Best of the Best: Peaceful Gardens to Spend Time in and Around Japan

Apr 14, 2019


What are the Best Gardens You’ve been to in Japan?

Since I moved to Japan, one of my absolute favorite activities is checking out as many incredible Japanese gardens as I can find. I devote a lot of my free time to this particular activity. Fortunately for me, Japan does an incredible job of preserving historical as well as natural spaces so I have a lot of wonderful places to choose from for my explorations. So, here I have assembled a list of my favorite, the best of the best, the most relaxing, the most serene, the most beautifully landscaped Japanese gardens. However, just to be clear, these are all the gardens I have visited and recommend. Unfortunately, I have only been able to explore a few areas of Japan outside of Tokyo, so this list of fairly Kanto-centric (sorry Hokkaido and Kyushu). This is by NO MEANS a comprehensive list of all the Japanese gardens in Japan. There are hundreds and hundreds of them all over the country. The city of Tokyo alone puts out a guide to almost 30 of its best Japanese gardens every year (I am halfway through this year’s list). So these are my top picks out of gardens that I believe you cannot go wrong with and listed in no particular order. I encourage you to visit them all if you can. Good luck!

How are Gardens Best Enjoyed in Japan?

There are certainly many different ways to enjoy Japanese gardens. For starters, I will say that the single greatest thing about them is that you can enjoy them throughout the entire year. Unless the weather is particularly awful (like a tsunami or a blizzard), anytime is usually a good time to visit a Japanese garden (during their open hours of course). Part of the design idea is to plant a diversity of vegetation with attention given to flora that (at some point in the year) is aesthetically or naturally pleasing to visitors or has significant value to the original creator(s). Every garden that I have been to has a flower calendar to show what will be in bloom throughout the entire year. This is nice for patrons to be able to plan multiple visits to enjoy many different types and colors of flowers, and it also serves as a kind of natural advertising for the gardens. Japanese gardens are great places to have sunny family picnics, enjoy a quiet stroll through natural beauty, have calming meditation, or bring your expensive camera and get some haiku-worthy pictures of the seasonal flowering plants. Whenever I need to escape from the loud, hectic, exhausting city life, I head straight to my favorite Japanese gardens to rest and recharge.

1. Shinjuku Gyoen

 

If you live near Tokyo, then you absolutely have to visit Shinjuku National Gyoen. It was originally built as a suburban residence for a feudal lord in the Edo Period and during the Meiji period, it was converted to the Shinjuku Gyoen Botanical Garden controlled by the Imperial Ministry. It became the first imperial garden in 1906, but it was then opened to the public after World War 2. This massive garden located right in the heart of Tokyo has a circumference of 3.5 km and about 10,000 trees, featuring 3 distinct garden styles: French Formal, English Landscape, and Japanese Traditional (the Japanese garden is my favorite). Uniquely, this garden also contains a substantial greenhouse that is warm and humid year-round and houses about 500 varieties of plants (including tropical and endangered species). You could spend hours walking around Shinjuku Gyoen and still not find all of its little hidden paths and beautiful spots. And if you get tired, there are multiple rest houses and snack shops dotted around the grounds as well as 2 different Japanese tea houses. Unlike some gardens that have set paths and do not offer freedom of movement, Shinjuku Gyoen has vast grassy areas where you can throw down a blanket and have a picnic or play music all day.
Opening hours are 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (but they start rounding up people at 4:30 pm) Tuesday – Sunday, and the entrance fee is only 200 yen for adults and 50 yen for junior high and elementary school students! During the peak tourist seasons (usually starts around March or April), the entrance fee is about 500 yen for adults and about 250 yen for students of high school years and up!

2. Okochi Sanso

 

This is the only garden on this list located outside of the greater Tokyo area. All the way down in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, Okochi Sanso (Okochi Mountain Villa) is the former Kyoto residence of the famous Japanese actor Denjiro Okochi. He became very popular for his sword-fighting roles in Japanese jidaigeki (period films) in the early days of cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. After launching his film career, Okochi spent several decades building a large garden estate up in the mountains on the west side of Kyoto. After his death in 1962, the garden was opened to the public and has been a popular destination since then. With its high mountain vantage point, this garden boasts some stunning views of Kyoto city as well as the Hozu River gorge. The garden itself contains some beautiful historic buildings and its own Japanese tea house where you can buy and enjoy some Japanese tea in the serene mountain atmosphere. There is even a small pavilion dedicated to and honoring Denjiro Okochi, his life, and his career where you can see pictures and videos of his work in early Japanese cinema. Add to all of that that the entrance is located deep inside the world-famous Arashiyama giant bamboo forest (one of my favorite places in all of Japan) and you have a garden well worth making the trip to Kyoto any time in the year.
Okochi Sanso is open 9:00 am – 5:00 pm and the entrance fee is 1000 yen for adults and 500 yen for Junior High School students and younger. It may sound a little bit expensive, but your ticket includes a free cup of tea and a sweet treat at the tea house!

