Travelers can’t get enough of Japan’s scenery! Most of the archipelago experiences all four seasons, and there’s no better way to enjoy them than in a traditional Japanese garden. Beyond carefully pruned seasonal flowers and evergreen trees, gardens in Japan harness elements such as ponds, bridges, and stone lanterns to create remarkable sights. It can be tough to choose which one to visit, so here are our top ten gardens to help you get started!
Along with Korakuen in Okayama and Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen is one of the three most beautiful Japanese gardens in the country. According to Chinese theory, a proper garden should represent six essential attributes: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water, and broad views. As you can imagine, this is no easy task, but Kenrokuen meets all of these standards.
Strolling through the pathways, you’ll discover bridges, waterfalls, and teahouses typical of traditional Japanese aesthetics. From mid-February to early March, plum blossoms bloom right before the cherry blossom season in April. Other varieties of flowers grow in summer, and in the fall it’s a great place to see Japan’s autumn leaves. In winter, fresh snow blankets the grounds making Kenrokuen an incredible destination any time of year!
If you want to take a day trip from Tokyo, don't pass up on the chance to see Ashikaga Flower Park. The seasonal flower displays of hydrangeas, pansies, tulips, and water lilies are all worth seeing. Walking through the grounds, you’ll also come across restaurants and shops selling plants and local goods.
The park is distinguished for its one-hundred-year-old wisteria tree that's so massive a wood trellis has to hold up its branches. It faithfully blooms every May, drawing visitors from all over the world. In winter, the park puts on a light display using hundreds of thousands of twinkling LED bulbs. They shimmer from shrubs, along walkways, and dangle from latices to recreate what the park looks like in other seasons.
Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu built it as his retirement villa, and according to his will, it became a temple when he died in 1408. Gold leaf covers the top two floors, which shimmer in the reflective water below. Visitors can stop for a photo-op across the pond before continuing through the rest of the grounds.
Along the trails, you’ll pass by Kinkakuji before reaching the gardens, which retain Yoshimitsu’s 15th-century designs. Points of interest include the Anmintaku Pond that never dries up and statues you can throw coins at for good luck. Near the exit, you’ll see a small Japanese tea garden where you can indulge in a cup of matcha and traditional sweets.
Kyoto’s astonishingly beautiful Arashiyama district permeates nostalgia with its machiya townhouses, expansive rice fields, and classic architecture. Tenryuji Temple is a World Heritage Site and a significant place of worship for Rinzai-Zen Buddhists. After exploring the buildings and memorial hall dedicated to Emperor Go-Daigo, you’ll head to the right of the exit to pass through the temple’s two gardens.
The zen garden is on one side of Tenryuji’s Main Hall. Zen rock gardens exemplify the simplicity and elegance that are characteristic of Japanese gardens with raked gravel and stones. On the other side of the Main Hall, you’ll see Japanese-style landscaping that employs a central pond, rocks, and pine trees. In autumn, the surrounding Arashiyama Mountain comes alive when the Japanese maples turn red and orange.
Kokoen is a complex of nine types of Japanese gardens to the west of Himeji Castle, which opened in 1992. Although it’s a recent addition, it follows Japanese garden design principles from the Edo period. The buildings and backdrops are so authentic, television shows and movies set in the past often film here.
Among the different areas, you can see a tea garden, a water garden, an evergreen garden, a bamboo garden, and a flower garden. Throughout the seasons, Kokoen offers diverse views of colorful petals, emerald trees, and fiery autumn leaves. Himeji Castle is also one of the best places in Japan to see cherry blossoms. As part of the celebrations, you can participate in a tea ceremony and watch Japanese court music recitals.
Adjacent to Nara Deer Park, Isuien has two Edo period gardens. The first area you'll see dates back to the 17th century. A wealthy textile merchant commissioned the rear garden in 1899. There are tea houses scattered throughout the grounds and a small museum that displays ancient Chinese and Korean artifacts.
Isuien is famous for using the Japanese garden concept of “borrowed scenery.” From the grounds, you can catch fantastic views of Wakakusayama Mountain and Todaiji Temple’s Nandaimon Gate. During spring and fall, Isuien’s cherry blossom and maple trees turn magnificent hues. Both seasons are splendid times of year to visit Isuien, but it’s still worth a trip in summer and winter as well.
Built in 1677, Genkyuen was the lord of Hikone Castle’s garden. During the feudal era, it was common for nobles to entertain guests in landscaped gardens on their estates. Taking inspiration from Tang dynasty design elements, Genkyuen features a circular walking path around a central pond. Four small islands dot the water with bridges connecting them.
From September to November, Genkyuen holds two nighttime festivals. In September and October, soft lanterns glow along the strolling paths, and you can listen to the gentle buzzing of insects. From mid to late November, spotlights illuminate the autumn leaves showing their brilliant colors against the dimly lit grounds.
Founder Adachi Zenko created this museum in hopes of expanding the world’s interest in Japanese art combined with his belief that “the garden is also a picture.” The six award-winning gardens that surround the museum total in 165,000 square meters, and you can only see them by entering the building first. They include the dry landscape garden, the moss garden, the white gravel and pine garden, the pond garden, and the Kikaku waterfall.
The Adachi Museum of Art holds temporary exhibitions that complement the changing seasons. Throughout the year, you can see flowers, autumn leaves, and freshly fallen snow. The permanent exhibition is dedicated to twentieth-century Nihonga paintings by Yokoyama Taikan.
Feudal lord Ikeda Tsunamasa ordered Korakuen’s construction in 1687 to create a place where he could entertain guests. Over the centuries, floods and war destroyed the property, but thanks to meticulously kept records, it looks the same as it did upon its completion in 1700. Standard to Japanese gardens, it has a central pond and walking paths, but it’s unique for its expansive lawns and view of Okayama Castle.
In early spring, the white petals of plum blossoms pop out before the blooming sakura trees in April. In autumn, you can also watch the leaves change colors. Visitors can rent audio tours to guide them through the winding paths, or slowly stroll and reflect on the natural beauty.
Fans of the spacious Ritsurin Koen Park often argue that it deserves a spot on the list of the “three most beautiful gardens in Japan.” As you wander through ponds, hills, trees, and pavilions, you might agree. Inside the park, you can also enjoy facilities like rest houses, shops, and a folk museum. For additional fees, you can ride in traditional boats on the ponds, or take a break at the Kikugetsu-tei tea house.
Ritsurin Koen Park’s ever-changing scenery is breathtaking any time of year. Japanese people say that the garden is a place where you can see “ippo ikkei,” meaning that it transforms with every step. You can enter Ritsurin Koen Park any day of the week, as it doesn’t close for holidays, but the opening hours change according to the seasons.