Rikugien Garden (Tokyo): It's not as centrally located as
Tokyo's other gardens, but Rikugien stands out not only for its
quintessentially Japanese setting but also because its vistas are
unmarred by surrounding skyscrapers. Created in 1702 and later donated
to the city by the founder of Mitsubishi, it boasts a strolling path
around a pond complete with islets, teahouses, and arched bridges.
Sankeien Garden (Yokohama): Historic villas, tea arbors, a
farmhouse, a pagoda, and other authentic buildings, all set in a
century-old landscaped garden with ponds and streams, make this one of
the most interesting and picturesque gardens near the capital.
Ryoanji Temple (Kyoto): Japan's most famous Zen rock garden,
laid out at the end of the 15th century, consists of moss-covered
boulders and raked pebbles enclosed by an earthen wall. It is said that
it's impossible to see all 15 rocks from any vantage point; see if you
can. Come early in the morning for some peaceful meditation and to beat
Katsura Imperial Villa (Kyoto): Designed by Japan's most
famous gardener, Kobori Enshu, the garden surrounding this imperial
villa is, in my view, Japan's most beautiful. A "strolling garden," its
view changes with every step but is always complete, perfectly balanced,
and in harmony. It's well worth the extra effort involved to see it.
Saihoji (Kyoto): Popularly known as the Moss Temple, Saihoji
boasts Japan's most famous moss garden, with more than 100 varieties
spread around a pond and giving off an iridescent glow. It's especially
beautiful after a rainfall.
Kenrokuen Garden (Kanazawa): Considered by some to be Japan's
grandest landscape garden (and rated one of the "three best"),
Kenrokuen is also one of the largest. The garden took 150 years to
complete and consists of ponds, streams, rocks, mounds, trees, grassy
expanses, and footpaths. Best of all, no tall buildings detract from the
views. After Katsura, this is my top choice.
Koko-en (Himeji): It isn't old (it was laid out in 1992), but
this is a wonderful surprise package of nine small gardens, each one
different but typical of gardens during the Edo Period, which lasted
from 1603 to 1867. Upon seeing what can be accomplished with skill and
money in little more than 18 years, some gardeners may turn green with
Korakuen Garden (Okayama): Rated one of Japan's three most
beautiful gardens, Korakuen was completed in 1700 and incorporates the
surrounding hills and Okayama Castle into its design. It's definitely
worth a visit if you're in the vicinity, though personally, I like
Ritsurin Garden (Takamatsu): Dating from the 17th century,
this former private retreat of the ruling Matsudaira clan is an
exquisite strolling garden that incorporates Mount Shiun in its
landscaping and boasts 1,400 pine trees and 350 cherry trees. Stop for
tea in the Feudal-Era teahouse and contemplate the view at leisure.
Sengan-en (Kagoshima): Laid out more than 300 years ago by
the Shimadzu clan, this summer retreat with a 25-room villa was known
for its poem-composing parties, held beside a rivulet that still exists.
After touring the garden and villa, be sure to visit the nearby museum
with relics belonging to the Shimadzu family.