The land of the rising sun is a magical place, full of fairy-tale gardens and mystical scenery. The Japanese have a deep respect for nature. In Japan, gardens hold a sacred space in traditional culture, and hundreds dot the island.
The public enjoys the gardens of Japan as a cultural experience. The practice first arrived around the 6th century. Since then, beautiful public gardens have developed across the island. This article will explore twenty-five of the most beautiful gardens on the island of Japan.
Types of Japanese Gardens
The Japanese design gardens for one of two purposes, walking or viewing. The Japanese divide gardens into sub-categories based on thematic designs. These designs include:
Known as the Zen garden, Karesansui gardens contain mainly sand and rock, with minimal vegetation and water additions. The gardens represent the Zen Buddhist ideals of simplicity and balance. The Japanese use these for viewing and meditation.
Introduced in the Heian period, the Tsuboniwa garden is colloquially known as the courtyard garden. These gardens contain characteristics from zen and other Japanese garden styles. In addition, these gardens provide a small walking escape for homes and temples.
Usually, a larger garden-style garden, the Tsukiyama garden mimics the natural scenery of Japan. Known as the hill garden, these gardens contain miniature man-made hills, rivers, ponds, and rock features with bridges to facilitate leisurely strolls.
The Kaiyshiki-tein garden is primarily a stroll garden. Designed around a circle, the stroll garden has several viewing points along the path for visitors to enjoy the water features and plants indicative of the style.
Perhaps the best known Japanese style, the Chaiwa is better known as the Japanese tea garden. These gardens typically surround and lead to a Japanese tea house. Thus, the garden itself plays a significant role in the Japanese tea ceremony.
Tea gardens contain an inner and outer garden. Traditional gardens contain a stone basin filled with water for visitors to purify themselves before entering the inner garden and the nearby tea house.
The Japanese culture contains dozens of variations on the above gardens. Other types include the Japanese Paradise garden, study gardens, and pond gardens.
Elements of a Japanese Garden
All Japanese gardens contain several key elements, including:
Most Japanese gardens contain a water element. Water represents motherhood and the origin of all life in Japanese culture. Most water elements include ponds that have koi, the national fish of Japan that symbolizes patience, courage, and success.
Most gardens of Japan, including the dry zen gardens, contain some element of vegetation. Moss, flowers, azaleas, lotus, and pine trees often feature in Japanese gardens.
The Japanese culture identifies large stones as spiritual markers that represent eternity. The immovable nature of rocks compliments the changing nature of plants and water in Japanese gardens.
Keibutsu (Human Objects)
The practice of keibutsu includes human objects in garden scapes. These items represent the limitations of humanity and human life and provide introspection on the power and beauty of nature.
25 Most Beautiful Japanese Gardens
The island of Japan has thousands of gardens dotting its surface, from small courtyard gardens to enormous parks. Here are the 25 most beautiful gardens of Japan.
Classified as one of Japan’s “Three Most Beautiful Landscaped Gardens.” The sprawling grounds border the Maeda Clan’s, Kanazawa Castle. The landscape includes flowering trees, the two-meter tall Kotojitoro Lantern, and several fountains and waterfalls.
The garden’s name means “Garden of the Six Sublimities,” referring to the six traditional attributes (spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water, and broad views) of a perfect garden.
The second of Japan’s “Three Most Beautiful Landscaped Gardens,” Koraku-en resides beside Okayama Castle. Initially commissioned in 1687, Koraku-en did not become open to the public until 1884.
The spacious lawns of Koraku-en are atypical of a Japanese garden. From the lookout point of the garden’s hill, dozens of plum, maple, and tea trees dot the horizon. The garden also features a crane aviary, archery range (a popular pastime in Japan), and rice fields.
The third of Japan’s “Three Most Beautiful Landscaped Gardens,” Kairaku-en is the youngest of the three gardens. First commissioned in 1841, Kairaku-en has always allowed the public to stroll its scenic walk.
Kairaku-en is most famous for its massive grove of over 3,000 plum trees. In February, the garden comes alive with plum blossoms and the annual Mito plum festival. Also featured in the garden are cedar woods, a bamboo grove, and the Kobuntei learning center.
Okochi Sanso Garden, Kyoto
Named for the famous Japanese actor who built the garden, Okochi Sanso boasts some of the best views of Kyoto. Located on the slopes of Mt. Ogura, the garden developed as part of Okochi’s estate over 30 years.
The gardens of Okochi Sanso contain Tekisuian, a traditional Japanese tea house, and the Jibutsudō, a Buddhist shrine. The gardens evoke the four seasons with their azaleas, Japanese maples, pines, and cherry blossoms.
