Garden design is an important Japanese art form that has been refined for more than 1000 years. Gardens to see and visit in Japan have evolved into a variety of styles with different purposes, including stroll gardens for Edo Period lords, dry stone gardens for religious use by Zen Buddhist monks and, in the 21st century, the beautiful and ecological Tokachi Millennium Forest.
"Nearly every country in the world has a Japanese garden, a testament to the enduring legacy of Japan's huge influence on the way we garden. They are gardens that seem effortless and natural, and yet all is carefully positioned and managed so that we will experience plants, stone and water exactly as the garden maker intended."
Garden Travel Guide to Japan
More than any garden style, the Japanese garden aesthetic has been copied in other countries and many of the elements of Japanese design can be found incorporated in other garden styles. Because of a reverence for the meaning and importance of gardens many significant gardens are maintained and preserved and great gardens can be found throughout Japan, particularly in the former capital of Kyōto.
Getting to/from/around Japan
Japan is a 10 hour (usually overnight) flight from Australian cities, just over 11 hours from Los Angeles and a 12 hour flight from London.
Japan has very efficient internal rail transport, from the extensive and easy-to-use Tokyo Metro with trains every few minutes to the super fast intercity bullet trains (shinkansen). Shinkansen trains will vary on the time between cities depending on how many stops they make. They leave so punctually you can set your watch by them.
You can buy a pre-paid IC ‘tap-on tap-off’ card that covers travel on local trains and buses and, unlike the annoyingly local card systems in many other countries, it will be usable in several different cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nagoya and Fukuoka. The Tokyo Metro has free wi-fi. Many of the stations are so big, with attached shopping malls and dining areas that you can get lost in them, so keep track of where you are! And make sure you stand within the queue lines when you are waiting for the train.
Geography and population of Japan
Japan is an island chain of four main islands and thousands of smaller surrounding ones.
The Japanese islands are covered by mountains, most of them heavily forested, and crisscrossed by short, swift rivers. Only a few of the rivers are navigable. And only about 15% of Japan is suitable for agriculture and this land is also where its 125 million population lives, so the populated areas are very concentrated while the remainder is very sparsely populated.
A significant feature of the Japanese landscape is the volcanic and earthquake activity because of Japan’s position on the fault line that circles the Pacific Ocean, and the mountains of Japan contain 10% of the world’s most active volcanoes. Mt. Fuji, or Fujiyama, Japan’s most famous mountain and one of its most beautiful and revered, is a dormant volcano, which last erupted in 1707. Tidal waves called tsunamis occasionally result from undersea earthquakes,
The Japanese are so enamoured by the beauty and richness of their land that the dangers of volcanic activity become secondary and life develops ways of dealing with it.
Climate of Japan
Although the geology is difficult, the climate is much more moderate in most of the populated areas.
The Japanese islands stretch from north to south in latitudes similar to those of the eastern United States, from about 45 degrees north to about 25 degrees north. Tokyo is about the same latitude as Washington.
Summers can be quite warm, especially on the east coast, with Tokyo having a summer daily range from about 23C overnight to 29C which is not very different from Okinawa in the far south. Most of the country has a temperate climate heavily influenced by closeness to the sea. Ocean currents keep the eastern coast warm and currents from the north make the west coast cooler but, in the far south, Okinawa is almost tropical with the daytime temperatures rarely dropping below 20C, even in winter.
The winds act in the same way and cold winds from the north Asia blow over the Sea of Japan, dumping deep, heavy snow on the north and western coasts of Japan. There is a big difference between winters on the coast facing the Sea of Japan, where people often have to tunnel under the snow to move around, and the clear, crisp winters on the eastern shore, with little or no snow, and little winter rain. Tokyo has a winter daily range of about 2C to 10C but Sapporo in Hokkaido has a winter range of only -8C to -1C.
Most parts of Japan have a rainy season called tsuyu (or baiyu), literally meaning “plum rain” because it coincides with the season of plums ripening. In most of Japan, the rainy season lasts from the beginning of June to mid July, although it reaches the islands of Okinawa about one month earlier. The rainy season is followed by a hot summer. Japan’s northern most main island of Hokkaido is the only area not to be affected significantly by the rainy season. The main islands can also be affected by typhoons in September as they move north from the South Pacific.
