Our top 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites
19 June 2023
For over 1,000 years, the Japanese have been perfecting gardens and have designed some of the most tranquil, beautiful and ancient examples of landscape gardens in the world. From a temple surrounded by over 100 varieties of moss, to perfectly raked rock gardens and forests of plum blossom… discover some of Japan’s best gardens.
Located in Kanazawa, on the west of Honshu, Kenrokuen is known as one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens” – the only other comparable paradises being Kairakuen in Mito and Korakuen in Okayama.
Kenrokuen is a true masterpiece of landscape gardening. It was constructed steadily over two centuries, starting in the 1600s before eventually opening to the public in all its majesty in 1871. According to Chinese landscape theory, there are six key elements that make up the perfect garden – antiquity, abundant water, artificiality, seclusion, spaciousness and broad views. Kenrokuen literally translates as “Garden of the Six Sublimities” since it (rather impressively) possesses every one of these crucial qualities.
The planting has been so beautifully composed that the garden is breath-taking year round. In spring (roughly mid-February to the end of March), delicate plum blossoms dominate the south end of the garden and their blooms fade just as the cherry trees take over to rule until mid-April.
Lush greenery and later-blooming flowers can be seen throughout the warmer summer months, followed by a spectacular display of reds, golds and ambers as the cherry and maple trees prepare for winter. These autumn colours are usually best seen around mid-November to early December and can be found on the garden’s eastern side near the Kodatsuno Gate.
All of the seasons’ eye-catching colours are enhanced by ethereal water features which, despite their natural beauty, are the result remarkable feats of engineering. The two main ponds, Kasumigaike and Hisagoike, are fed with water diverted from a distant river by an irrigation system built way back in 1632. Perhaps most impressive of all, the fountain in Kasumigaike Pond (one of Japan’s oldest fountains) is powered purely by gravity, with the drop in elevation of the pond powering a staggering 3.5 metre spout.
When you are there, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for the iconic Kotojitoro Lantern and the sweeping splendour of the Karasaki Pine. The lantern is known for its unique design, in that it has two legs rather than the more traditional one, and stands on the northern bank of Kasumigake Pond.
Planted from seed, the Karasaki Pine is the garden’s most prominent tree. Its branches swoop gracefully over the surface of the Kasumigaike Pond and the whole tree is protected by an intricate and striking framework which prevents any damage from buildups of snow.
All in all, if you are a lover of botanical landscapes, then Kenrokuen Garden should be top of your list of places to visit when in Japan.
Regular opening times for Kenrokuen Garden:
March – 15th October: 0700 to 1800; 16th October – February: 0800 to 1700
Early Admission times*:
April – August from 0400; March, September & October from 0500; November – February from 0600
*Please note that early admission guests need to leave the garden before regular hours start.
Entrance fees for Kenrokuen Garden:
Regular hours – 310 yen per person; Early admission – free
Unlike the many gardens of Japan that were designed for private use and then opened to the public some years later, Kairakuen translates as “park to be enjoyed together” and was open to the masses from day one. It is ranked alongside Korakuen and Kenrokuen as one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens.
While it is a lovely garden year-round, it is particularly spectacular from late February and through March when the forest of 3,000 plum trees is blooming in an jaw-dropping range of colours, from bridal white to vivid red. The Mito Plum Festival, “Mito Ume Matsuri”, is held at this time.
Other than the thousands of plum trees, you will also find cedar woods, a bamboo grove and the Kobuntei (a traditional Japanese building). Climb to the top floor to admire stunning views over the garden and nearby Senba Lake.
Opening times for Kairakuen Garden:
20th February – 30th September: 0600 to 1900
1st October – 19th February: 0700 to 1800
Admission is free
Also known as “Saihōji”, Kokedera is a tranquil moss garden that surrounds an ancient temple in Kyoto. It is one of the city’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, recognised in 1994, though is not as easily accessed as some of Kyoto’s other marvels. In fact, you have to fill in a form and post it to request access (our local experts can easily do this for you with enough warning).
Should you be granted a visit, it is really worth all the faff! The garden was originally designed in the Nara Period (roughly 729-749 AD) for Prince Shotoku’s villa, but was transformed into the masterpiece you see today in the 1300s when the villa was converted into a Zen temple by the priest Muso Soseki. Soseki is also credited with much of the horticultural design. The spectacular yet tranquil glades, paths and stream banks are covered with an estimated 120 varieties of moss, and have influenced much of Japanese garden design since.
When you visit, you are expected to contribute to the observances of kito and shakyo (the chanting and copying of Buddhist scriptures, “sutra”). Once a monk has lead in the chanting, you will then copy the sutra down onto paper – this is not as challenging as it sounds! – before you hand over your sutra paper and exit into the gardens. While this whole process can take up to an hour, it provides a unique insight into Japanese Buddhist culture and opens the door to a truly magical garden.