Rikiugi-en means “six poem gardens,” and among the garden’s foliage are 88 recreations from famous poems. The garden houses several tea houses. It is a famous stop during autumn when the maple trees begin to change colors.
Sankeien Garden, Yokohama
Over many miles of gorgeous gardens create the Sankeien Garden. The Sankeien Gardens were once the property of a wealthy silk merchant and now display their seasonal beauty to the public of Yokohama.
Among the paths and lawns of Sankeien, visitors will discover several historic buildings, including a 14th-century pagoda. The garden exhibits the finest seasonal plantlife Japan can offer, ranging from spring cherry blossoms to the late winter plum blossom.
Ritsurin Kōen, Takamatsu
Ritsurin Koen is one of the most extensive strolling gardens in the country of Japan. Initially, only feudal lords of the Takamatsu region could enjoy the lush grounds, but since 1875, the public has accessed the garden’s beauty.
A traditional garden, Ritsurin Koen has a multitude of artificial hills and ponds, while the southern portion contains the Japanese manicured Hakomatsu pine trees and several tea houses. The garden plays host to a folk museum, several resthouses for picnicking, and a few shops.
Visitors to Saiho-ji receive the dual experience of viewing a Buddhist temple and exploring one of Japan’s best gardens. Also known as “Koke-dera,” or the moss temple, Saiho-ji resides within a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple.
The garden, built to honor celestial buddha Amida, contains one of the world’s greatest moss collections – over 120 varieties of moss grow in Saiho-ji. The gardens encompass a zen rock garden, a study hall, several tea houses, and the temple hall Shitō-an.
Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto
Built for the royal Katsura family, the Katsura Rikyu gardens are part of the Katsura Imperial Villa complex. Prince Toshihito commissioned several of the buildings. To tour the gardens, visitors must join a tour group that also explores the villa.
The gardens share the typical architecture of the Japanese strolling garden. The Geppa-rō tower provides a beautiful view of the landscaping, while the four tea houses dot the grounds. The Japanese cherry tree line the garden’s lush lawns.
Shukkei-en, Hiroshima City
An ancient daimyō – a powerful Japanese lord who ruled over the Hiroshima region, commissioned the Shukkei-en garden. It originally served as the villa of the Asano family before becoming a public garden in 1940.
The gardens survived the atomic bomb of WW2 and required intensive care to restore them to their former glory. Now, Sukkei-en the garden boasts miniature mountains, valleys, and scenic views in the heart of Hiroshima.
The grounds of Nanzenji evokes a powerful air of tranquility. The temple and its gardens are home to Rinzai Zen Buddhist monks. Several sub-temples exist on the grounds, including Tenjuan, renown for its Zen gardens.
The rock garden of Tenjuan contains the elements necessary for calming meditation. A nearby pond garden provides a scenic viewing area for tourists. Also much respected is the Hojo garden, whose rocks resemble tigers and their cubs crossing water.
The Isuien gardens reside in Nara, the original capital city of Japan. The garden itself has existed since the Meiji period of the late 17th to early 19th century. It is the only strolling garden in Nara and contains two separate sections of gardens.
The gardens feature a central pond with an island, on which sculptures of tortoises and cranes represent longevity. The Yosiki river flows adjacent to the gardens, providing a soothing ambiance. The garden is especially popular in the autumn when the leaves change.
Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto
One of the oldest gardens on this list, the Ryoanji Temple Zen garden, is typical of the dry landscape technique of Japanese gardening. The garden itself resides within a Rinzai Temple of Buddhism that serves as the final resting place for several emperors.
The Ryoanji garden features the typical large rock and white sand formations of the zen garden. Moss is the only vegetation in the garden. Ryoanji receives particular care from its monks, who carefully rake the sand every day.
Tradition states that only an enlightened individual could look out at the garden and see fifteen boulders – as it is, viewers can only see fourteen at a time.
The walls of the Daitoku-ji temple house some of the most beautiful zen gardens in the world. The compound houses twenty-two sub-temples, four of which remain open regularly. Most of the temples have their own zen garden.
Perhaps the most famous of the readily accessed gardens is the Totekiko, the smallest garden in Japan. The Ryugintei garden and Isshidan Garden feature swirling moss and sand, as well as large rock formations.
One lesser-known garden of the compound is the Garden of the Cross. This garden is an homage to the hidden Christians of historic Japan, built by Otomo Sorin. It contains a hidden diagonal cross in its rock formations.
Located near the Himeji Palace, the Koko-en gardens are relatively new. Initially built in 1992 on the site of a feudal residence, the grounds consist of nine walled gardens designed after the Edo period.
