L-shaped tourist route too, 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.
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.
However, water levels have long since returned to normal, 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, possibly the best and the most famous in the Kyushu region too.
When visiting Suizen-ji, don’t forget to check out the food stalls located alongside the pedestrian path leading to the main entrance too. Here, you can find classic Japanese snacks such as Manju buns and Matcha soft cream on sale. 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 skip Koko-en when visiting Himeji.
Firstly, it is conveniently located 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 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 said to be absolutely 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 hours 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 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.
When visiting, don’t forget to check out nearby Arashiyama Bamboo Forest too, accessible via a rear gate of the temple. The bamboo grove is world-renowned as one of Japan’s most atmospheric natural attractions. It is hands-down one of the country’s best selfie spots too.
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 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 Tokyo, 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. As westernized as the attraction might seem, it is undoubtedly, utterly Japanese in origin.
Additionally, the layout of the park also presents a classic Japanese garden strolling route, one that takes visitors through different themes and moods. Finally, 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.
Japan's Most Beautiful Gardens
© 2019 Ced Yong