Inspiration; Five Favorite Japanese Gardens

I just returned from Japan and saw so many beautiful gardens and landscapes that it’s difficult to contain myself.  Visiting after the legendary cherry blossom season is over drives home the concept that a skillfully designed garden doesn’t need to rely on flowering plants to create a thing of beauty. Although it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The thoughtful combination of open and closed spaces, careful composition and attention to form and texture are all elements that create successful gardens no matter what the season.  Gardens that take advantage of the concept of “borrowed scenery” (shakkei) or that skillfully move your gaze from the foreground to the view beyond, especially captured my attention, since this is a technique I love to use whenever possible.


iris river in Tokyo

June brings rivers of iris into bloom in Japanese gardens. Photo by Joy Albright-Souza.


Here are five of my favorite examples;

Tamozawa Imperial Villa, Nikko: In the forested city of Nikko, in northern Japan, the garden surrounding this Royal get-a-way is only a little over 100 years old. The villa has some western touches on the inside, although the oldest parts of the house date from the 1600’s. The house and its garden make excellent use of each other, with the garden views carefully positioned in the windows and porches.

The use of tree trunks as vertical elements, placed very close to the building, are a beautiful way of drawing the eye to the view beyond. The well-designed stream, that meanders through the view from the house, is a lovely horizontal element.  Pockets of blooming primula brighten the line of the water and add seasonal interest for someone strolling along the paths.


Tamozawa door view

Garden views are carefully framed through doors and windows at Tamozawa.

Tamozawa Garden stream

A stream meanders through the landscape for viewing and strolling.

Tamozawa primulas

Blooming Primula create a bright ribbon of color along the stream.


Nanzen-ji Temple, Kyoto. The dry garden (karesansui) in the courtyard of the Hojo, at this landmark temple complex, was designed over 400 years ago. The arrangement of boulders is said to represent a tiger and her cubs at the edge of a river. The large rocks are not alone in a sea of sand, as in more minimalist examples of this style, but are artistically combined with moss, plants and trees putting this Zen garden on the “lush” end of the spectrum. What I love about this garden is the use of small trees to texturally connect to the hillside beyond the temple. It is a classic example of “borrowed” scenery, bringing the view of the distant landscape into the garden composition.


Nanzenji left

The choice of trees connects the Nanzen-ji zen garden  to the hillside beyond.


Nanzenji right

The line of the garden wall is part of the composition along with the grouping of boulders and plants.


Murin-an Villa, Kyoto. This garden surrounds the residence of a former Prime Minister, who designed the garden himself, in 1896. At Three-quarters of an acre, this garden brings many of the classic garden tricks into a residential scale. The skillfully created topography and the use of large cedar and cypress, work to almost obscure the wall that separates this garden from a wide, busy street in NE Kyoto. The design disguises the source of the water-course and hides the city beyond, while utilizing the view of the Eastern mountains, to make the garden seem like it goes on forever. The garden includes a classic tea house as well as lawn areas that were considered a westernized touch when the garden was created.


Murinan view

The view of the distant mountain is “borrowed” for the Murin-an Villa Garden in Kyoto.


Murinan Villa Garden Iris

The garden wall is almost hidden behind the line of trees, separating the Murin-an Garden from a busy Kyoto street.


Tofuku-ji Temple, Kyoto This was definitely my favorite garden destination in Japan and there are a number of gardens within this temple complex that deserve attention. The most well-known is the garden on the north side of the Abbott’s quarters where Mirei Shigemori created one of his master works in 1939. His only directive from the Abbott, when agreeing to the commission, was to re-use a pile of old paving stones.  This would fulfill an important tenet of the Rinzai sect, that nothing go to waste.

Shigemori brilliantly fulfilled this request with a checkerboard pattern that disintegrates as it trails off to the east. The foreground of alternating moss and stone is so captivating, in this well-known garden, that you are forgiven if you don’t look up at the tree tops and view beyond. The azaleas in the middle-ground were in full-bloom during my visit, providing an arrangement of seasonal color. The drama recedes to a more serene composition of soft structure during the rest of the year providing the best of both worlds.



This 20th century garden at Tofuku-ji Temple has extra drama when the azaleas are in bloom.


Tofukuji pattern

Shigemori creates a  classic with his re-use of unwanted paving stones and simple moss.


Koishikawa Korakuen, Tokyo. The concept of borrowed scenery takes on a whole new meaning in this garden in northern Tokyo. Originally built in 1629, this period stroll garden had been part of an important family’s estate during the Edo period and is now adjacent to the Tokyo Dome. While the stadium is hidden in many parts of the landscape, I found this garden most compelling when the dome loomed overhead.

A popular urban escape, this garden still functions as the stroll garden it was originally designed to be, but is now enjoyed by average Tokyo residents, not just the nobility of the past. The curve of the adjacent dome looks particularly appealing when repeated by the curve of the stone bridge over the lily pond, providing a contemporary “borrowed view” that the original designer never intended.


Tokyo Dome Lily Pond

The flattened curve of the Tokyo Dome is repeated in the curve of the stone bridge at the Koishikawa Korakuen garden. 


Tokyo dome iris river

The Tokyo Dome recedes to a sliver, looking almost like a low cloud, beyond the river of iris, in this masterful Tokyo garden.

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Categories: Garden Inspiration, Places to See


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3 Comments on “Inspiration; Five Favorite Japanese Gardens”

  1. June 22, 2015 at 2:06 am #

    I love those photos and I love Japanese gardens–alway small spaces (rooms) exquisitely composed. Thanks for sharing them.

    I have always thought about the perimeter tree and shrub structure of a successful garden to be based on a clear understanding and distribution of evergreen versus deciduous plants. Putting aside for the moment, the concept of borrowed scenery, these are the plants that define the visual and physical edges of your outdoor space or room.

    They set the background for all seasonal changes as well as backdrops for your special plants within the room. Evergreen vs deciduous first, then coarse vs fine textured foliage second. That makes the garden read beautifully all the time. Then the rest is up to nature’s seasonal variations.

    My two cents. Hope it is helpful.

  2. June 23, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

    Good point Ed, thanks for the comment. I agree that texture, in particular, is an important element.

  3. Renee
    July 4, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    Thank you for the lovely photos and perceptive thoughts.
    I particularly enjoyed seeing all the beautiful Japanese Iris, which are one of my newest favorite flowers. I wish they were easier to obtain, especially the tall ones. I have found them to be extremely fine vase flowers as well

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