Visitors to this historical site will discover several tea houses, a tea garden, a dedicated pine garden, bamboo, and flower gardens within the gardens. Visitors can also tour Himeji palace, which itself features gorgeous cherry blossom trees and manicured landscaping.
Mifuneyama Rakuen, Saga
The Mifuneyama Rakuen gardens turn the Japanese landscape into a magical garden. Known for its Buddhist statutes, the garden sprawls along Mt. Karafune. Thousands of visitors come to Mifuneyama year-round, as the garden holds a different appeal each season.
The mountain overlooks a serene pond that is central to the garden’s design. In the summer, lanterns hang at night, turning the park into a fantasy land. As the seasons change, plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, and azaleas burst into life.
Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo
One of the most popular parks in Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen, provides tranquil scenery in the middle of bustling Tokyo. The paid park includes a traditional Japanese garden, as well as an English and French-inspired garden.
The Japanese garden of Shinjuku Gyoen features beautifully manicured shrubs and trees, a chrysanthemum exhibit in November, and the Kyu Goryotei pavilion honoring the wedding of the Showa Emperor.
The garden of Tenryu-ji resides within the head temple of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. The temple and its garden commemorate Gautama Buddha. It is one of the oldest temple sites in Japan, dating back to the 12th century.
The gardens of Tenryu-ji feature a circular walk around the Sōgen Pond. The government of Japan designates the garden as a “Special Place of Scenic Beauty of Japan.” The garden is home to beautiful rock formations, the foliage of the Arashiyama mountains, and Japanese pine trees.
Adachi Museum of Art, Matsue
The Journal of Japanese Gardening has named the garden of the Adachi Museum of Art “the best garden of Japan” every year since 2003. Alongside the museum, the Adachi gardens are one of the most-visited sites of Matsue.
The gardens represent the typical elements of several Japanese garden variations. A zen rock garden, moss garden, and white gravel and pine garden dot the grounds. Within the gardens, a tea house and cafe provide sustenance for visitors.
Kuju Flower Park, Taketa
Over 49 acres of indigenous flowers burst to life in the Kuju Flower Park of Taketa. Located at the base of the Kuju Mountains, the park blooms three out of the four seasons of the year.
Along the curving paths of the park, visitors view the beautiful florals of Japan, including lavender, tulips, blueberries, salvia, and pink moss. The park also hosts a restaurant serving vegetables grown in the Kuju region and a traditional tea house.
Kinkakuji, or its official name of Rokuon-ji, is one of the most well-known Zen temples in Japan. The temple itself is sheathed in gold leaf, thus its nickname as “The Golden Pavillion.”
The Rokuon gardens feature the red leaves of maple trees, traditional white sand structures, and rock formations overlooking a soothing pond. Within the garden, a traditional tea house serves refreshments for visitors.
The Sengan-en gardens were once home to the powerful Shimazu clan. Like many feudal gardens, the Shimazu clan lived within its greenery. At the center of the gardens is the historic Iso Residence.
The Senegan-en gardens feature the natural beauty of Moso bamboo from China. They also include many water features, including streams and small ponds.
Hama Rikyu Gardens, Tokyo
Once only visited by the Imperial Family, the grounds of the Hama Rikyu gardens evoke a different era of Japan. The gardens once served as duck hunting grounds for feudal lords. Remnants of that history still exist in the garden’s duck hunting blinds and old moat.
Within the Hama Rikyu gardens, visitors will discover foliage unique to the area of Japan. Ginkgo trees reside beside ancient maple trees, while cherry and plum trees provide beautiful blooms in the spring and winter in Japan.
Tonogayato Garden, Tokyo
The Tonogayato garden once housed the founder of Mitsubishi and the railway tycoon of the Manchurian Railway. However, it was nearly destroyed for development until the local residents campaigned for the government to preserve the gardens.
Today, the circular gardens of Tonogayato stand as a beloved monument to nature. It utilizes the natural plateaus of the landscape to create dramatic scenery. Waterfalls, ponds, and a bamboo forest populate the garden.
Sorakuen Garden, Kobe
The gardens of Sorakuen speak to the cosmopolitan nature of Kobe. Unfortunately, much of the grounds were destroyed during WW2. However, the Japanese government restored the gardens and named them “A Place of Scenic Beauty.”
The garden itself displays the chisen kaiyu shiki style that features a garden with a path winding around a pond. A giant camphor tree, rumored to be older than the garden itself, stands as one of the main attractions. A tea house and a stroll garden also exist on the grounds.
Discover the Natural Beauty of Japan’s Gardens
Across the island of Japan, gorgeous gardens await the nature lover. Discover the natural wonders of this island nation by exploring any of these twenty-five amazing gardens that provide enrichment within the serene beauty and zen of the Japanese garden culture.