Applying to visit Kokedera:
Visitors need to post a fully completed form to the temple before visiting. Please speak to our local experts about visiting the garden and they can look into it for you, but note that the temple only accepts forms in a specific time window – the earliest they will receive them is two months prior to visit, and the latest is three weeks.
3,000 yen per person is paid at the time of your visit.
The last of the three most beautiful landscape gardens to be featured in this article, Korakuen is designed for strolls and general pleasure-taking. The local feudal lord ordered its construction back in 1687 in order to greet and entertain important visitors and it was opened to the public in 1884 once the feudal era was over.
Despite suffering from flooding and even bomb damage during the Second World War, the Korakuen Garden that you see today doesn’t look much different from that designed all those years ago, thanks to the detailed plans kept by its gardeners. Therefore, feel free to allow your imagination to wander back in time – you won’t be too far off picturing the real thing.
The garden is overlooked by Okayama Castle, which provides some beautiful “borrowed scenery” but in no way steals attention from the large pond, flowing streams and (unusual for Japanese gardens) extensive lawns. A hill provides a great lookout over the garden, but make sure that you explore all its nooks and crannies – wander through the groves of cherry, plum and maple trees, admire fields of tea and rice, watch out for arrows at the archery range and observe cranes in the aviary.
Opening times for Korakuen Garden
20th March – September: 0730 – 1800
October – 19th March: 0800 – 1700
(Visitors are asked to leave 15 minutes prior to the official closing time of the garden)
400 yen per person (Korakuen Garden only)
560 yen per person (Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle, though please note that this ticket is not available during special exhibitions at the castle)
If your idea of a beautiful garden is a perfectly designed landscape through which to stroll, then make sure that you head to the Kagawa Prefecture to explore Ritsurin Koen. Built by local feudal lords during the Edo Period, there are plenty of ponds, ancient trees, hills and serene pavilions to keep your interest piqued as you wander.
The gardens are spread at the foot of the wooded slopes of Mount Shiun, which lends a beautiful backdrop and an air of remoteness to the whole area. Follow the meandering paths around the pond, cross the picturesque wooden bridge, be entertained in the folk museum, grab a souvenir in one of the shops and finally rest for a small fee in the Kikugetsu-tei teahouse overlooking the pond – a lovely way to while away an afternoon.
Ritsurin Koen opening times:
January: 0700 – 1700
February: 0700 – 1730
March: 0630 – 18:00
April – May: 0530 – 1830
June – August: 0530 – 1900
September: 0530 – 1830
October: 0600 – 1730
November: 0630 – 1700
December: 0700 – 1730
Entrance fee for Ritsurin Koen:
410 yen per person
The Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden, which is a lot more exciting than it sounds… Hundreds of visitors flock to the garden every day, so it’s worth visiting during the week either early in the day or late in the evening to avoid the crowds.
The building that is now the temple was originally a villa in the Heian period but was converted into its religious form in 1450. The origins of the rock garden itself, however, are somewhat hazy, as is the meaning of what it is supposed to represent. The fifteen stones are each placed on a bed of moss and within a perfect rectangle of intricately raked pebbles.
Some suggest that these rocks are supposed to be islands in a sea, others say it is a tigress getting her cubs across a pond, and many think that perhaps it is more abstract than that and represents infinity. No theory is said to be the right one, and this means that you can make your own interpretation of it when you gaze upon the stones. An interesting thing to note is that whatever your vantage point, you are never able to see all of the stones at once…perhaps that has some meaning behind it?
The temple grounds are surrounded by a lovely park which makes for a pleasant walk if you wish to pass time before or after visiting the rock garden, and there’s a restaurant that serves the local boiled tofu speciality, “Yudofu”.
Ryoanji garden visiting hours:
March – November: 0800 – 1700
December – February: 0830 – 1630
Entrance fee for Ryoanji:
300 yen per person
If you have a passion for art as well as horticulture, then weave a visit to the Adachi Museum of Art into your holiday to Japan. It was designed in the 1980s by Adachi Zenko, who hoped that by viewing the garden and the art of the gallery together, people’s appreciation of and interest Japanese art would be increased.
The museum houses around 1,300 twentieth century paintings and artworks which are changed each season. A collection of paintings by Yokoyama Taikan is permanently on show and there’s a ceramics exhibit which is also worth a peek.
The garden can only be accessed through the museum – on exploring, you will see not only the main landscape garden, but also a moss garden, a tea garden, a pong garden and a white gravel and pine garden. All are immaculate and a pleasure to behold.
Adachi Museum of Art opening hours:
April – September: 0900 – 1730
October – March: 0900 – 1700
2,300 yen per person (foreign visitors can make the most of a 50% discount)
Make it happen
If you have been inspired to visit Japan’s gardens by this article, then get in touch with our local experts. They are brilliant at planning tailor-made holidays and will certainly be able to incorporate visits to a garden or two into your bespoke itinerary. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.