Houkokuji Temple1/7
Photo: Benny Marty/DreamstimeHoukokuji Temple
Hamarikyu Garden2/7
Photo: Bennymarty/Dreamstime
Shinjuku Gyoen3/7
Photo: Ekaterina Spiridonova/DreamstimeShinjuku Gyoen
Shinjuku Gyoen4/7
Photo: Voyata/DreamstimeShinjuku Gyoen
Rikugien5/7
Photo: Crisfotolux/DreamstimeRikugien
Houkokuji Temple6/7
Photo: Vanessa Johl/DreamstimeHoukokuji Temple
Shinjuku Gyoen7/7
Photo: Shbs/Pixabay | Shinjuku Gyoen

Best Japanese gardens in Tokyo

Japanese landscape gardens don't just showcase seasonal beauty; they also seek to recreate an idealised version of nature

By Emma Steen
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Garden design is an important Japanese art form with an intricate history partially rooted in Zen Buddhism. Elements such as ponds and stones represent both physical aspects of the Earth and abstract concepts relating to spirituality, whereas tea houses and stone water bowls add a scenic component to the space, making it more hospitable to guests. Over time, Japanese gardens have evolved to serve different purposes, but the traditional concept of combining the elements of stone, water, foliage and man-made features have remained an integral part of creating these unique havens for finding solitude and admiring the four seasons.

Due to the asymmetry and meticulous approach to each garden’s design, no two are alike – which is apt given that they are also intended to reflect the transient nature of the changing seasons. Here are some of the most celebrated Japanese landscape gardens in Tokyo, which offer particularly fine examples of all the elements that make up a traditional nihon teien (Japanese garden).

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Hamarikyu Garden
Hamarikyu Garden
Photo: Bennymarty/Dreamstime

Hamarikyu Garden

Attractions Parks and gardens Shiodome

Hamarikyu stands out from other gardens in Tokyo in that it isn’t known for its weeping cherry blossom or maple foliage, but its bright pink plum trees that blossom in late winter. This tranquil garden, once a hunting ground for the Tokugawa shogunate, now cowers in the shadow of the Shiodome development.

The garden’s main appeal lies in the abundance of water in and around it and the fact that it feels deceptively spacious, thanks to beautiful landscaping. Situated on an island, it is surrounded by an ancient walled moat with only one entrance, over the Minamimon Bridge (it’s also possible to reach Hamarikyu by boat from Asakusa). The focal points are the huge pond, which contains two islands (one with a teahouse) connected to the shore by charming wooden bridges, and a photogenic 300-year-old pine tree.

Shinjuku Gyoen
Shinjuku Gyoen
Photo: Voyata/Dreamstime

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Things to do Shinjuku-Sanchome

Famous for its appearance in Makoto Shinkai’s hit anime ‘The Garden of Words’, the expansive Shinjuku Gyoen was originally a private estate before opening to the public in 1946. It boasts some of the most beautiful gardens in the city. Each sector in the park has a different theme – there is a French garden, an English landscape garden, a botanical greenhouse and amomiji-yama (maple mountain) – to showcase each of the four seasons. As such, the park offers a different experience as the season changes, but it’s especially popular for hanami (flower viewing) gatherings during cherry blossom season.

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Rikugien Japanese garden
Rikugien Japanese garden
Photo: Crisfotolux/Dreamstime

Rikugien

Attractions Parks and gardens Komagome

While Rikugien is located in the metropolitan area of Bunkyo, the garden concealed behind the walls feels miles away from the bustling city. Rikugien gets especially popular in spring as crowds flock to the glorious weeping cherry tree, which is lit up after dark. Autumn is just as scenic due to the abundance of blushing maple trees. Nevertheless, permanent highlights to be enjoyed year-round include the Fukiage Chaya tea house, where you can sip on a cup of matcha for ¥620.

Japanese gardens
Japanese gardens
Photo: Travelling-light/Dreamstime

Kiyosumi Garden

Attractions Parks and gardens Kiyosumi

Characterised by its large pond, Kiyosumi Teien features footpaths that were designed to take you on a walk through the garden’s waterscape, which is alive with glittering koi fish, turtles and birds. As beautiful as the boulders of Kiyosumi Teien are, their placement around the garden and its three islands are no coincidence. Shipping financer and Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro used his steam ships to collect beautiful stones from all around Japan and decorated the garden with them. Large stepping stones called isowatari are placed in the shallower parts of the pond where you can admire the trees’ reflections across the water, something that makes the garden unique.

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Houkokuji Temple, bamboo garden
Houkokuji Temple, bamboo garden
Photo: Benny Marty/Dreamstime

Houkokuji

Attractions Religious buildings and sites Kamakura

While a little out of the way, Kamakura is worth the hour-long train journey fromTokyo for its historical shrines and temples. Houkokuji Temple, in particular, is known for its small but beautiful bamboo grove where you can enjoy a cup of matcha with Japanese sweets (¥600). As you enter the forest, you’ll see three shallow caves that are said to be the resting place of notable Kamakura priests and samurai including Ietoki and Yoshihisa Ashikaga. The path leading up to the temple takes you through a zen stone garden famed for its karensui (dry landscape) with intricately raked gravel.

Tonogayato Garden
Tonogayato Garden
Photo: Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association

Tonogayato Garden

Things to do Kokubunji

Spring is the best time to walk through a bamboo grove and the forest at Tonogayato Garden is so lush that it’s a designated cultural asset of Tokyo. This garden in Kokubunji has a storied noble history: it was established between 1913 and 1915 on the grounds of a villa built for the vice president of the Manchurian railway, Eguchi Teijo, and was later purchased by the founder of Mitsubishi, Iwasaki Yataro, in 1929, who added a tea house to the premises. Tonogayato’s beauty lies in the diversity of its landscape, which features a waterfall leading to a natural spring. 

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Japanese garden
Japanese garden
Photo: chikumo3/photo-ac

Koishikawa Korakuen

Things to do Suidobashi

Despite being right next to the amusement park of Tokyo Dome City, Koishikawa Korakuen feels so peaceful that you almost forget that you're in the centre of a metropolis. The garden was first laid out in 1629. It’s now only a quarter of its original size, but it’s still beautiful, with a range of walks, bridges, hills and vistas (often the miniatures of more famous originals) that encourage quiet contemplation. 

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