Traditional Japanese garden is seen to be one of the most important elements of Japanese art. Being a precious part of Japanese culture it has become a very popular thing to explore in Japan. There is a number of historic Japanese gardens can be found throughout Japan especially in Kyoto (formal capital city of Japan) that has many of them. Kyoto is famed for hosting a lot of temples and shrines which are mostly decorated with beautiful gardens. The landscapes of these gardens change frequently as four seasons of Japan pass them by throughout a year. Over there, people experience picturesque view of colorful foliage in autumn, and an unforgettable sakura blossoms display in spring.

Tenryuji Temple Garden in Autumn, Kyoto. Photo Credit: TOTORORO.RORO at Flickr.

Making or building a traditional Japanese style garden is not an easy task at all, it takes time to build and let it grow naturally. A large number of tourists take a visit to various Japanese gardens which are located mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo. Have you ever visited any Japanese garden? Japanese garden is beautiful as traditional Chinese garden. Though sometimes I believe Japanese garden is far beautiful than the Chinese ones. It represents the ultimate beauty of nature. Indeed, Japanese were inspired by ancient Chinese style outdoor garden. Almost every Japanese garden symbolizes things such as sand or gravel symbolizes river while on the other hand rocks represent the mountain.

Japanese Garden History

Nanzenji Temple Zen Garden, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Lars K at Flickr.

Japanese gardens that you find in Japan were not created yesterday. They have left so many years behind but still they shine like the old days. Some Japanese gardens you see in Kyoto and Tokyo are great and most of them were built thousands years ago from now on. They represent a long period of history where you could experience positive and negative view of them. Many beautiful gardens were destroyed over times, many were built in modern Japanese era and there are some which are being built by the great artists.

In Japan, Many Japanese merchants during the Asuka period (538–710) used to visit its neighboring country China. They were influenced by the contemporary Chinese arts. The beauty of traditional style Chinese gardens inspired them to make their own. It is said that between 630 and 838, along with Buddhist monks, Japanese court had sent scholars, diplomats, students, translators to China. So, the idea of these unique gardens developed around the 7th century when Buddhism first was introduced in Japan from China.

Geisha on a Garden Bridge in Hikone. Photo Credit: Okinawa Soba (Rob) at Flickr.

History indicates that Japanese gardens was developed throughout different periods of time such as in Asuka period, Nara period, Heian period,  Kamakura & Muromachi periods, the Momoyama period, Edo period, Meiji period and Modern era. You can differentiate the different styles of gardens which were designed and built from Asuka period to modern era once you take a visit to gardens located in Kyoto and Tokyo. Though, the Askua and Nara periods gardens were all destroyed and people can only imagine them viewing the paintings of the period.

There is a type of Japanese garden called “Paradise Garden” – that was first developed in the Heian period (794-1185). A book called “The Sakuteiki” was written in this period and it was the first book ever written about garden making technique.

Entsuji Temple Garden in Autumn. Photo Credit: kimtetsu at Flickr.

Zen Buddhism flourished during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1573), as a result in many Zen Buddhist temples had built Zen Style Japanese Garden.  On the other hand, during the Momoyama period (1586-1600), one of the most beautiful style Japanese gardens was introduced which is widely known as a tea garden. During the Edo period (1615-1867), rock Zen gardens size became bigger than they were before in Kamakura and Muromachi periods.

The famous gardens that were created in the Meiji era (1868–1912) all were built under the supervision of many businessmen and politicians. Today, in the 21st century you can even observe modern style Japanese garden which are distinct than those of the gardens styles you have been informed here earlier.

Elements of Japanese Garden

Stone Lantern and Basin in a Japanese Garden, Kyoto. Photo Credit: ORAZ Studio at Flickr.

Japanese garden has been designated as a place of peacefulness. In fact, it was one of the reasons why Zen garden making idea came in to mind of Zen Buddhist monks. Buddhism teaches us to be peaceful and this doctrine gives us a clear view how decorative and calm Zen garden could be just using sand or gravel. These two elements represent the water and when you take a look at one of these types of gardens you find peace there.

