Through Tokyo’s unique history, large landscaped gardens have become a key feature of the city, quite different from most other metropolis cities around the world. It is also one of Tokyo’s most overlooked features by many tourists.
Speaking from my own experience in cities as Paris, London and New York, I feel there is just no comparison. These cities have large parks, but few beautiful gardens. Tokyo also has plenty of parks by the way, but I would like to focus in this article on the gardens.
The background of this all is Tokyo’s 400 year history as capital of Japan and the policy of sankin-kōtai that required each major feudal lord to reside every few years in the city for a considerable amount of time, requiring him to build a residence worthy of his status, including a beautiful garden!
Now, where are these great gardens? Many have disappeared or have been transformed beyond recognition. I would say there are only 2 true gardens left from this age. However, they formed the basis of many of the gardens that exist today such as Kiyosumi Garden. Sometimes the story behind the garden is more complicated as with Rikugien, but firmly connected to the long reign of Tokugawa Shoguns.
Instead of making a long list, I would like to introduce the 5 gardens that impressed me the most.
1. Koishikawa Korakuen (Bunkyo-ku)
Koishikawa Korakuen garden is Tokyo’s oldest garden (established in 1629) and a remnant of the Mito Domain feudal lord’s garden. Development of the garden was started by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 11th son Yorifusa (1603-1661). Koishikawa Korakuen is a circuit-style garden with ponds and man-made hills. The garden was developed with advice from Zhu Shun Shui (1600-1682), a refugee scholar of the Ming Dynasty who also gave the garden its name. Korakuen is derived from a Chinese poem by Fan Zhongyan which means “garden for pleasure after”, signifying ”hardship now, pleasure later”. Check my full article on Koishikawa Korakuen.
Closest metro station: Iidabashi Station – 2 minutes walk from Exit C3 (Namboku Line, Chūō-Sōbu Line, Tozai Line, Yurakucho Line, Toei Oedo Line)
Size: 70,847.17 square meters
Entrance fee: JPY 300
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00 (Entry until 16:30). Closed: Year-end holidays (29 December – 1 January)
Name in Japanese: 小石川後楽園
2. Rikugien (Bunkyo-ku)
Designed by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, an official in the Tokugawa shogunate and a favorite of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (5th Tokugawa shogun, reign: 1680-1709). It’s also a circuit garden featuring a central pond with a path going around it. There are 88 scenic spots, named after incidents from Chinese history, as well as evoking famous places in Japan and direct references to Waka poems. Check my full article on Rikugien.
Closest metro station: Komagome Station – 7 minutes walk from South exit or exit 2 (Yamanote line, Namboku line)
Size: 87,809.41 square meters
Entrance fee: JPY 300
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00. During selected periods in spring and autumn it is open until 21:00. Closed: Year-end holidays (29 December – 1 January)
Name in Japanese: 六義園
3. Kiyosumi Garden (Koto-ku)
A classic style circuit garden developed by Iwasaki Yatarō (1835-1885), the founder of Mitsubishi, who acquired the land in 1878, even though the history of the garden dates back to the early 18th century. Kiyosumi Garden has a collection of rare stones and an impressive teahouse (1909) built to welcome Marshal Kitchener of England for his trip to Japan. Check my full article on Kiyosumi Garden.
Closest metro station: Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station – 3 minutes walk (Hanzomon line, Toei Oedo Line)
Size: 37,434.32 square meters
Entrance fee: JPY 150
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00 (last entry 16:30). Closed 29 December – 1 January.
Name in Japanese: 清澄庭園
4. Kyu Shiba Rikyu (Minato-ku)
Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden is a popular garden surrounded by buildings, bringing you the classic combination of old and modern Japan. It is together with Koishikawa Korakuen a clear example of a remaining feudal lord garden. This garden was established in 1686 by Tadatomo Ōkubo (1632-1712). As many gardens of those days, many places in the garden point to China. Check my full article on Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden.
Closest metro station: Hamamatsuchō Station – 1 minutes walk from North Exit (Keihin-Tōhoku Line, Yamanote Line, Tokyo Monorail Haneda Airport Line)
Size: 42,035.40 square meters
Entrance fee: JPY 150
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00 (last entry 16:30). Closed during New Year’s holiday: 29 December – 3 January
Name in Japanese: 旧芝離宮恩賜庭園
5. Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku-ku)
In my first years in Tokyo, I was aware of a couple of nice gardens such as this one. I think the first entrance point for most foreigners is often Shinjuku Gyoen due to its vicinity of Shinjuku and Shibuya, still the major attraction areas for foreigners in the city. This 58.3 hectares garden (the big size makes it feel more like a park) is a delight to walk around. Shinjuku Gyoen started out as a feudal lord garden (Lord Naito) in the 18th century, then became a botanical garden and imperial garden at the end of the 19th century, before it opened as a national park in 1949. This garden is different from the above 4 gardens as it blends 3 styles of garden: a French Formal and English Landscape garden in the north and to the south a Japanese traditional garden.
View from the Goryotei early autumn
Closest metro station:
Size: 583,000.00 square meters
Entrance fee: JPY 200
Opening hours: 9:00-16:30 (last entry at 16:00, closed on Mondays, or Tuesday if Monday was a national holiday). Also closed during New Year’s holiday.
Name in Japanese: 新宿御苑
BONUS: 5 more gardens
Not satisfied with the list above? There are plenty more gardens in Tokyo worth visiting. Actually, making the above list was pretty hard. So I decided to list another 5 (please note this is not an exhaustive list):
- Hamarikyu Garden: right next to Kyu Shiba Rikyu garden and very similar as well. However, the bigger size and more trees give less overview.
- Dembou-in Garden: a hidden away temple garden only open during spring.
- Ninomaru Garden in the Imperial Palace East Gardens: in the vastness of the Imperial Palace grounds is a nice Japanese garden as well.
- Koishikawa Japanese Garden (inside the Botanical Garden): one part of the large botanical garden is a beautiful landscaped Japanese garden.
- Meiji Shrine Iris Garden: iris flower garden that the Meiji Emperor designed himself in order to entertain the empress and pre-dates the shrine.