An important Japanese art form refined for over a thousand years, gardens in Japan have evolved into a wide variety of styles with various purposes. From dry stone gardens used by Zen monks to strolling gardens provided for recreation of Edo-era lords. See our top gardens of Japan. They’re scattered across the country, in tranquil rural areas as well as in the cities, providing a lush oasis for escaping the chaos. Unlike parks where children play and families enjoy picnics, they’re meant to be admired quietly without a disruption to their peaceful feel.
Imperial East Gardens, Tokyo
One of the best to visit in Tokyo, these large landscaped gardens sit on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, the primary residence of the imperial family. Open year-round, they’re part of the inner palace area. Surrounded by walls, moats, gates and guardhouses built by Tokugawa shoguns. Free to enter, you’ll find seasonal flowers, an elegant tea house and koi-filled pond fringed with maple and cherry trees.
Sankeien Garden, Yokohama
Just 30 minutes by train from Tokyo, Sankeien offers a tranquil escape from the city. Built in 1904 by wealthy silk merchant Sankei Hara. While it’s one of Japan’s newer gardens, it’s particularly impressive with lawns and ponds arranged around historic buildings that were collected from across the country. It has a 15th-century three-story pagoda. Relocated here a decade after the garden was created, along with impressive water features, a traditional teahouse, and landscaped hills.
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Ryoanji Zen Garden, Kyoto
Kyoto is home to many fabulous Zen gardens, thanks to its high concentration of monasteries and temples. They were designed as a place for monks to meditate by imitating the essence of nature. Instead of foliage, their primary components are rock and sand. Ryoanji is considered Japan’s pre-eminent Zen Garden, one of the finest surviving examples of kare-sansui, or “dry landscape.” It has a puzzling design, as no matter where you stand, its 15 stones cannot all be seen. To date, no one knows who built it or why the rocks were arranged the way they were. Many feel that it was meant for visitors to discover their own meaning as they walk around it, best done in the more tranquil early morning hours.
Southeast of Kyoto in the densely forested countryside, Joruri-ji is one of Japan’s few surviving Pure Land Buddhist temple gardens, built in 1047. You’re unlikely to find thick tourist crowds here. Bringing opportunities for peaceful contemplation and beautiful photographs. The highlight is Paradise Hall, constructed in the mid-12th-century, a Heian era original. It features nine statues of the Amida Buddha, in each of the nine states of Nirvana. The garden is focused around a pond, representing the ocean that separates birth and death. An island in the middle, connected to the land via a stone slab bridge, representing the Earth. While the garden has nearly been taken over the water, overlooked by a three-tiered pagoda, you can stroll around the banks.
Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa
Classified as one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan. Achieving all six key attributes a “perfect” garden should have (spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views). Kenrokuen is one of the top attractions in the modern city of Kanazawa. It was once the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, built over nearly two centuries by the ruling Maeda family. It was opened to the public in 1871 and includes a variety of flowering trees which give it a different look for every season. A strolling garden, it’s also teeming with bridges, water features, flowers, stones, teahouses and hidden nooks. A fountain which sits inside a pond is considered to be Japan’s oldest, powered by natural water pressure while harmoniously combine two of the six traditional elements in one, flowing water and human artistry.
All elements here were planned with miegakure in mind, a technique meant to draw visitors toward a particular viewpoint. A path runs through the park for exploring and is meant to be followed in a clockwise direction. The natural rise and fall of the pathways leads to secluded resting points, and then suddenly opens to expansive views, like the one overlooking Kasumigaike pond. Tea and sweets can be enjoyed at Shigureitei Teahouse, a former residential villa.
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