The Best Gardens in Japan: From Tokyo to the Countryside

01 March 2023

japans best gardens

Celebrated for being intricate, beautiful, and layered with meaning, Japanese Gardens are much more than just horticulture. They are created to inspire meditation and mindfulness. Whatever size they are, Japan’s gardens are connected by their detailed, minimalist aesthetic, which stems from the country’s philosophical principles. The overarching belief is that nature is something to be respected and admired and that being in one will bring enrichment.

Whether you are a passionate gardener looking for inspiration, want to tick Japanese cherry blossom off your bucket list, or are just searching for a moment of calm on your vacation, read on to discover the best Japanese gardens in Japan.

The Best Japanese Gardens in Kyoto  

Kyoto has some of the most beautiful Japanese gardens in Japan, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and all of which offer a peaceful break from the buzzy city life.

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto  

A pond in front of a teahouse surrounded by trees

One of the most recognized Zen gardens in Japan, Ryoan-ji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is located close to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) in northwest Kyoto. A dry, rock garden (karesansui), the highlight of this space is its incredible collection of 15 enormous rocks, which appear to float in a sea of white sand.

The garden measures about 82ft from east to west and although it is great in size, it stays true to the Japanese ethos that the design should be simple. As well as the outstanding rock garden, there is a beautiful temple at Ryōan-ji, and paintings and artifacts to admire in the Abbot's Quarters. The temple and gardens are one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and are an impressive example of Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture.

Best time to visit: The garden is attractive all year round. Go in early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds and feel the full effect of 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 - which can all be explored in around two hours. Ninomaru was the first to be created. It includes a large pond with three Japanese garden islands, landscaped rocks, and stones, as well as meticulously manicured pine trees. Honmaru is made up of stones and gravel depicting hills and water, with winding paths between them, and a small mound from which to view the moon. Seiryu-en Garden has two tea houses and over 1,000 landscaped stones laid out along waterways. The grounds of Nijo Castle also include rows of cherry and plum trees, which become truly captivating in spring.

Best time to visit: To see the hundreds of cherry and plum trees in full bloom, visit the gardens between the end of March and end of April. During this time, the gardens are open in the evenings and beautifully lit up. There are also late openings in fall (September, October, November), to celebrate the season's colors and tsukimi, Japan’s autumn moon-viewing festival. Even at peak times, Nijo Castle Gardens do not get too busy, especially on weekdays.

Tenryūji Temple Gardens, Kyoto

Vibrant red and yellow trees around a large pond 

Tenryūji Temple Gardens are thought to be one of the five most important Zen gardens in Kyoto and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located in the Arashiyama district in the west of Kyoto, the Buddhist temples were first built in 1339 but were lost to fires over the years. The gardens, however, survived and are in their original form today. Zen master Muso Soseki, the temple’s first head priest, designed this beautiful Japanese landscape garden around a central pond surrounded by rocks and pine trees. In the distance, Arashiyama and Kameyama mountains act as “borrowed scenery” (shakkei), a technique that incorporates a view from the existing landscape into the garden’s design. Tenryūji was the first garden in Japan to use this method.

Best time to visit: Visit this beautiful Japanese garden all year round, but the maple leaves in fall (October to November) are especially fabulous. And, to fully experience the mindful powers of this garden, join a sitting meditation at Tenryūji Temple every second Sunday of the month or go early in the morning before the crowds. Our recommended day out involves starting at the temple, then heading to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, before sipping a cup of sweet green tea Ōkōchi Sansō.

The Best Japanese Gardens in Tokyo

While gardens in Kyoto tend to be older – having been preserved among temples and ancient buildings – Tokyo’s are newer and came with the rise of feudal lords (around the 17th century). They were mostly created in palaces as a sign of power and wealth and moved away from the extreme minimalist aesthetic, becoming more extravagant.

Here are some of the most luxurious examples of traditional Japanese Gardens

Hama Rikyu Garden, Tokyo   

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

Hamarikyu Garden is a lovely peaceful retreat in the heart of Tokyo, making it an easy option for first time travelers to Japan to add to their itinerary. Located next to Tokyo Bay, its seawater ponds rise and fall with the tide, one of which has a little island in it. You will also find a pretty tea house where you can relax and drink in the exquisite landscape, while dazzling skyscrapers provide a contrasting backdrop to the garden.