When to Visit Japan
During the rainy season it does not rain every day, and also varies from days with heavy downpours to other days with occasional sprinkles. Nevertheless, the rainy season is not the most suitable season for visiting Japan, even though it can have its advantages. For example, travel activity is rather low during June, which clears many popular outdoor attractions from the many visitors that are usually present at nearly any other time of year.
After the rainy season the summer months can be hot and humid so many visitors will find October and November as one of the best times to visit Japan, as the weather is relatively dry and mild, and the autumn colours are spectacular in many parts of the country. Travel activity tends to be low, except around popular autumn colour viewing spots. Besides November, April is often considered the best time to visit Japan because the cherry blossoms are in full bloom in most regions of the country and the weather is mild.
Vegetation of Japan
Japan is a mountainous country with few narrow coastal plains and the major vegetation types are associated with the mountains, which are covered with forests due to the heavy rainfall. The north has temperate forests while the central and southern mountains and valleys support subtropical forests. There is a variety of forest types from north to south, including broadleaf evergreen, broadleaf deciduous, and coniferous evergreen woodlands. The common species of trees are Akamastu (Japanese red pine), Hinoki (Japanese cirrus), and Sugi (Japanese cedar). A dramatic change in vegetation can also be observed with altitude changes from coastal areas to high mountainous zones.
Japan’s forests tend to be very region specific because of its many isolated areas and separate mountainous regions. Japan also experienced a temporary invasion of foreign species from other continents during the fourth period of the Ice Age when a land bridge connected with the Asian continent.
Garden Styles of Japan
More than any other garden style, Japanese gardens are popular and copied all around the world, with most garden-loving countries boasting dozens of ‘Japanese’ gardens featuring granite lanterns, red bridges, a bamboo shishi odoshi, carefully pruned conifers and maples, and zig-zag stone and timber paths. However true Japanese garden style is more varied.
Although Japanese garden making has been heavily influenced by Chinese design, it has developed its own serenity and stillness which set it apart. Above all, traditional Japanese gardens seek to comprehend rather than mimic the essence of nature, bringing each symbolic element of rock, water and plant together into a pleasing composition. In many ways it is more the opposite of Europe’s symmetrical formal gardens than is a wild garden.
The publicly open gardens of Japan are mostly those associated with temples or palaces, being some of the few places able to devote large areas to gardens in its densely populated areas. These gardens are mostly in 3 different styles however they also have elements in common – they need to be discovered and can rarely all be seen from one viewpoint, they celebrate natural materials like stone, timber, bamboo and plants,
Paradise gardens often have a pavilion surrounded by lotus ponds and are symbolic of the bliss awaiting in the next world, such as the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) garden.
Zen gardens extract the essential nature of elements and then present them as abstract shapes, rhythms and textures, often almost monochromatically, so that they look like an ink painting. Or they can demonstrate a particular Zen Buddhist concept with a restraint that gives the viewer scope for imagination and meditation. Good examples are the gardens of Daisen-in and Ryoan-ji.
Tea gardens date mostly from the 16th century when the practice of making and drinking tea became an art form. Each tea garden has a small pavilion or hut where the tea was prepared. While these gardens have a rustic-style charm from the use of natural elements like stone, bamboo and timber they are always carefully swept and tended although not to the extremes that Westerners tend to prefer – the Japanese like to keep a hint of naturalism. Guests make a specially designed journey along a stepping-stone path (chaniwa) to the tea house.
The path often turns unexpectedly, forcing the guest to concentrate on the ‘now’ and mentally leave behind the outside world, becoming quieter and more serene. A simple water bowl is often positioned along the path. Examples of tea gardens can be seen at Omote Senke in Kyoto.
Individual families rarely have a garden, mostly living in apartments or tiny houses that open almost directly on to the street. In many streets there is a small 500mm space between the front wall and the street itself which is sometimes given over to vending machines but is as often overflowing with potted plants, creating a surprisingly lush and green urban environment.
