The Gardens of Tokyo

Kyu-Iwasaki-tei // Kyu-Furukawa // Rikugien // Koishikawa Korakuen // Kyu-Shiba-Rikyu // Hama-Rikyu // Kiyosumi // Mukojima-Hyakkaen // Meji Jingu Shrine Gardens // Others

Tokyo isn’t really known for its gardens and it certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the number as Kyoto. There are around 10-20 notable public gardens to visit, in comparison to Kyoto’s 100 or so. However, volume isn’t everything: Tokyo has some lovely gardens, as well as many public parks. 

The famous visitor gardens in Tokyo are mostly Edo Period (1603-1868), although there are some more modern Meji Period (1868- 1912) gardens. This is in contrast to Kyoto, where many of the famous gardens are much, much older. Additionally, Tokyo’s famous gardens were originally created by wealthy merchants, samurai or aristocracy as private gardens, rather than being attached to a temple or shrine. That means: no Zen! No piles of stones, no raked gravel. Instead, lots of large Pond Strolling and Unconstrained Style gardens which are designed for simple enjoyment and beautiful views. Here’s a run down of the main gardens…

Kyu-Iwasaki-tei 旧岩崎邸庭園

Rubbish. Don’t bother, unless you’re interested in ugly mansions that have been built in a funny mishmash Western- Japanese fusion. The garden is boring: it’s just a big lawn with a band of trees around it. The house was built by the Mitsubishi Company family in the western style in 1896, and as such has a ‘western’ style garden to accompany. Apparently western meant boring in 1896. Well, the Meji period was all about being open to the world, and even the Emperor Meji dressed in Western dress, so I suppose it was the (boring) fashion.

Kyu-Furukawa Teien 旧古河庭園

Another Western-Japanese fusion affair but much better, if a little strange. This garden was built in the Taisho Period (1912-1926), so is the most modern garden I have visited in Japan. The house (which, from a certain angle, made me feel like I was in Scotland) was designed by a British architect called Josiah Condor. It is surrounded by a formal rose terrace, a formal lawn and bedding area. This time of year isn’t the best for those features and it looked, well- like a crap park in a sad seaside resort. But! I think it would be really lovely in the spring and summer as it was clearly well maintained and there were some nice features; just a bit heavy on the kitsch victoriana for my tastes. Below the formal gardens there is a lovely traditional Pond Garden and a Tea Garden, including an ume grove, waterfall, island, bridges, tea house and a particularly good dry waterfall (karataki). Obviously the two halves of the garden are wildly different but there was no clash, as the Japanese garden is downhill of the rose terraces and bedding and they have an reasonable buffer of shrubs and trees.

Rikugien 六義園

Not just a strolling garden, a poetry strolling garden! Rikugien was built by the samurai lord (Daimyo) Yanagisawa Yohiyasu in 1695-1702.  It was originally  designed to present 88 views from famous poems, and the name Rikugi comes from the word for the six types of Waka poetry. Unfortunately it was neglected for a long time and so only some of those views are identified now. Actually, it was restored by the Mitusbishi people- the father of the man that built ugly Kyu-Iwasaki-tei. He did a much better job than his son, because Rikugien is lovely. It is a large garden and has some wilder spaces, some (small) hills and lots of water. This was the first time I’d visited a garden in Japan with some less restrained, more natural feeling areas: and it was like a breath of cool air. I love the Japanese style but it is somewhat severe, and very intellectual. Sometimes it’s nice to walk under big trees and feel like you’re just in the woods (really beautiful woods, of course). Also! I visited this garden just before lunch and some nice old ladies gave me an orange while I was admiring the view of the pond. It made me & my belly very happy.


