A Japanese garden is a living work of art, a place of exquisite natural beauty, arranged and guided by human artistry to afford moments of profound aesthetic pleasure. Like a sculpture, it presents new aspects and revelations as you change your perspective. Like a contemporary art installation, you are invited to move through it rather than simply looking at it from outside. A Japanese garden changes with every season, and even from week to week, as flowers bloom and fade, and in the fall as Japanese maples take on their fall colors.
This is a personal list of my favorites among Tokyo’s many delightful Japanese gardens.
Practical information: Most of the gardens charge admission of 150 to 500 yen (half that for seniors) and are typically open until 4:30 or 5:00 pm, with the last admission half an hour before closing. All are within a reasonable walk from a subway or commuter rail station. All the gardens supply colorful and informative English-language pamphlets. More information on the Tokyo city gardens is offered on their web site: http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/en/index.html
This charming Meiji-period (19th century) garden is kaiyu-style: a circuit around a central pond. The path affords many lovely views of the pond and its several islands, two accessible by stone bridges and two accessible only to the abundant wildlife. Iso-watari stepping stones are a particular pleasure of this garden. Additional features include an Iris garden (best seen in the latter part of June), a monument to Basho’s haiku about the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond, and a small grouping of Buddhist statues. The park also offers a number of large characteristic stones collected from all around Japan.
Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens
This lovely garden is also kaiyu-style, but from the early Edo period (17th century). In addition to a large central pond there are several smaller ponds with distinct characters. There are also shady wooded areas and groves, as well as modest hills that can be climbed. A spectacular Iris garden blooms in June. There are several small stone bridges, a Full-Moon bridge and a vermilion-colored wooden bridge.
This is a small but exquisite Edo period (17th century) kaiyu-style garden. Despite its modest size it offers varied vistas from several climbable hills, a tiny gorge you can walk through, and several islands accessed over small stone bridges. I found it a fully satisfactory experience.
This is a fairly large later Edo period (18th century) kaiyu-style garden. It offers many different environments and vistas intended to capture the many moods of Waka poetry. Visitors can rest or read in either of two charming tea houses, one of which was built of azalea wood in the pre-war Meiji era. A man-made hill affords a panoramic view, but there is also a network of forest paths leading to exceptionally beautiful wooden bridges. Highly recommended.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens
This is one of the largest gardens in Tokyo, really a park more than just a garden. It has a large pond with a kaiyu-style circuit, but also a long stream with a series of pavilions and smaller ponds along its length. The Shinjuku Gyoen even has a French-style garden, which is mildly interesting although not up to comparison with Parisien parks. Conveniently located near downtown Shinjuku, it can get crowded despite its size. It’s a delightful place even though it may seem a bit generic compared with other more intimate gardens.
This is the former family garden of the Tokugawa Shogun. It is much larger than any of the other municipal gardens and has many unique features:
- it is completely surrounded by the tidal water of Tokyo Bay, and has regular water taxi service as well as bridge access from the land,
- a 300-year-old pine tree is featured near the main entrance,
- there are two duck hunting sites, complete with blinds, and a memorial to the ducks killed there, and
- paths along the shore afford panoramic views of the busy inner harbor.
The garden has a kaiyu-style circuit, with a series of footbridges giving access to a island tea house. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting Hama-rikyu, but I would encourage visitors to also experience the more intimate charms of some of the other gardens I’ve listed.
Garden of the Nezu Museum
The Nezu museum offers varying art exhibits in a modern building, but I was more impressed by its remarkable garden, which is comparable in size to the smaller municipal gardens, and their equal in attractiveness. A maze of paths flows down a rather steep slope to a long, narrow pond at the foot. There are four traditional tea houses, and a cafe where you can and should take a tea or coffee break. Because the garden is only accessible through the museum there are attractive statues and other features throughout. It was raining when I visited, but umbrellas are provided and I found the experience compellingly atmospheric even though the chilly drizzle discouraged me from exploring every nook and cranny. I plan to do so on my next visit!
Meiji Jingu Inner Garden
Most of the Meiji Jingu temple complex is free, but if you have 500 yen burning a hole in your pocket you can take a quick tour of the Inner Garden. It’s constructed along a stream, with a variety of water views but without a kaiyu-style circuit around a pond. There are a few clearings, but for the most part paths run along the stream or through the woods. There’s a lovely tea house (shown above) and a pavilion with a view of a large bed of iris, blooming from late May to late June. The overall experience doesn’t measure up to Tokyo’s other gardens, but it’s a pleasant and peaceful place to take a bucolic stroll if you’re in the neighborhood.
Like the last two, this is also a predominately wooded garden, and like the garden of the Nezu Museum it takes advantages of its dramatic topography. An upper lawn is pleasant enough but the drama begins when you first view a small pond down a steep slope. Trails lead down and around the pond, which is overlooked by a tea house. This is a rather small garden, without as much to offer as others I have mentioned. But the way in which it uses its topography is interesting.
Garden of the New Otani Hotel
Last but not least is the Japanese garden of the New Otani Hotel. The upper part is pleasant and typical, but if you follow the signs you are taken on a rather long path around the back of the garden, leading to a large shady slope studded with interesting objects, and finally to a vista of a magnificent artificial waterfall, which originates in the upper garden. Everything is of course beautifully maintained. The hotel claims that the garden has a history of more than 400 years, and is #7 on Trip Advisor’s list of free attractions in Tokyo. Its version of the garden experience feels a little bit packaged — not least because of the over-the-top waterfall — but its definitely worth a visit.