Japan’s Best Must-Visit Gardens in Kyoto, Tokyo, and More

22 February 2023

japans best gardens

Japanese Gardens are an art form. Famous for their detail, beauty, and depth of meaning, they are designed to inspire quiet contemplation and mindfulness. Whether they are a sprawling oasis or perfectly formed courtyard, Japan’s gardens are characterised by a simple and minimalist aesthetic, rooted in the country’s philosophical principles, which believe that nature is something to be revered. 

So, if you are an avid gardener, dying to see the famous cherry blossom or looking for a peaceful sanctuary on your holiday, read on to discover the best Japanese gardens in Japan and the different types of gardens you’ll find.

The Best Japanese Gardens in Kyoto  

Kyoto is thought to have the most beautiful Japanese gardens, many of which sit within UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Offering a quiet respite to the city’s bustling life, you will find some of the most famous gardens in Japan in Kyoto.

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto  

A pond in front of a teahouse surrounded by trees

Here you will find one of the most well-known Zen gardens in Japan. Ryōan-ji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is found close to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) in northwest Kyoto. An example of karesansui, the dry, rock garden is unlike any other and attracts visitors from all over the world who come to see the astounding collection of 15 ethereal rocks, which appear to float in a sea of white sand.

The garden is outstanding in its simplicity and size – it measures 25 metres from east to west. Although the rock garden at Ryōan-ji takes the spotlight, the temple offers other beautiful sights such as the Kyōyōchi Pond in its residential-style leisure garden, as well as the beautiful paintings and artefacts in the Abbot's Quarters. The temple and gardens are one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, and an exquisite example of Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture.  

Best time to visit: The garden is lovely all year round. Go in the early morning or late afternoon to dodge the crowds and truly experience its meditative qualities.

Nijo Castle Gardens, Kyoto 

A teahouse in Seiryu-en garden

The UNESCO-listed Nijo Castle is surrounded by three beautiful gardens – Ninomaru,   

Honmaru and Seiryu-en – as well as groves of cherry and plum trees which become truly bewitching during spring. The oldest garden is Ninomaru, which has a large pond with three Japanese garden islands, landscaped rocks and stones, as well as topiary pine trees. Honmaru includes a small terrace from which to view the moon, and the Seiryu-en Garden has two tea houses and over 1,000 landscaped stones. It takes about 2 hours to walk the entire grounds and is a great way to see multiple styles of gardens in one outing.

Best time to visit: There are more than 400 cherry and plum trees around Nijo Castle grounds, which come into full bloom from late March to the end of April. During this time, the gardens are lit up and open in the evenings. There are also special late openings in autumn (September, October, November), to celebrate the season's colours. Even at peak times, Nijo Castle Gardens do not get overcrowded, but weekdays are better than weekends. 

Tenryūji Temple Gardens, Kyoto

Vibrant red and yellow trees around a large pond 

Set in the Arashiyama district in the west of Kyoto, Tenryūji Temple Gardens is considered one of the five most important Zen gardens in Kyoto and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Buddhist temples were originally built in 1339 but were lost to fires throughout history. The gardens, however, have survived centuries in their original form. Designed by the temple’s first head priest, Zen master Muso Soseki, this beautiful Japanese landscape garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the forested Arashiyama and Kameyama mountains, which act as “borrowed scenery” (shakkei). Tenryūji was the first garden in Japan to use the method of incorporating a view from the distant landscape into the garden’s design. 

Best time to visit: Experience sitting meditation at Tenryūji Temple on every second Sunday of the month. Go early in the morning to really enjoy the peaceful scenery and spend half a day or more exploring the area. You could combine it with a visit to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and a cup of sweet green tea at the tea garden Ōkōchi Sansō - both close by - before a meal at one of the many restaurants near or in the gardens. Visit this beautiful Japanese garden all year round, but the maple leaves in autumn (October to November) are especially fabulous.

The Best Japanese Gardens in Tokyo

While gardens in Kyoto are known for being the finest in Japan, Tokyo’s have more imperial grandeur, having often been built in the grounds of feudal lords’ mansions.  

Here are some of the most renowned Japanese landscape gardens in Tokyo, which offer especially beautiful examples of what makes up a traditional Japanese Garden.

Hama Rikyu Garden, Tokyo   

All types of trees along a riverside with skyscrapers in the background

Located alongside Tokyo Bay, Hama Rikyu Garden is a lovely peaceful retreat from bustling streets and, because it is in the heart the city, is an easy addition to any travel itinerary. The garden features seawater ponds that rise and fall with the tide, one of which has a little island in it, and is home to a lovely tea house where you can relax and drink in the stunning landscape, while glittering skyscrapers provide a contrasting backdrop.