There are other important elements which represent various things we find in our nature, they are: water, sand, gravel, stone, rock, island, hills, teahouse, bridge, stream, fishes, strolling path, stone-lantern, bamboo pipe, moss, flowers, pond, trees, statues, gates, water basin, garden fences, and garden architecture. Every element has different meanings and they symbolize many things.

Water or pond is seen to be one of the vital elements of Japanese garden except Zen gardens. Though, Rock and Zen garden’s sand or gravel represents water, clouds and purity. Japanese bridges that you see in Japanese gardens reflect artistic feelings. Small ponds represent the ocean or sea while fishes are used as part of decorative element. A stone lantern represents the four natural elements: fire, water, earth and wind. Every element that are shown above used to decorate or making one garden more appalling.

Types of Japanese Garden

Traditionally, three main styles of Japanese gardens can be found here in Japan. These three different types (Karesansui, Tsukiyama, Chaniwa) of Japanese gardens represent different meaning based on their style of looking. We would get familiar with other types of Japanese gardens which are truly profound.

Karesansui (Rock/Dry/Zen Garden):

Ryoanji Temple Zen Garden, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Alexandre Courbot at Flickr.

It represents the spiritualism of Zen Buddhism. It was formed by a Zen Buddhist monk called Musō Soseki. Instead of using water in this type of garden sand or gravel is used to represent river or sea. Simply a peaceful garden like this would amaze you and let you know the real beauty of Japanese garden. You have no idea how artistic they were during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. One of the main elements for Zen garden is boulders that come in various shapes and sizes. A single boulder represents an inland which looks absolutely stunning with those shrubs and small trees planted nearby. Various techniques are employed in designing a successful Zen garden. A Zen garden provides you enough space and great atmosphere to do meditation and yoga for a while sitting at the observatory deck.

Tsukiyama (Hill and Pond Garden):

Ginkaku-ji Hill and Pond Garden, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Lars K at Flickr.

This Japanese style garden represents a miniature of natural scenery that includes ponds, hills, stones, trees, fishes, bridges, moss, paths, flowers, small plants and streams. In fact, you would like to compare the beauty of Hill garden and Zen garden while both of them are quite distinctive and have spiritual connection. The word Tsukiyama refers to the creation of artificial or manmade hills. This is a classic style of Japanese garden that can be enjoyed while strolling along the garden paths and from temple’s veranda. Usually, a hill garden becomes bigger than a Zen garden though it is possible to create one even in a small area applying gardening techniques. This sort of garden gets crowded by many visitors during spring and fall seasons. The only reason behind this is – a lot of cherry, maple, ginkgo trees can be found there that fulfill the sakura blossoms and fall foliage viewing desire we have. If you are really excited about visiting this style Japanese garden then visit Ginkaku-ji/Silver Pavilion in Kyoto.

Chaniwa (Tea Garden):

Kenrokuen Tea Garden, Kanazawa in Japan. Photo Credit: Daniel Villoldo at Flickr.

Tea garden is a type of beautiful Japanese garden that has a tea ceremony house alongside the garden. This garden can be categorized into two sections: inner garden and outer garden. The outer garden follows a path which would lead to reach to its inner garden. Both inner and outer gardens are separated by covered gate. It is a custom to wash your hands before entering into the inner garden. You can wash your hands from the stone water basin (tsukubai) which is placed in the garden. In general, Zen garden is small in size comparing to Tsukiyama and Karesansui. You will encounter this type of Japanese garden when you decide to go to a tea ceremony. The garden’s main features are Ishidoro (a small stone lantern), Tsukubai (A stone basin where guests can wash their hands), Nakakuguri (a middle gate), Tobi-ishi (stepping stones) and Kakei (a bamboo pipe through which water flows constantly).

Stroll Garden:

Suizenji Park Garden in Kumamoto. Photo Credit: Toshihiko KOHNO at Flickr.

