Discover the Serene Beauty of Japan’s Most Gorgeous Gardens

Cherry trees, teahouses, and rock gardens abound.

BY DAYLE WOOD | Veranda

Garden design in Japan is a true and celebrated art form with many gardens throughout the country believed to be masterpieces of Japanese culture. Traditionally, a Japanese garden reflects harmony with nature and offers quiet spots for peace and meditation. Among the emblematic cherry trees, the gnarled Japanese pines, and sculpted shrubs, a miniature representation of the natural world takes shape for contemplation — rocks stand in for mountains, ponds become oceans, even the wavy lines raked into the gravel depict the movement of water. For centuries, simplicity and restraint have been the enduring aesthetic hallmarks and are what make these highly artistic and meticulous gardens of Japan so revered, and often emulated, to this day.

Japan’s garden are worth visiting year-round as the landscape evolves with the changing seasons. From the first flowering trees in spring that make way for the lush mosses that carpet the ground in the summer to the riotous burst of autumnal foliage soon quieted by snow that blankets the pines in winter. As the gardens transform throughout the year, we are reminded that, no matter the season, there is always beauty to behold in nature.

Whether pondering a serene kare-sansui dry landscape garden, taking in a roji tea garden, or exploring a vast kaiyū-shiki-teien strolling garden, there is a style of Japanese garden for everyone, and the sheer variety of unique landscapes across the country is sure to inspire landscaping ideas for your backyard. Read on for our eight must-visit gardens that will certainly be the highlight of any trip to Japan.

1

Kenroku-en

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With its intertwining ponds, plethora of ornamental plum and cherry trees, and landscape dotted with picturesque bridges and teahouses, Kenroku-en, or the Garden of Six Sublimities, in Kanazawa is often thought to be one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens.

Originally laid out in the Edo period as the grounds of the Kanazawa Castle, it embodies the six principles that the 11th-century Chinese poet Li Gefei believed to exemplify the perfect garden: antiquity, artifice, broad views, seclusion, spaciousness, and abundant water.

One noteworthy feature is the yukitsuri attached to the tops of the pine trees, a system of rope supports designed to maintain the trees’ shapes in winter, that are a sort of sculpture within the sublime setting.

2

Adachi Museum of Art

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Japanese industrialist Adachi Zenko founded the Adachi Museum of Art in the Shimane Prefecture in 1970 as a way to harmoniously present his passions for the traditions of Japanese art and gardens.

The sprawling landscape surrounding the museum, which houses over a thousand 20th-century works of art, consists of five immaculate and varied viewing gardens designed for looking and contemplation only.

Framed by the museum’s windows, the views of the gardens outside become magnificent artworks themselves. The White Gravel and Pine Garden, teeming with Japanese black pine, azaleas, boulders, white gravel, and even a 15-foot waterfall called Kikaku-no-taki, is a highlight.

3

Ryōan-ji

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Japan’s most famous kare-sansui, or rock garden, is Ryōan-ji in Kyoto that today serves as a place of meditation for the monks of the Myoshin-ji school of Zen Buddhism.

Enclosed by earthy clay walls, the garden is especially remarkable for its 15 moss-covered boulders that artfully punctuate the bed of white raked gravel. From any vantage point, only 14 of the boulders are visible at one time, an arrangement that reveals the significance of the number 15 in Buddhism as a symbol of achieving enlightenment.

4

Kairaku-en

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Celebrated for its collection of more than 3,000 plum trees, Kairaku-en is a popular destination in Mito during the early spring months when the forest is awakened with frothy pink and white blooms.

The 13-hectare garden, deemed one of Japan’s greats, was built by a feudal lord in 1841 for the enjoyment of the people. Beyond the show-stopping plum trees, there is much to explore. The grounds also include a bamboo grove, cedar woods, and the Kobuntei pavilion, a re-creation of a traditional feudal lord’s villa.

5

Katsura Rikyu

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Built as a residence for the imperial family outside of Kyoto in the 17th century, the Katsura Rikyu, or the Katsura Imperial Villa, is considered one of the finest examples of Japanese architecture and garden design.

It was originally conceived of as a roji, or tea gardencomplete with four elegant teahouses and winding stepping-stone paths designed for strolling. Situated throughout the landscape, amidst ornamental shrubs and sculpted pines, is a collection of stone lanterns and washbasinsall unique in design.

6

Tofuku-ji

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Japanese traditions meet modernism at Tofuku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple complex in Kyoto whose original 13th-century plans were transformed in 1939 by the garden designer Mirei Shigemori.

Today, three defined gardens coexist in the hojo, or the abbot’s quarters, and reflect Zen beliefs, from the dry garden’s checkered-gravel landscape with stately rock formations to the austere white-walled garden with a grid of azaleas pruned to recall the paddy fields of the local countryside.

The temple complex itself is especially renowned for its autumn season when the lush maple trees turn their fiery shades of red and orange.

7

Kinkaku-ji

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With its breathtaking sight overlooking a reflecting pond, the striking, gold-leafed pavilion at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto is the only remaining structure of the original 14th-century grounds.

Designed as a strolling garden for a retired shogun, a winding path leads around the perimeter of the pond, offering stunning views of the temple in the distance through exquisitely pruned pines and maples, as well as vistas of the 10 small islands dotting the water.

The pavilion itself is an impressive structure with each of its three stories representing a distinct style of architecture, from the Japanese Shinden style on the first floor, the Samurai’s Bukke style on the second, and the Chinese Zen Hall style on the third.

8

Koraku-en

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Located in Okayama, Koraku-en is a traditional promenade garden that has become internationally acclaimed as one of Japan’s most authentic gardens.

The construction of the garden, situated next to the Okayama Castle, began in 1687 as a place for leisure and entertainment for the local ruling family and was not opened to the public until 1884 at the end of the feudal era.

Today, with notable features such as a large pond, rambling streams, and masses of maples and flowering cherry trees, it is the expansive grass lawns, measuring over 2 hectares, that are most distinctive.

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