Japan’s public parks are well kept and exhibit many of the same traditional garden design philosophies, but interpreted with a modern aesthetic and materials, like cast concrete.
Garden Tours to Japan
Land-based garden tours to Japan typically visit the main island of Honshu, visiting gardens in Tokyo, Kyōto, Nara and also Okayama, Hameji and Nagoya, and Kanazawa on the northern coast. Most of the gardens are historical gardens surrounding palaces, castle and temples, including stroll gardens, tea gardens and Zen gardens. All these Honshu locations are easily linked by fast (bullet) train.
Japan garden cruises will have a series of visits to coastal towns with famous gardens such as Kanazawa, Matsue, Nagasaki, Okayama and Hiroshima as well as some of the smaller islands like Shikoku, Yakushima, Dejima and Uwajima. Many Japan cruises include visits to Pusan in South Korea.
Most garden tours to Japan are during either the peak cherry blossom season of early April, or from late October to mid-November to experience the wonderful autumn/fall foliage, especially from Japan’s many maple trees.
Tour companies that take garden tours to Japan include ASA Cultural Tours, Opulent Journeys and Ross Tours from Australia.
Best open gardens to see in Japan
Japan gardens regularly open with FREE entry
There are around 200 regularly open gardens throughout Japan, with many of the older garden around Kyoto. Most open gardens are associated with palaces or temples, and very few tea house gardens are open to the public.
Best open gardens, Honshu, free entry
• Kokyo Higashi Gyoen – the garden of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo dates from 1968, making it a modern interpretation of Japanese garden style, with perfectly manicured shrubs, clipped conifers and spreading cherry trees.
• Keisei Rose Garden and Nursery – 3 hectares of beautifully-designed rose gardens with over 1,600 varieties. Chiba-Ken (Tokyo eastern outskirts)
• Hotel Akao Herb and Rose Garden – 15 hectare rose garden with 9 themed gardens and spring cherry blossom. Atami (south of Tokyo, near Mt Fuji)
Cherry blossom (sakura) viewing (called o-hanami) is one of Japan’s most beloved traditions.
The viewing season begins in late March in the warmer areas and concludes in May in the more northerly zones. Many prime hanami spots are staked out days before, with plastic sheets spread across the ground ready for cherry blossom fans to lie down and look up through the beautiful trees and occasionally see the flutter as the blossom begins to fall. Many parks have markets with festival food stalls (yatai) where you can buy snacks and drinks.
Hot spots for cherry blossom viewing are:
• Ueno Park, Tokyo
• Hirosaki Castle Park – one of Japan’s best cherry blossom viewing places, with night lighting and also viewing opportunities from hired boats on the castle moat. Late April-early May
• Osaka Castle Park – home to 4,000 cherry trees. Late March-early April
Uzuzumi Zakura, Gifu – see one of Japan’s most ancient cherry trees, believed to be about 1,500 years old. Early to mid April.
• Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa – sit beneath clouds of cherry blossom in this fabulous outdoor restaurant at one of Tokyo’s premier hotels.
Best open gardens to visit in Japan, PAID entry
NOTE – although most Japanese gardens are paid entry, most are very inexpensive, at around $2.50USD; $3-$4AUD and NZD; 1.75GBP; 2,40 euro.
Best open gardens to see, Honshu
Best gardens to visit in and around Tokyo
• Rikugien – an 18th century Tokyo stroll garden around a large lake built for an Edo-period shōgun that reproduces in miniature 88 scenes from 6 famous Japanese poems. Particularly beautiful for autumn/fall colour in November-December. 300 yen
• Sankeien – the best garden in the Greater Tokyo area, Yokohama’s Sankeien features a central pond and a variety of historic buildings moved there from across Japan.
• Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum, Koganei – an assortment of buildings showing a history of Japanese architecture up to the 20th century, with many of the houses surrounded by gardens typical of their architectural period.