Koshikawa Korakuen 小石川後楽園

OK, so all of the gardens I’ve mentioned above are in the middle of a city made entirely of high-rise buildings. However, none of them are overly affected by their tall & ugly neighbours. Poor Koshikawa Korakuen, on the other hand, is almost overwhelmed by its surroundings. Of course, it is worse at this time of year because there are no leaves on the trees but I think only a stand of Californian redwoods could hide Tokyo Dome City, looming like a white whale over this delicate garden. Oh dear. If you can do your best to ignore all of the surrounding buildings, this is a lovely place and the first that has made me really stamp my feet in longing for spring. There is a huge iris field, lots of cherries and some amazing wisteria trellises, all of which look like not much at the moment. It also has some really good bridges, some brilliant pines and an ume grove. The design of the garden was influenced by a Chinese scholar so it includes Chinese features like a half-moon bridge and others that I can’t pretend to have noticed! This is one of the oldest gardens in Tokyo and is considered super important.

Kyu-Shiba-Rikyu 旧芝離宮恩賜庭園

This garden suffers the same over-looking fate as Koshikawa Korakuen but I didn’t mind it so much. Either because I was getting used to blocking out skyscrapers from my vision, or because I visited mid-morning in bright sunshine, whereas I saw Koshikawa in late afternoon when all those skyscrapers were blocking out the light from the low sun. Anyway, I liked this garden a lot: mostly for the stones and the stone arrangement around the edge of the ponds and the paths. Most gardens in japan have ponds but the edges of them can be quite different and really affect the feeling created. This garden uses rough, jagged stones placed in a coarse way, giving the impression of cliffs and seashore. I haven’t seen that anywhere before. The path around the pond also leads you to walk very close to the edge of the water (unlike in Rikugien when you are almost always kept away) which gives a refreshing and cooling atmosphere. If that sounds odd, well- you just suggest some better adjectives! This garden actually used to be under the waters of Tokyo Bay, but the land was reclaimed in the Edo period, when the garden was built. They’ve been reclaiming land from the ocean for a long time in Japan.

Hama-Rikyu 浜離宮恩賜庭園

This is a large garden (for Japan), right on the edge of Tokyo Bay, near Kyu Shiba Rikyu. It’s still connected to the sea and has a large tidal pond. It has been the private house of the Tokugawa Shoguns* from 1654 until the Meji restoration when it passed to the Emperor. So, this is a garden of POWER. It has existed in its current form since the time of the 11th shogun (1787-1837), with some major restoration post earthquake, WW2 etc.

Notable features include a duck hunting pond and shrine (which we found HILARIOUS but not for the ducks), an amazing 300 year old pine tree, loads of water, flower gardens, ume grove, very smooth stones as the edges of the pond, skyscraper backdrop, good trees. This is a large landscape garden and in spring and summer would be a great place to escape the city a little, especially as it runs a long the edge of the river. I liked it, and it should be high on a visitor’s list to visit. However, it didn’t affect me as much as Rikugien or Kyu Shiba Rikyu. I don’t have a particularly good reason for that- it might simply be because it was busier!

*During the Edo period, Japan was ruled by the military, whose leaders were called shoguns; a series of shoguns from the  Tokugawa clan/family ruled from 1601 to 1867. Super simplifying history is my forté.

Kiyosumi 清澄庭園

An wonderful lesson in making a small space seem bigger, and another in the line of Mitsubishi-related gardens of Tokyo. This was the home and garden of the founder of Mitsubishi (the same guy that restored Rikugien), although only half of the original garden remains: the other half was destroyed in the 1923 earthquake. This is a really great garden. It is small but designed so cleverly that it looks really large- even when you’ve walked all the way around and you know that it’s not. I can’t quite get a handle on how this works: through changing levels in the path around the pond, through the placement of the islands, use of trees of varying sizes- I don’t know. But it’s really good. The garden also has excellent stones and some perilous bridges. The genius of rock placement in japanese gardens was made particularly clear to me here (although it is evident in many of the other gardens I’ve visited, I’m just slow on the uptake). I think the art of stone placement is really undervalued by western/modern eyes, which is mostly a result of how skilled the original designers and gardeners were. That’s to say, the stones are placed so well as to appear completely natural, even though the whole thing is man made, and every individual rock or waterway was dug or placed by someone. To make something so well that people don’t even notice that you’ve done it, is a feat to aim for!