Stroll garden originally was developed in the Edo period, since then it has become one of the most beautiful styles of gardens that we see throughout Japan. There is no inner or outer garden can be found here but a path which is made only for a leisurely stroll. You are to follow a clockwise direction when you start walking through the path. Usually, it features a small central lake and pond with a path going around it. Two elements: boulders and trees could add extra beauty to this garden and usually they are featured, and you can witness this in Suizenji Park, Kumamoto. One of the advantages to this style of garden is – you have an opportunity to reveal the whole garden beauty from different directions.

Japanese Paradise Garden:

Byodoin Temple’s Paradise Garden, Uji in Kyoto. Photo Credit: Paul Freeborn at Flickr.

During the Heian Period, Japanese paradise gardens were first introduced to Japan by the devotees of Amida sect and Buddhist monks. This kind of garden is also known as Pure Land Garden and imitates the Buddha sitting on a raised level surface or island contemplating in the middle of a lotus pond. The major elements of this type garden are a pond with lotus flower, arch shaped bridge, a large Buddhist hall, and trees. No complete pure land gardens could be found in Japan now but many major elements of this type garden can still be seen at Byodoin temple and Motsuji temple. Visiting a Japanese pure land garden could be very relaxing it is one of the best ways of experiencing Heian period of tradition.

Japanese Pond Garden:

Heian Jingu Shrine and Garden in Autumn, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Pat Lubas at Flickr.

Old Japanese style gardens can never be told that they are ordinary. A modern Japanese garden sometimes sounds ordinary but when you compare it with a Heian Period of garden which is known as Japanese pond garden then many things are supposed to discuss. Originally, it first was introduced in China then it was brought to the land of the rising sun during the Heian Period. Creating and maintaining this style Japanese garden is very costly. Daikakuji temple’s pond garden was created by Emperor Saga who was a very wealthy person to take care of this style garden. The main elements of a pond garden are a large formal building with two wings and a large lake or pond in front. You can experience the beauty of pond gardens only in Kyoto at Daikakuji temple and Heian Jingu Shrine. They are simply amazing places to get lost with the natural beauty. Between these two places, Heian Jingu Shrine shines with its sakura blossoms during spring season.

Japanese Courtyard Garden:

Japanese Courtyeard Garden. Photo Credit: Kamal Perera at Flickr.

Japanese courtyard garden (Tsuboniwa) is a small garden featuring various types of elements we see in other Japanese styles gardens. Even though, it was first introduced in the Heian period but it actually was developed in the Edo period. A lot of Japanese merchants used to build small gardens behind their shops and houses. Many samurai residences were also decorated of this type of garden. It has simplicity, more powerful with a simple arraignment possessing natural rhythms. In fact, some of Zen garden, tea garden, and hill garden elements together make a perfect Japanese courtyard garden. Here, elements are not supposed to be functional but ornamental. It is possible that a small space could turn to a scenic beauty spot when you decide to build a courtyard garden.

Three Great Gardens of Japan

We have experienced with the main three styles of Japanese gardens along with other traditional gardens. According to my knowledge, these types of gardens await you to purify your mind. The formal capital city “Kyoto” seems to be the perfect place to experience all kind of Japanese gardens though here in this part I want to explain the three great/beautiful Japanese gardens of Japan.

Korakuen Garden:

Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle. Photo Credit: September_Okayama at Flickr.

Korakuen garden is a strolling style garden and designated as a “Special Places of Scenic Beauty” under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in 1952. It is located next Okayama Castle in Okayama. It is a specious garden just like Kairakuen and Kenrokuen gardens. In 1687, Ikeda Tsunamasa (feudal lord) ordered to build this garden which was completed in the year of 1700. It had taken thirteen years to complete. I believe this is one of the top photogenic spots in Japan as well, from where you could capture both the castle and the garden’s landscape. The garden features many interesting things such as teahouse, rest houses, shrine, ponds, Yuishinzan Hill, bridge, iris garden, paddy & tea field, maple, sakura and plum grove. You even can see few Japanese cranes (red-crowned crane) in the bird cage. Several renowned yearly festival are held here in this garden such as Goshinko festival, Tea picking festival, Yosai tea ceremony, Lotus flower viewing event, Early spring festival, Rice planting festival and so on.