• Ashikaga Flower Park, Tochigi-ken, Ashikaga-shi, Hasamachō (approximately 60km north of Tokyo) – home to one of the world’s biggest and oldest wisteria displays, the 150 year-old flowering wisteria spreads 100 square metres (1000sq ft) and has over 160,000 flower clusters. The park’s Great Wisteria Festival also features a white wisteria tunnel and the rare yellow kibana wisteria and runs from mid April to mid-May. It is lit at night for 3 weeks late April to mid May.
Best gardens to see in and around Kyōto
• Daisen-in – Kyōto’s famous dry landscape Zen garden surrounds the Daitoku-ji Temple. This sparse garden of rocks and gravel with symbolic rivers, sea and islands invites meditation.
• Kyōto Botanical Gardens – groves of cherry trees, ornamental lakes and lily ponds, flower beds, huge greenhouse. 200 yen
• Nijo Castle gardens – a 17th century castle of the Tokygawa shogunate, Nijo Castle has the Ninomaru Garden, a landscaped stroll garden with large pond surrounded by carefully placed rocks, plus many spring blossom and autumn foliage trees.
• Shoden-ji – another Zen temple garden, Shoden-ji in Kyōto combines a dry garden aesthetic with dark green clipped shrub mounds used instead of rocks set against a stark white wall, amid beautiful borrowed forest scenery.
• Katsura Imperial Villa – the strolling garden of the Katsura Imperial Villa in western Kyōto is one of the first and finest of its kind. Advance reservations are necessary to see the garden.
• Sanzen-in – featuring large areas of moss and a pond and beautiful waterfall, Sanzen-in in Kyōto is a Buddhist garden from the Edo period. Tightly clipped shrubs form a rhythm among delicate maples and Japanese stone lanterns and lots of of ‘hair’ moss.
• Tenryuji – a large temple in the Arashiyama district in Kyōto, with origins in the mid 14th century, although most surviving buildings are late 19th century. Garden designed by Muso Soseki with a large central pond and small hill, creating a ‘landscape in miniature’. Spectacular autumn/fall foliage from ginkgo, maple and zelkova set off against surrounding dark green pine trees.
• Kokedera – the moss covered garden of Kyōto’s Kokedera (Moss temple) is one of the country’s most celebrated. Advance reservations by mail and participation in a sutra copying session are required to see the garden.
• Ryōan-ji – Kyōto’s 16th century Ryoanji Temple is surrounded by a dry landscape garden of stone and gravel and is one of the most enigmatic and famous in Japan. Vast areas of raked gravel symbolise the void or emptiness necessary for true meditation. An early morning weekday visit will be less crowded.
• Daitokuji – Daitokuji Temple in Kyōto is the ultimate destination for those interested in Zen gardens. Consisting of nearly two dozen sub-temples, Daitokuji offers a large number and variety of excellent gardens.
• Byōdō-in – Byōdō-in in Kyōto is a monastery paradise garden called a ‘Pure Land Garden’ and dates from the Heian period in the 11th century. Its famous Amida or ‘Phoenix Hall’, built in the Chinese style, appears to float above the reflective pond in front of it.
• Ginkaku-ji – this mostly dry garden dating from the 15th century surrounds the Silver Pavilion at Jisho-ji in Kyōto, although it was never actually covered in silver. Built by a retired shōgun as a place of peace, contemplation and poetry, Ginkaku-ji has a special Moon Viewing Garden where moonlight is reflects off raked and mounded white gravel at particular times of the year. There is also an outer stroll garden.
• Kinkaku-ji – the reflection of the Golden Temple in its surrounding lake is one of Kyōto’s iconic sights. Built by a powerful 14th century shōgun to impress his Chinese trading partners, the garden is a stroll garden around the lake, with many beautifully-framed vistas of the pavilion backed by deep green conifers. The lake has 5 low-profile ‘turtle’ islands and a Dragon’s Gate Cascade.
Best open gardens to visit in Nara
• Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden, Nara – near the Kasuga Shrine complex, with a ‘poetry garden’ displaying plants mentioned in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of poems. Wisteria is a special feature in early May.