3. Sankeien

 

 

This is the place on my list that I visit the most, and not just because it is the garden that I live the closest to. I have even started making a tradition of going to this garden on my birthday, I love it so much. Sankeien, located in Yokohama, was created by Tomitaro “Sankei” Hara, a wealthy businessman in the silk trade. The garden was opened to the public in 1906 and functioned as both a public site and the sectioned-off residence for Hara and his family. Hara spent decades designing and cultivating the garden and went to great lengths to acquire, relocate, and restore endangered or damaged historic buildings, such as Sankeien’s iconic three-storied pagoda originally built in Kyoto in 1457. He even used the garden as a place to house various artists including famous Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. If you are interested in the history, then check out the garden’s onsite museum which has information on the Hara family, art galleries, and even a green tea ceremony you can participate in for 500 yen. One of the reasons I love Sankeien is that it is one of the largest gardens I have visited at 175,000 square meters which includes a large central pond, 17 historic buildings (many of which you can actually walk through), and 2 different noodle shops. This garden also hosts seasonal events year-round including nighttime firefly viewing in the summer and New Year’s events January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in Kakushokaku (the former Hara family residence).

The garden is open 9:00 am – 5:00 pm and the entrance fee is 700 yen for adults and 200 yen for children, but if you are like me then you will spring for the 2500 yen unlimited annual pass and go as much as you want!

4. Imperial Palace East Garden

 

One really special garden located right in the heart of Chiyoda in Tokyo is the East Garden of the Imperial Palace.. This garden has by far the grandest entrance since it is actually inside the walls of the truly impressive Edo castle. You get to actually go through the towering doors of one of the most defensible structures ever built in Japan! The garden itself was first built in 1888 in the area formerly the innermost defense ring of the castle. This garden features many unique features like the large castle walls, original guardhouses and barracks, and the stone base of the largest wooden tower built in Japan (unfortunately it burned down in 1657 and was never rebuilt). There are many areas to explore the history of the castle as well as a large open garden perfect for picnicking or hanami parties. But my favorite area is the Ninomaru garden (pictured above) with the beautifully landscaped traditional Japanese garden and calming central pond.
The Imperial Palace East garden is the most difficult to access since it is closed on Mondays and Fridays and any other day that a special event is happening at the Imperial Palace. It is open from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm depending on the time of year. However, the best part of this garden is it is absolutely FREE to enter!

5. Rikugien

 

On the north side of Tokyo, just outside JR Komagome station, sits this walled-off paradise. Rikugien is a kaiyu-style (circuit-style) garden is named for and based on the 6 elements of Waka poetry. It was built in 1702 as a traditional Edo period garden and was later used as the residence for the founder of the Mitsubishi company. It was donated to the city of Tokyo in 1938 and opened to the public. This garden features a truly spectacular weeping cherry tree that is covered in pink cherry blossoms in late March – early April. It has many winding paths of expanding circles through the dense foliage and includes manmade hill 35m high that offers a breathtaking view of the garden (pictured above). There is also a tea house where you can purchase a nice cup of Japanese tea and relax on tatami mat floors.
Rikugien Garden is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm and the entry fee is a very affordable 300 yen for adults (free for junior and elementary school students).

6. Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

Located just north of the Imperial Palace, near Iidabashi and Tokyo Dome City, this garden is one of the oldest traditional Japanese gardens in Tokyo. Its construction began in 1629 in the very early Edo period and was built with the advice and assistance of a Chinese scholar. So this garden combines traditional elements from China and Japan for a truly spectacular look. It was later opened up to the public in 1938. Walking thru this garden really feels like stepping back into the Edo period. You can imagine feudal lords and visiting nobles strolling peacefully around the large central pond. It is a great place to unwind and escape the nearby intense baseball fans and explore the dense and diverse foliage, incredible in any season. The small groves of cherry trees, plum trees, irises, and more can be enjoyed from the small manmade hilltop viewpoints to let you really take in the timeless beauty.

Koishikawa Korakuen is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm and it is easily worth the 300 yen entrance fee (younger students get in for free).

Which One of These Gardens in Japan Did You Think was the Best?

Have you been to any of our garden recommendations in Japan? Which did you think were the best? What are your favorite Japanese gardens that did not make it on my list that you think should be included among the best of the best in Japan? Let us know!
I wish you a relaxing and peaceful time in Japan’s best beautiful gardens. Deep, cleansing breaths, everyone.

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