Kairakuen Garden:

Kairakuen Garden and Plum Blossoms in Mito. Photo Credit: SkylineGTR at Flickr.

Kairakuen garden is a famous garden for viewing plum (ume) blossom in early spring. The word Kairakuen simply means “garden for everyone’s pleasure or park to be enjoyed together”. It is located in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. It is designated as one of the most three beautiful great gardens of Japan. And I see this garden as the best landscape garden in all over Japan. I have been visited many Japanese gardens before, I admit every Japanese garden I had visited so far in my life was marvelous but I have to put this one aside. I would definitely tell you why I believe this is the best landscape garden of Japan. The reason is – I am a plum blossom aficionado and I visit this garden when 3000 plum trees are in full bloom during early spring. There are about 100 varieties of plum trees that create an extra flavor to this garden. Show your honor and gratitude to the lord Tokugawa Nariaki by taking a visit to this garden who built this beautiful garden for you in 1842.

Kenrokuen Garden:

Kenrokuen Garden in Winter. Agustin Rafael Reyes at Flickr.

Kenrokuen garden has been designated as a “Special Places of Scenic Beauty” by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology under the Protection of Cultural Protection Act. Therefore, it deserves to be one of the tree great gardens of Japan. It is located in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. It is a strolling style private garden which was built by the feudal lords of Kaga. A big garden may consists of two or three types of Japanese gardens and real example for this fact is Kenrokuen. The garden offers you full of excitement as the nature changes throughout a year. There are some spots where cherry blossoms can be seen during spring season. If you ever visit Kanazawa Castle, please don’t leave it alone because it is located next to the castle’s ground. This garden’s main elements are a big artificial pond, islands, rocks, teahouses, stone lantern, cottages, flower garden, moss, and strolling path. In order to enjoy a glorious view of seasonal nature you have got to come here and enjoy your experiences.

List of the Most Famous Gardens you Could Visit in Japan

Kinkakuji – The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Ted Tsang at Flickr.

There are so many Japanese gardens one could visit during anytime of the year. But to see some special feature such as autumn colors, cherry blossoms, irises, azaleas, plum blossoms, and bamboo forest in a single garden you have got to come here either in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Below are the places where the best and most beautiful Japanese gardens are located.

1) Korakuen (Stroll Garden)

2) Kairakuen (Landscape Garden)

3) Kenrokuen (Stroll, Tea and Landscape Garden)

4) Ryoan-ji temple (Zen Garden)

5) Suizenji Koen (Stroll Garden)

6) Tenryu-ji temple (Stroll Garden)

7) Tofuku-ji temple (Zen Garden)

8) Entsu-ji temple (Landscape Garden)

9) Kinkakuji/Golden Pavilion (Stroll and Landscape Garden)

10) Katsura Imperial Villa (Pond and Stroll Garden)

11) Adachi Museum of Art (Japanese Modern Garden)

Beautiful Garden – Adachi Museum of Art. Photo Credit: katsuzin at Flickr.

12) Ginkaku-ji (Pond and Dry garden)

13) Shoden-ji (Zen Garden)

14) Hosen-in (Zen Garden)

15) Byodoin (Paradise Garden)

16) Daitoku-ji Temple (Zen Garden)

17) Motsuji temple (Paradise Garden)

18) Suizenji Park (Stroll Garden)

19) Ginkaku-ji (Zen and Moss Garden)

20 Heijo Palace (Pond Garden)

21) Saiho-ji temple (Moss Garden)

22) Shukkeien Garden (Stroll and Hill Garden)

23) Daigoji Temple (Landscape and Zen Garden)

24) Ritsurin Garden (Stroll Garden)

Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu. Photo Credit: Totoro’ at Flickr.

25) Nijo Castle (Landscape Garden)

26) Shikinaen Garden (Stroll Garden)

27) Kyoto Imperial Palace (Dry Garden)

28) Kanjizaio-in (Paradise Garden)

29) Shinjuku Gyoen (Landscape, English and French Garden)

30) Ninnaji Temple (Zen Garden)

31) Toji Temple (Zen and Pond Garden)

32) Oyama Shrine (Pond Garden)

33) Nanzenji Temple (Pond Garden)

34) Kodai-ji temple (Zen Garden)

35) Heian-Jingu Shrine (Pond Garden)

Four Seasons and the Japanese Gardens Beauty

Ninnaji Temple’s Cherry Blossoms in Spring. Photo Credit: Teruhide Tomori at Flickr.

