Our Favorite Gardens in Tokyo & Kyoto
Japanese gardens are a major part of the country’s culture, and a huge draw for tourists. Although the style has been replicated throughout the world, nothing can come close to the splendor and tranquility of the authentic landscapes in the original setting. Traditional gardens remain an excellent avenue into exploring and understanding Japanese aesthetics and attention to detail.
Here are a few of our favorite gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto, all easily added to a Japan Custom Journey with The Art of Travel.
Kiyosumi Teien Garden
Located in the southeast corner of the city is this pleasant landscape surrounding a central lake. After centuries of ownership by a variety of businessmen and feudal lords, the garden's current layout was finalized by the founder of the famous electronics company Mitsubishi and opened to the public in 1932. Not as large as some other Tokyo strolling gardens, the pathway around the lake offers excellent views of the water and takes you over some precarious stepping stones and bridges made from massive rock slabs. Particularly impressive are the large amount of animals living in this park, a great mixture of turtles, birds, and fish. Kiyosumi manages to remain one of the more quieter gardens in Tokyo.
Hama Rikyu Garden
One of the most well known gardens in Tokyo is also one of the largest. This large swatch of land has been used over the centuries by feudal lords and nobility for a variety of activities. You can still see remnants of horse parade grounds and duck hunting equipment, but it's the fantastic contrast of soaring modern skyscrapers against the garden's low lying greenery that make this place special. The contrast is especially striking when the flower fields are in bloom near the main entrance gate in early spring. With a wide flat lake and expansive grass dotted with carefully trimmed pine trees, the broad open spaces feel liberating after spending a day in crowded Tokyo. Hama Rikyu is conveniently located right next to Tsukiji Market, and a walk over to see Hama Rikyu after a sushi breakfast at Tsukuji is a necessity when you're in this part of town. If you happen to be staying in one of the overlooking hotels, you're in for a great view.
Perhaps the finest natural landscape in Tokyo is the massive Rikugien Garden. Within the walls of this nature preserve are 88 special pieces of scenery created by gardeners to evoke 88 specific famous lines of poetry. You can easily spend a few hours here exploring the various sidepaths through forested hills and glens. The pond in the center is small compared to the overall size of the garden, but feels totally different when viewed from varying angles. Climb up to the top of the hill overlooking the water for a unique view of the peaceful garden. In a shady corner along the southern edge of the grounds is a superb waterfall scene. Scattered rocks are given a sense of motion with their surfaces twisted into unique shapes by the flowing water. There's even a small teahouse near a rustic wooden bridge where you can stop for tea and snacks overlooking the water. Rikugien is by fast the standout garden in Tokyo for its wonderful attention to design detail that lets you appreciate the garden both as a whole and as individual landscape pieces.
This is a wonderful landscape that stands out from the rest of Kyoto's gardens in a number of ways. Created in the late 1800s, it has some modern touches that made it unique for its time. A stream snakes through the landscape, and the glimpses of flowing water between lightly rolling hills creates a wonderful sense of depth as you gaze out at the garden. The water is provided by an underground canal running from Lake Biwako, Japan's largest body of water, located on the other side of the mountains that frame the view from the garden. This impressive engineering feat (for the 1880s), coupled with inspiration from the lawns and open spaces of English gardens, made for a revolutionary landscape that broke away from traditional garden design. Murin-an is still not visited often by tourists, but is a must-see when touring the eastern Higashiyama foothills.
Daitokuji Zen Temple Complex
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Daitokuji houses the finest collection of Zen gardens in the world. The complex is made up of 23 temples each with their own landscapes, but only a handful are ever open for viewing. Appreciating the 3 or 4 gardens that are usually accessible is a fantastic experience, but it is essential that you visit these temples with a guide. The level of detail in the landscapes - and the temples themselves - is incredibly high and requires a trained eye to fully understand. Luckily, our resident tea expert hosts guests in his home nearby and is happy to escort you through the temple complex before enjoying a tea ceremony. There's a palpable feeling of wabi-sabi in the air as you explore the aged temples and crumbling garden walls in Daitokuji. An essential must-see spot for Zen garden lovers.
Kyoto - Rengeji Temple
If you're looking for a garden with an aura of removed secrecy, it's Rengeji. This one if out of the way, on the far north rim of the city, only accessible by car or the local Eizan train line. There's a good chance you'll be the only visitor here as you admire the garden from the temple's open porch. The pond here is spectacular. The water is crystal clear and shallow, giving you a good look at the various fish of all different size swimming about. Massive black carp shelter in the shade of the rocks, while tiny orange guppies flutter about at the surface. This is one landscape that is easy to get lost in and stare at for an extended period of time, contemplating the rock arrangements, and the contrasting elements of water and leaves.
Kyoto - Gio-ji Moss Garden
Many Kyoto visitors yearn to visit the expansive grounds of Koekdera, the famous moss temple in the western foothills. However, a wonderful mossy alternative exists on the backroads of Arashiyama. Gio-ji is tiny, but provides one of the best moss landscapes in Japan, and has an engaging - if tragic - backstory as well. The change of seasons is particularly noticeable at Gio-ji. The rustling canopy of green maple leaves turns orange and red in fall, and the falling leaves make for a colorful speckled carpet of moss. This is a perfect spot to experience komorebi, the uniquely Japanese concept of sunlight and shadow filtering through branches onto the ground. The shifting light through the trees makes any time of day excellent for pictures here. A peaceful addition to a tour through Arashiyama after the bamboo forest.