Best time to visit: Late February is the best time to visit Hama Rikyu to witness the beautiful bright pink plum trees in full bloom. However, this garden in Tokyo has flowers all year round, including the famous Japanese autumn leaves between late September and November. In October, the garden often has late opening hours too, for visitors to take part in moon viewing (tsukimi), a tradition that has been popular in Japan since the Edo period.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo   

Cherry blossoms and other trees bloom around a pond

One of Tokyo’s oldest and most popular open spaces, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of the best places in the city to enjoy the captivating natural spectacle of the cherry blossoms. There are several different gardens within Shinjuku Gyoen, each with its own theme. The oldest being a traditional Japanese garden with ponds, islands, bridges and pavilions. There is also a symmetrically arranged formal French garden and a typical English garden with wide open lawns.  Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a fantastic place to visit if you are travelling to Japan with kids. It has a dedicated children’s area plus restaurants and cafes to recoup in.

Best time to visit: Each section of the park is designed to highlight the four seasons, so visitors will get a unique experience throughout the year. However, it is especially popular during the spring (from the end of March to the end of April) when people gather to see the cherry blossom.

Kiyosumi Teien Garden, Tokyo

Characterised by its carefully planned footpaths that were designed to take you on a walk around the garden’s large pond, Kiyosumi Teien is a traditional stroll garden in Tokyo. Large steppingstones called isowatari are positioned in the shallower parts of the pond, allowing you to gaze at the trees’ reflections across the water and spy glittering koi fish, turtles, and birds. These beautiful boulders are part of what make Kiyosumi Teien such a unique garden, they were collected from around Japan and placed in the garden. There is a tea house-style building halfway around the paths, which appears to float on the water. When it is open, you can sip matcha tea and order traditional Japanese sweets.

Best time to visit: The garden looks its best in spring – from March to May – when the cherry blossom is in full bloom and the weather is warmer. 

Other Areas to Visit

You do not have to be in Kyoto or Tokyo to experience the wonder of Japanese gardens in Japan. Smaller cities and the countryside are also home to stunning, peaceful spaces to explore. Here are a few more beautiful Japanese gardens to visit.

Kenrokuen, Kanazawa   

A long wooden bridge over water with bamboo structures in the background

Considered to be one of the most spectacular gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen literally means ‘garden combining six,’ a name which refers to the six characteristics that are believed to make the perfect garden – spaciousness, seclusion, antiquity, human ingenuity, water, and scenic views. Next to Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen Garden includes ponds, waterfalls, bridges, and tea houses and is a wonderful place to visit any time of year. Visitors can choose from a variety of routes to enjoy different features and views.

Best time to visit: Autumn (September, October, November) and spring (March, April, May) are when Kenrokuen’s foliage is in full bloom, either beautiful reds and oranges or a sea of pastel pinks.

Shukkeien Garden, Hiroshima   

A gazebo on a small hill covered with shrubbery

Famous for its cherry and plum blossoms and miniature landscapes, Shukkeien Garden was first created by the tea master Ueda Soko in 1620 and was designated a National Site of Scenic Beauty in 1940. Here you will find valleys, mountains, forests, and rivers created on a tiny scale. An extensive path winds around the garden’s main pond, following this route will take you past all the features of the miniature landscapes, and you can stop at one of the tea houses that line the pond to sit back and enjoy the scenery.   

Best time to visit: Shukkeien Garden is a beautiful Japanese garden to see all year round; something is always in bloom. And even if you get a shower or two in the autumn or winter, there are umbrellas available to borrow. 

Kairakuen, Mito

A field of plum blossom trees in front of a building

Considered to be one of the three greatest Japanese landscape gardens along with Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa and Korakuen Garden in Okayama. Kairakuen literally means “a park to be enjoyed together” in Japanese. It was built for the public to enjoy and is best-known for its 3,000 plum trees, which display astonishing white, pink and red blossom in early spring (February to March). Besides plum blossoms, the garden also features a traditional landscape garden, historical Japanese building, and bamboo grove.  

Best time to visit: The Mito Plum Blossom Festival is held from mid-February to late March. Because there are so many kinds of plum trees, the viewing time of the blossoms at Kairakuen Garden is longer than most of the plum blossom spots in Japan. During the festival, trees are lit up after the sun goes down and there are special events including candlelight art, a plum wine festival and tea ceremony, plus local food vendors set up stalls in the garden. It’s a great garden for culture and food lovers.