Four seasons of Japan has a great impact on Japanese gardens. There are many people who usually take an evening stroll in various Japanese gardens during spring, autumn and summer. When it comes to early spring one can enjoy his/her time viewing colorful ume blossoms in Kairkuen garden. In fact, early spring is the proper time to have a first outdoor picnic of the year before hanami arrives. There is large number of gardens in Japan that host hanami matsuri during spring. At that time of year, people get outside to view cherry blossoms and most of the famous Sakura viewing spots are located in public parks, gardens, temples & shrines, castle ground, and riverbanks. For example, you could head towards Ninnaji temple which is considered to be one of the best Sakura viewing spots in Kyoto.

Nanzenji Temple Autumn Leaves Nature, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Hideyuki KAMON at Flickr.

It is just lovely to see that the famous Japanese garden come alive when autumn season arrives. Colorful fall foliage creates a great atmosphere to have a stroll on day time. To see a lovely Zen garden in Kyoto, you can get to Tofuku-ji temple, especially when autumn foliage shines its temple grounds. If it is summer now then I would definitely tell you to attend some iris festivals where usually traditional Japanese gardens can be seen. In general, Iris festival comes in summer; it is a coming together of everyone who appreciates both iris flower and Japanese garden. Let’s just say there is a large segment of the flower loving population in Japan and I personally think that I am one of them. So, Japan’s summer humid weather can’t resist me to see irises. Japanese winter season does not tell you to stay only inside your home rather it is very magical offering you various winter activity. There are some visitors who tend to visit Japanese gardens in winter; I think they want to see their (gardens) winter beauty even when it snows a lot. I know you will come here all the way from different countries and Japanese gardens actually are well prepared to make you happy anytime you visit them throughout the year.

Japanese Garden Impact on Japanese Culture

Geisha Crossing the Old Arch Bridge, Japan. Photo Credit: Okinawa Soba (Rob) at Flickr.

Japanese culture is rich enough to make someone curious of it. While, it is said that making garden is a special art in Japanese culture which rank is equal to calligraphy and ink painting. We see Japanese garden in various paintings which some of them are very classic and old ones. Tensho Shubun was a Japanese Zen monk and a great painter of the Muromachi era. He had painted a well known painting called “Landscape of the Four Seasons”. That painting indicates a lot of things about nature and Japanese landscape. A lot of modern Japanese artists depict the Japanese garden beauty in their artworks.

You even can find our beautiful Japanese gardens in the classic Japanese novel from Heian period called “Tale of Genji”. In fact, those who were fall in love with Japanese garden and knew its value – they all described it at least once in their literatures.

In modern Japan, people still show their gratitude visiting profound gardens which are located all over Japan. They sometimes even make an outdoor party especially during spring time. It would not have been possible if we had not had those Japanese gardens. We really are thankful to those who built all these magnificent gardens. Really, we are proud of them!

Would you Like to Visit a Japanese Garden in Japan?

Daikakuji Temple Garden, Kyoto. Photo Credit: maco-nonch★R at Flickr.

What do you think, after reading this post? Would you like to visit one of our best Japanese gardens? I think, you certainly would like to visit them all but maybe your time would not let you do that. I advise you to pick some of them which are located not far from each other. It would be great if you head to Kyoto where most of the beautiful Japanese gardens are situated.

If you ask me what’s the best time to visit a Japanese garden then it would be really hard to answer you because every season makes a Japanese garden fully attractive and unique place to discover. If you are inspired by this post and want make a simple Japanese garden of your own then I recommend this great book called “Creating Your Own Japanese Garden” – by Takashi Sawano.

If Japanese gardens don’t excite you then you are not alive! I hope you enjoy the four seasons of Japan in different Japanese gardens where thousands years of history come alive.

Copyright 2015 @ takkhis