Most list of Japanese gardens list the same three gardens in no particular order, the so-called three Great Japanese gardens. After visiting dozens of different Japanese gardens, we came to a different conclusion. Continue reading to broaden your horizon.
Nr. 3 Ritsurin-koen
Ritsurin-koen is not on many other lists, but undeservingly so. Maybe because the garden is in Takamatsu. Which is on the island of Shikoku and not part of most tourist itineraries. Yet, this garden is worth the detour. Ritsurin-koen is Japan’s largest garden with over 750,000 square meters.
Work on this garden started in 1625 by Ikoma Takatoshi, making this the oldest garden on the list. Takatoshi began with the development of Nan-ko, the southern lake and used the beautiful vegetation of Mount Shiun as a background. Further improvements and enlargement of the garden would take another 100 years. Construction of the garden finished in 1745. After the requisitioning by the Meiji government the garden opened to the public in 1875. The Japanese government designated Ritsurin-koen as a ‘Special Place of Scenic Beauty’ in 1953.
There are different ways to enjoy this garden: Take a boat ride on Nan-ko to take in the views from the water. Or go for a cup of tea in the teahouse which overlooks the lake. From the hill in the garden, you have a complete view of all its beauty. Japanese come to this garden to get a quintessential view of Japan, so did we and so should you.
If you decide to make the trip, also visit the nearby open-air museum of Shikoku village. Here, you can experience the way people used to live in this area and view some great art.
Nr. 2 Korakuen
Construction of Okayama Korakuen started in 1687 and finished in 1700. Apart from some small changes, the garden looks the same today as it did back then. We know this because there are many period paintings and records describing the garden. The garden opened to the public in 1884. It was heavily damaged during floods in 1934 and bombing in 1945. But has since been restored with the help of the before mentioned paintings and records. Korakuen garden was designated as a ‘Special Place of Scenic Beauty’ in 1952.
The garden has great open spaces which allows for these great views. Streams of water cut through those open spaces to add depth. Rice fields seemingly transfer into the grass and rows of trees line the paths. The garden has a different palette of colours every season because of all the different blossoms, foliage and flowers. The beautiful backdrop of Okayama castle enhances the scenic beauty of the garden. This is also the best way to view Okayama castle since it’s not so good looking up close. And as in any garden, there always is a teahouse nearby to relax and take in the views.
Okayama lies on the route from Kyoto to Hiroshima and the island of Kyusu. It also is an ideal base for visiting the islands of the inland sea, like Naoshima. Or the Ritsurin-koen in Takamatsu, which is just 1.5 hours away by train.
Nr. 1 Kenroku-en
This is our favourite Japanese Garden as it combines all the characteristics perfectly. Great views as far as the distant sea. Big and small streams of water. Hidden views, solitary trees and the famous bound pine trees that can handle the snow and provide the idyllic winter pictures. There is even scientific research done to explain why people like this garden so much.
Maeda Tsunanori developed the first garden on this site in the second half of the 17th century. The garden was called “Renchi-tei garden” and was used for banquets and moon viewing. It burned down in 1759, but Maeda Harunaga restored it. He added the Midori-taki waterfall and the tea houses and in 1776 the garden had its current form. Kenroku-en opened to the public in 1874.
Kanazawa lies along the shore of the Japanese Sea on the other side of the Japanese Alps. Therefore, it isn’t on everybody’s itinerary. But it should be, not only is this garden worth the trip, the city of Kanazawa has an outstanding modern art museum, geisha’s and old samurai houses to enjoy. If that’s not enough to convince you, let us tell you that the trip there crossing the Alps is a great adventure on its own.
Other gardens worth mentioning
Kairaku-en in Mito
Kairaku-en is usually included in the list of the three great gardens of Japan. We found it the least interesting of the three and prefer Ritsurin-koen to this garden. That said, it is famous for its plum blossoms and of all the gardens listed here it lies closest to Tokyo so it makes for an easy day trip. Read our article about a day trip to Mito for more information.
Adachi museum of art
The private Adachi museum of art has a stunning garden and the views from the museum are breath taking. Although you can’t really wander in this garden, viewing this garden is certainly rewarding. The museum itself also houses great works of art, so make the detour and stay in nearby Matsue and visit this beautiful museum and garden.