Garden design is an important part of Japanese culture, an art form that has been cultivated for more than 1,000 years. While it’s not possible to visit Japan at the moment, it’s good to plan. Here, Janine Kelso looks at five of the best gardens to visit around the country
Japan’s glorious gardens use ponds, streams, stones, hills and islands to resemble natural scenery and provide a place of serenity. They can be found all over the country, but Kyoto is particularly famous for its abundance of dazzling gardens. Meanwhile, the Three Great Gardens of Japan – Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Korakuen in Okayama and Kairakuen in Mito – encompass setsugekka, meaning snow, moon and flowers.
Step into a bygone age at the dreamy Korakuen Garden, which dates back to 1700. The exquisite garden is dotted with carp-filled ponds, waterfalls, bridges, teahouses, shrines, manicured lawns and cherry trees. See red-crowned cranes in the crane aviary and climb up Yuishinzan Hill for panoramic views over the huge pond Sawa-no-ike. Visit during summer nights to see the trees and flowers artfully lit by bamboo lanterns. Towering over the gardens is the grand Okayama Castle, known as ‘crow castle’ thanks to its black façade. Inside the castle, visitors can get crafty with pottery workshops, or dress up as a feudal lord or princess. One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Korakuen is a 25-minute walk from Okayama Station.
Find tranquillity in the scenic bamboo grove and cedar woods of Kairakuen Garden in Ibaraki Prefecture. Built by feudal lord Tokugawa Nariaki in 1842 to inspire a sense of calm, the gardens were originally designed for military students to recharge their batteries after an exhausting day of training. Filled with more than 3,000 plum trees of 100 different varieties, the garden comes alive with plum blossoms in early spring. Visit during the annual Mito Plum Blossom Festival (mid-February to late-March) to enjoy magical illuminations at night, plum wine events, tea ceremonies and traditional music concerts.
An art gallery with an eye-popping garden, Adachi Museum of Art is a must-visit attraction during any Shimane Prefecture itinerary. Voted the best garden in Japan since 2003, the photogenic space has been described as a “living framed painting”. The museum was founded in 1970 by Adachi Zenko, who had a passion for gardens and Japanese art, and devoted himself to gardening until his death at the age of 91. Dramatically backed by mountains, the 165,000 square metre gardens are stunning year-round: visit in winter to see it blanketed in snow; autumn for its patchwork of red and brown shades; and spring for its lush lawn. The gardens can only be viewed from the museum building, which also merits exploration for its permanent exhibit of masterpieces by big-name Japanese artist Yokoyama Taikan.
Another of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Kenrokuen Garden in Kenazawa is an idyllic landscape garden, perfected over hundreds of years by the Maeda family. Prepare to be wowed by tumbling waterfalls, ponds, trees, flowers, pavilions and teahouses. Iconic architectural gems include the two-legged Kotojitoro lantern, and Seisonkaku, a beautifully preserved samurai villa. Most Japanese gardens seek to encompass six qualities, including spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways and panoramas. Kenrokuen literally means ‘garden that combines six characteristics’, which means it’s got the whole shebang. Open 365 days a year, it is worth exploring year-round: admire the cherry blossom in spring during the sakura season; visit at sunset during the summer to see fireflies magically illuminating the water features; during autumn trees are dramatically lit with a spectacular light display; winter sees the garden covered in snow.
One of Kyoto’s star attractions, this iconic temple and gardens are a Unesco World Heritage site. The temple was converted from an aristocrat’s villa to a Zen temple in 1450, but mystery swirls around the Rock Garden as its creator is unknown. Created between the 14th and 16th centuries, the reflective garden features 15 stones on white sand spread across 248 square metres. The rocks are arranged so that there is always one rock that can’t be seen. Some believe that that they symbolise a tiger and her cubs crossing a river, while others think they represent islands or mountains.