• Isuien Garden, Nara – this very beautiful stroll garden in two parts features several tea houses from which to admire the pond or the spectacular borrowed scenery so skilfully integrated into the garden’s design. Spring cherry blossom and maples in autumn.
• Yoshikien Garden, Nara, known for its moss garden, Yoshikien also has a tea ceremony garden and a garden surrounding a pond.
Best gardens to see in Central Honshu – Kanazawa and Nagoya
• Kenroku-en – built in Kanazawa for the enjoyment of the former feudal lords, Kenrokuen feels like a collection of multiple excellent gardens that include a variety of ponds, streams, hills, groves and flowers.
• Koraku-en – surrounding Okayama Castle, Korakuen dates from the 17th century and features a large central lake, several streams, lawns, maples, cherries, irises and immaculately pruned azaleas and pines. 300 yen
• Meiji-mura, Nagoya – preserved buildings from Japan’s Meiji Period (late 19th century) and more modern times, including those strongly influenced by western architects like the lobby of the Imperial Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Landscaped grounds.
Best gardens to see in western Honshu
• Adachi Museum of Art – designed to be viewed almost as a series of paintings through the Museum’s large windows, this is a meticulously maintained, 20th century garden near Matsue. The museum’s collection of Japanese paintings, displayed in other rooms so as not to compete with the garden, is also outstanding.
Best gardens to see in eastern Honshu – Mito
• Kairaku-en, Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture – designed in the 19th century as a private stroll garden around the Kobuntei villa. Features a special Plum Festival February-March
• Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens in Sapporo
• Hokkaido offers its famous Hokkaido Garden Path, which runs from Asahikawa to Furano and ends at the Tokachi Millenium Forest. Some of the gardens along the route are:
• Tokachi Millennium Forest (Tokachi Sennen-no Mori) – although most visitors to Japan rarely go beyond Honshu’s Tokyo-Kyoto route, the northern island of Hokkaido has become a significant garden destination in its own right due to the Tokachi Millennium Forest. Designed to allow visitors to connect with nature, farming and art, the TMF features a Forest Garden with many art installations, a produce ‘Farm’ Garden, and an award-winning landform-style Earth Garden and perennial Meadow Garden, both designed by British landscape designer Dan Pearson. There are also smaller designer gardens originally built for the 2012 Hokkaido Garden Show. A wide range of plants means there are wonderful sights from late April to early November. You can also hire a Segway to get about and dine in one of 3 restaurant/cafes. entry 1000Y
• Ueno Farm – an English-style garden in Asahikawa. Entry 550Y
• Manabe Garden – large conifer garden in Obihiro. Entry 800Y
• Shichiku Garden – 1.5 hectares of flower gardens in Obihiro, open April-November.
• Kaze-no Garden – the ‘Wind Garden’ around the Furano Prince Hotel and Resort, open April to October plus night openings June-August. A large perennial garden, entry 700Y.
• Kawachi Wisteria Garden, Kitakyushu – famous for its long and often photographed wisteria tunnel
• Joju-en in Suizenji Park, Kumamoto – this beautifully-maintained 17th century stroll garden around a traditional teahouse recreates in miniature the landscapes between Tokyo and Kyōto, including a reference to Mt Fuji. The entrance has two huge stone lanterns which dwarf visitors.
• Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki – a reconstructed Dutch town, home of the Japan Gardening World Cup
• Flower Park Kagoshima – subtropical and tropical plants, beautiful coastal walks and views
• Sengan-en, Kagoshima – a 10 hectare Edo-period stroll garden
• Ohori-Koen Garden in Fukuoka – large lake and stroll paths
• Chiran Samurai Residence Garden, Chiran – 17th century gardens of both topiary and dry garden style surrounding 7 preserved samurai houses.
• Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu – the ‘chestnut grove’ recreational garden of the former local lords dates from the early 17th century is one of the best stroll gardens in Japan and includes a tea house, lake and bridges and surrounding hills from which you can view the garden.
• Isamu Niguchi Museum in Mure-cho – features the basalt sculptures by Niguchi, a world-renown sculptor