Ashikaga Flower Park, Tochigi  

A field of flowering wisteria trees

Although not a traditional Japanese garden, when the wisteria is in bloom, the Ashikaga Flower Park is quite a spectacle to behold. It has:

  • More than 350 blossoming wisterias
  • A 150-year-old great wisteria (which is considered a natural treasure in the area)
  • A large wisteria trellis with three wisteria trees connected
  • An unusual wisteria with double blossoms
  • An 80-metre long tunnel of white wisteria 

The garden also boasts thousands of azaleas, hundreds of other flowers, and winter lights, making it a destination all year round. There are wisteria gardens all over Japan, but this is one of the absolute best.

Best time to visit: Go between mid-April and mid-May to see the famous wisteria in full bloom. This is also when the garden hosts its Great Wisteria Festival. But the other seasons have plenty to offer too, including winter’s incredible light show.

Different Types of Gardens in Japan

Traditional Japanese gardens have evolved over the years, picking up characteristics from each era, whether that is from Shinto, Buddhist, or Taoist influences. They are built using elements like water, rocks, sand, moss, and evergreen plants, which represent both physical aspects of the natural world, as well as spiritual concepts. Then there are man-made objects, such as bridges or teahouses, which are all about making the space more hospitable to guests – something that is key to Japanese culture.

Each garden has its own style, but they fall into seven main categories:

Rock Gardens  

Rock Gardens (karesansui) are also known as Zen gardens in Japan. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, they are made up of carefully arranged stones of different shapes and sizes surrounded by flowing sand or gravel to represent islands in water. This arrangement embodies the legendary mountain island home of the Eight Immortals (key figures in Buddhism).

Hill and Pond Gardens  

Japanese hill and pond gardens (tsukiyama) are a classic type of Japanese garden depicting a miniature version of natural landscapes. Here, hills, ponds, streams, stones, bridges, flowers, plants, and meandering paths are all found and designed to inspire a quiet and reflective stroll.

Tea Gardens  

Japanese tea gardens gained popularity between the 16th and 17th century, becoming a place where nature meets rituals. Footpaths made from steppingstones lead to a tea house by way of an inner and outer garden. The experience of walking to the tea house is integral to the Japanese tea ceremony; as visitors walk the winding path, their cares drop away, and they arrive at the tea room composed and serene.

Pure Land or Paradise Gardens   

A representation of the palatial Japanese pond garden of Amida Buddha believed to be located in his western utopia, Japanese paradise gardens consist of a pond with lotus flowers, trees, islands, a bridge, and a large Buddhist pavilion.

Stroll Gardens  

Circular paths wind around stroll gardens (kaiyushiki-teien), which visitors must follow in a clockwise direction. This garden will characteristically contain a pond, islands, trees, artificial hills and rocks, as well as features from other styles of gardens. Beautiful views admired from different viewpoints are also a key feature of these traditional Japanese gardens.  

Japanese Pond Gardens  

Originally introduced in China, Japanese pond gardens (chisen-shoyū-teien) date back to the Heian period. What sets pond gardens apart from hill and pond gardens is a distinctive building, which sits in front of a large pond. The low building consists of two sprawling wings stretching out wide. Pond gardens are places of beauty, where visitors can sit and relax, soaking in the surroundings. 

Courtyard Gardens  

The small spaces found between Japanese buildings are often turned into tranquil courtyard gardens (tsuboniwa) made up of simple arrangements with elements from other gardens. In the past, many traditional samurai properties boasted courtyard gardens. Today, they are more likely to be found in temples or at the homes of aristocrats.  

Because of the layers of asymmetry and meticulous approach to each garden’s design, no two are alike. Each has its own significance and will often require a good guide to get the most from its design elements. Many of the gardens we have listed above will have the option of visiting with a guide and our travel experts can arrange this for you.

Best Time to Visit Japan’s Gardens 

Spring (late March to mid-May) is the best time to visit Japan to see its gardens at their best. This is when most of them will be in full bloom, you can see cherry and plum blossom, the wisteria, plus the blue skies and warm weather is ideal for strolling around these serene spaces. 

Start Planning Your Trip Today

To add a trip to one or more of Japan’s amazing Japanese gardens, contact our travel experts or find more inspiration in our travel itineraries:   

Rikki Poynton

Asia Specialist

Travel has always been a large part of my life, a passion ignited from my first visit to Russia as a child and my subsequent relocation to Moscow in 2010. After spending five years exploring this amazing, vast country and immersing myself fully in the culture and learning the language, I began my professional travel career at Scott Dunn in 2015.

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