Best time to visit: Towards the end of February is the best time to visit Hamarikyu to see the beautiful bright pink plum trees in full bloom. However, this garden in Tokyo has flowers all year round, including gorgeous fall colors between late September and November. In October, the garden sometimes has late opening hours for visitors to take part in moon viewing.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo   

Cherry blossoms and other trees bloom around a pond

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of the best places in Tokyo to see cherry blossoms. One of the city’s oldest and most popular open spaces, it is made up of several different gardens, each with its own theme. The oldest is a traditional Japanese garden with ponds, islands, bridges, and pavilions. Others take inspiration from different cultures, including a perfectly symmetrical, formal French garden and a typical English garden with wide open lawns. If you are you are traveling to Japan with kids and would like to explore gardens, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden should be on your itinerary. It has a dedicated children’s area, plus restaurants, and cafes for refreshments.

Best time to visit: The gardens have been designed to be in bloom all year round, putting on a show for guests whenever they visit. It is especially popular during spring (from the end of March to the end of April) when the cherry blossoms are out in an explosive display of pink.

Kiyosumi Teien Garden, Tokyo

Kiyosumi Teien is a traditional stroll garden in Tokyo. Precisely planned footpaths take you on a walk around the garden’s large pond, while large steppingstones called isowatari are placed in the shallower parts of the pond. These beautiful boulders are part of what makes Kiyosumi Teien such a distinctive garden, they were collected from around Japan by Iwasaki Yatarō, the founder of Mitsubishi who bought the garden in 1878 to entertain in. The garden includes a tea house-style building halfway around the paths, which seems to float on the water. When it is open, you can pause for matcha tea and Japanese sweets, while gazing out at the garden, admiring reflections across the water, and spotting koi fish, turtles, and birds.

Best time to visit: The garden is most impressive in spring – from March to May – when the cherry blossoms are out, and the weather is warmer.

Other Areas to Visit

Some of the lesser-known cities and countryside in Japan are home to beautiful Japanese gardens too. These are perfect for travelers who want to see outside the main cities, as well as those who have been to Japan before and are looking for new experiences.

Kenrokuen, Kanazawa   

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

Kenrokuen translates to ‘garden combining six,’ which refers to the six characteristics that are thought to make the ideal garden – spaciousness, seclusion, antiquity, human ingenuity, water, and scenic views. Located in Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen Garden is thought to be one of the most outstanding gardens in Japan. Made up of ponds, waterfalls, bridges, and tea houses, it is a wonderful place to visit any time of year thanks to a variety of routes to explore, which offer distinctive features and views.

Best time to visit: Visit between September and November or March and May to see Kenrokuen’s foliage transform into a sea of reds and oranges or pastel pinks.

Shukkeien Garden, Hiroshima   

A gazebo on a small hill covered with shrubbery

Famous for its miniature landscapes, Shukkeien Garden is an oasis of tiny valleys, mountains, forests, and rivers that wind around the garden’s main pond. Created originally by the tea master Ueda Soko in 1620, the garden was designated a National Site of Scenic Beauty in 1940 and is celebrated for its cherry and plum blossoms. On route, stop at one of the tea houses that line the pond to sit back and enjoy the scenery without hurrying.

Best time to visit: Shukkeien Garden is a beautiful Japanese garden all year round; you will always see pops of color no matter which season you visit.

Kairakuen, Mito

A field of plum blossom trees in front of a building

Listed to be one of the top three Japanese landscape gardens (with Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa and Korakuen Garden, Okayama the other two), Kairakuen in English translates to “a park to be enjoyed together.” It was created by Nariaki Tokugawa, a feudal lord during the Edo period, as a place where he and his people do exactly that. The garden is a very traditional Japanese landscape garden, with a beautiful ancient building designed to be a place to study literature and martial arts, and a majestic bamboo grove designed to be a place of leisure.