If it sounds like I’m obsessed with rocks, it’s because I am.

Mukojima-Hyakkaen Gardens 向島百花園

I had high hopes for the this garden and was disappointed. It’s known for having ‘a hundred flowers blooming in every season.’ Err… No, actually, I don’t think so. Flower gardens are unusual in Japan, and this is the only remaining Edo Period example, so it is very famous. Unfortunately, it’s February so there was nothing much in bloom, apart from ume (very impressive ume, it must be said). Of course, I wasn’t really expecting 100 different types of flower; I was disappointed because it’s poorly maintained (messy beds, muddy paths) and the fundamental design is quite ordinary. I think it’s possible to have super smart japanese design features and loads of nice flowers, isn’t it? I am yet to see that. If you’re in Tokyo in the spring and summer, I think that the garden would be lovely: a great change to see a wider variety of plants and it is historically significant- but it doesn’t compete with British flower gardens. Sorry Japan!

Meiji Jingu Inner Garden

Meiji Jingu shrine, obviously, is dedicated to the Emperor Meji, of Meji Period fame. It is a lovely building, within a large wooded park. Apart from the shrine, there are some MASSIVE torii (鳥居), lovely bridges and a garden. The garden actually existed before the shrine: it was appropriated by Emperor Meji from an aristocrat for the lovely Empress Shoken. It is known for its iris garden and something called Kiyomasa’s well. Despite the fact that there were loads of tourists in the main Meji Jingu grounds, there were far fewer people in the garden and it is a lovely peaceful spot. It may well be the only garden in Tokyo which isn’t overlooked by buildings! It’s more of woodland garden and so there wasn’t much in particular to see at this time of year but I really enjoyed wandering the winding paths through the bamboo and along the edge of the pond. The iris garden is an interesting example of the way Japanese gardens tend to severely and unashamedly compartmentalise by season: in the UK, we try very hard to make every part of the garden look at least OK, all year around. We don’t like to have anywhere that looks awful at any point, even if it’s to have something absolutely amazing at another time. This isn’t the way in Japan: for example, Meji Jingu’s iris garden (and the ones in Hama-Rikyu & Koshikawa Korakuen) looks terrible now. As a result, that bit of the garden isn’t very pleasing to be in. But, when the irises are flowering, it will look incredible! For a short time. I’m not sure what I think about this, yet. Any opinions?

The Ones that Got Away


I missed out on visiting the Imperial Palace Garden and Shinjuku Gyoen because I’m an idiot head and didn’t realise that they are closed on Mondays. There are also a few other gardens & parks in the city that are worth visiting, so here’s my wish list of the rest…

  • Shinjuku Gyoen 新宿御苑: the most famous garden in Tokyo. Former Imperial garden, it has a French, English and Japanese garden, even glasshouses. If you go to one garden in Tokyo, go to this one. Unless you’re a muppet.
  • Imperial Palace East Garden 皇居東御苑: much of the ground of the imperial palace is open all the time as a park, but the main proper garden is open to ticketed entry (not on Mondays or Fridays). I don’t think it’s that special, but still historically significant.
  • Tonogoyato Garden 殿ヶ谷戸庭園: the only one of the Tokyo Metropolitan gardens that I didn’t see. It’s quite far out of town but in the same direction as the Ghibli Museum and the Edo Open Air Architecture Museum, so would be a good 1/3 of a day trip. It is 20th century and the photos look nice!
  • Happoen: I think this is privately owned, they certainly have a restaurant and do weddings and tea ceremony. It looks amazing!  But I ran out of time :/
  • Koshikawa Botanical Garden: I didn’t visit this because Tomoko-san (and apparently also James & Tim the USA Triad Fellows) says it’s rubbish. But I love botanical gardens, so I’d still like to go.
  • Parks! I visited Shiba Koen and the massive Ueno Park but I think there are few more to see. Any suggestions?

If you got to the end of this very long blog, then I am impressed and also a little flattered. Thanks!



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