JAPAN AT ITS MOST DIVINE: THESE 10 HEAVENLY GARDENS ARE SANCTITIES OF NATURE - AND WILL MAKE YOUR SPIRITS SOAR

They say that only four in ten tourists in Japan ever get to see its holiest landscape – a view of Mount Fuji – as it is so often lost in mist and clouds.

Unpredictable weather is something the UK and Japan have in common, along with a propensity to queue respectfully. But during my tour of Japan’s finest gardens, organised brilliantly by Riviera Travel, it was the differences between our cultures that proved the most intriguing.

No one, after all, goes to the Land of the Rising Sun for its beaches – though I believe there are plenty worth seeing. Nor do many make the 14-hour flight for the museums and galleries, though there are many of those, too.

But people do go for the gardens, the cherry blossom or the autumn colour – and they are never disappointed. Japanese gardens, however, are not like British ones.

They are mostly jewel boxes of artifice, miniature landscapes and constructed vistas of hills and ponds, enhanced by rigid disciplines and traditions, many unchanged in centuries.

They reflect the Japanese character – fierce attention to detail, driven by an obsessive perfectionism that requires, for example, every one of their ubiquitous Chinese pine trees to be pruned to within an inch of its mollycoddled life, with dead needles removed by hand every autumn.

There are stroll gardens, designed for contemplative walking where each corner is designed to reveal a new scene. There are tea gardens, often with what are called ‘borrowed landscapes’, where features outside its walls – a mountain or a castle – are incorporated into the vista. And then there are Zen gardens, often courtyards of raked gravel tended by Buddhist monks, where strategically placed rocks are sited for the purpose of meditation.

"They reflect the Japanese character – fierce attention to detail, driven by an obsessive perfectionism "
Ivo Dawnay

All subscribe to the Japanese Shinto belief in the sanctity of nature. There are said to be many thousands of Shinto gods, embodied in rocks, water, air and the living beings of plants, trees and moss.

Our meticulously managed tour sped us with ruthless efficiency by train, coach and even ferry from Tokyo to Hiroshima, then on to Kyoto and Nara.

It took a while for me to get used to joining a ‘crocodile’ of 40-odd people following a diminutive guide waving a pom-pom. But what would have felt like a humiliation in, say, London, somehow seemed almost natural in obedient, deferential, super polite and organised Japan – a country where 60 per cent of lost wallets are returned, untouched, to owners. 

Indeed, by the end of the trip I found myself standing at a red light despite no signs of traffic and thinking: ‘My goodness, I’m becoming Japanese.’

Here are ten gardens not to be missed.

Hotel New Otani, Tokyo

Odd to begin with a hotel garden, except to say the vast 1,000-room Tokyo landmark that has counted Bill Clinton among its guests is 400 years younger than the old Shogunate garden that surrounds it. This astonishing two-acre patch of ponds, waterfalls and traditional tearooms in the very heart of the capital is an oasis of calm despite its high-rise neighbours.

Details: Free entry. Open daily, 6am to 10pm (newotani.co.jp).

Okayama Korakuen

This large strolling garden was completed in 1700 by a local aristocrat. It is set on its own island, unusually includes rice paddies and an aviary of cranes – the sacred bird and harbinger of longevity. Alongside elegant avenues and tea houses, the garden incorporates wide expanses of lawn.

Details: Entry £2.50. Open daily, 7.30am to 6pm, March to September (okayama-korakuen.jp).

Murin-an, modern garden, Kyoto

"Just over a mile from the epicentre of the atomic bomb explosion, this jewel of Hiroshima, Shukkeien Garden, has been restored to its former glory"
Ivo Dawnay

A small but delicious watergarden with man-made streams that would not look out of place in Scotland were they not meticulously managed and cleaned weekly. Trees are pruned to incorporate the ‘borrowed’ views of distant wooded mountains.

Details: Entry £4.50. Open daily, 9am to 6pm (murin-an.jp).

Hamarikyu Gardens, Tokyo

These riverside ‘stroll’ gardens were once the private land of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Elegant winding paths highlight micro-managed trees, including miniature Scots pines whose every needle, when they brown and die, is removed by hand.

Details: Adults £1.50, children free. Open daily, 9am to 5pm (tokyo-park.or.jp).

Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetland

An extremely unusual wetland garden of marsh, fen bog and swamp in fashionable Kanagawa Prefecture. Its hugely varied terrains are home to rabbit-ear irises, marsh primroses, mountain peonies, dogwoods and myriad alpine upland plants.

Details: Adults £3.50, children £2. Open daily, 9am to 5pm, March to November (hakone-shisseikaen.com).

Imperial Palace Gardens, Tokyo

The nearest thing to a park as we would know it, the Eastern garden of the Imperial Palace is another sanctuary. Entering over a moat, through magnificent walls and gate houses, the broad paths and tall trees offer promenades that one might find in Hyde Park.

Details: Free entry. Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm in summer, 9am to 4pm in winter (kunaicho.go.jp).

Shukkeien Garden, Hiroshima

Just over a mile from the epicentre of the atomic bomb explosion, this jewel of Hiroshima has been restored to its former glory. A large pond bisected by a symbolic bridge is surrounded by meticulously constructed viewpoints, each highlighting choreographed vistas of bamboo forests, tea plantations, peony and plum groves and man-made islands. Two Gingko trees are pointed out as survivors of the horrendous conflagration.

Details: Adult £1.30, children 50p. Open daily, 9am to 6pm in summer, 9am to 5pm in winter (shukkeien.jp).

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Not so much a garden as a man-made forest of 60,000 trees, planted to hide a splendid shrine to celebrate the Meiji Restoration. 

It is the moment during our Victorian era when the old Shogunate handed the task of modernising long-isolated Japan back to the Emperor and a parliamentary democracy modelled on our own.

Details: Free entry. Open daily (meijijingu.or.jp).

Sagano Bamboo Grove, Kyoto

Tucked behind the 600-year-old Zen Buddhist Tenryu-ji shrine, a UN World Heritage site, is a mountainside bamboo forest whose astonishing trees soar above the crowds.

Details: Free entry. Open daily, 24 hours (ja.kyoto.travel).

Ryoan-ji Temple garden, Kyoto

The most famous Zen garden in Japan, its centrepiece is a raked gravel courtyard in which 15 large rocks are strategically placed for contemplation. Legend has it that if you can see all 15 stones at the same time, you have achieved enlightenment.

Details: Adults £3, children £1.50. Open daily, 8am to 5pm in summer, 8.30am to 4.30pm in winter (www.ryoanji.jp).

TRAVEL FACTS 

The Best of Japan 13-day escorted tour (rivieratravel.co.uk) costs from £4,399pp departing May 10, 2025. Includes return flights, transfers, bullet train travel, 11 nights B&B in four-star hotels and an expert tour guide throughout. Price based on two people sharing. 

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2024-06-25T13:21:38Z dg43tfdfdgfd