Best time to visit: During early spring (February to March), its 3,000 plum trees bloom into an extraordinary display of white, pink, and red blossoms, which is marked by the Mito Plum Blossom Festival. During the festival, trees are lit up at night, and there are special events including candlelight art, a plum wine festival and tea ceremony, plus local food stalls. This is a great garden for culture and food lovers.

Ashikaga Flower Park, Tochigi  

A field of flowering wisteria trees

Although not technically a traditional Japanese garden, when the wisteria is in flower, the Ashikaga Flower Park is something quite special to see. Inside the garden you will find:

  • 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-meter long tunnel of white wisteria 

As well as the abundance of wisteria, there are thousands of azaleas, hundreds of other flowers, and, in the winter, an impressive light show, making Ashikaga Flower Park a captivating option to add to your itinerary – particularly if you are traveling with children or teenagers.

Best time to visit: This is a year-round destination, thanks to the variety of flowers and the winter light show. However, go between mid-April and mid-May to see the famous wisteria in full bloom and experience the Great Wisteria Festival.

Different Types of Gardens in Japan

Traditional Japanese gardens have transformed over the years, adopting features from each era, whether that is from Shinto, Buddhist, or Taoist influences. Generally, gardens are designed using elements such as water, rocks, sand, moss, and evergreen plants, which embody physical characteristics of the natural world, and spiritual theories. Objects like bridges or teahouses are used to make the space more hospitable to guests – something that important in Japanese culture.

Each garden is unique, but they fall into seven key types:

Rock Gardens  

Rock Gardens (karesansui), also called Zen gardens in Japan are inspired by Zen Buddhism. They are characterized by meticulously placed stones, all different shapes, and sizes, surrounded by flowing sand or gravel to represent islands in water. This design is inspired by the mythological mountain island home of the Eight Immortals, significant figures in Buddhism.

Hill and Pond Gardens  

Hill and pond gardens (tsukiyama) are designed to be a miniature version of Japanese landscapes. Hills, ponds, streams, stones, bridges, flowers, plants, and winding paths are put in place to lead visitors on a quiet and reflective stroll around the garden.

Tea Gardens  

Japanese tea gardens became more prominent between the 16th and 17th centuries, bringing nature into the ceremonious ritual of drinking tea. Footpaths made from steppingstones lead to a tea house via an inner and outer garden. The experience of walking to the tea house is essential to the Japanese tea ceremony; as guests walk the meandering path, their worries fade away and they reach the tea room in a calm state.

Pure Land or Paradise Gardens   

Japanese paradise gardens consist of a pond with lotus flowers, trees, islands, a bridge, and a large Buddhist pavilion. They are seen as symbols of Amida Buddha’s palatial Japanese pond garden believed to be found in his western utopia.

Stroll Gardens  

This garden will typically contain a pond, islands, trees, artificial hills and rocks, and features from other gardens. However, the main characteristic of stroll gardens (kaiyushiki-teien) is their circular paths, which wind around in a clockwise direction, presenting beautiful views at different points.

Japanese Pond Gardens  

What sets pond gardens (chisen-shoyū-teien) apart from hill and pond gardens is a distinctive low building that sits in front of a large pond, consisting of two sprawling wings either side. Pond gardens are seen as places of beauty, where visitors can sit and relax, soaking in the surroundings.

Courtyard Gardens  

Japanese courtyard gardens (tsuboniwa) tend to be created in small spaces between buildings, which might otherwise be empty. They are made up of simple arrangements, inspired by lots of other garden styles. In the past, courtyard gardens might be found within samurai’s grounds but now they are more likely to be in temples or the homes of aristocrats.

No two Japanese gardens in Japan are the same thanks to the meticulous layers of meaning found in their designs. Each has its own importance and nuances, which often require a good guide to reveal. Many of the gardens we have listed above will have guided tours available, and our travel experts can arrange these for you.

Best Time to Visit Japan’s Gardens 

Spring (late March to mid-May) is the most popular time to visit Japan’s gardens, however, it means that you need to make reservations very far in advance, as hotels, flights, and attractions get booked up quickly. A better time to visit Japan’s gardens is in the fall when the autumnal colors are stunning, and the blue skies and warm weather are ideal conditions for strolling.

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:   

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