My Favourite Gardens in Japan

13th April 2016 • ArchivePrevious PostNext Post

Shobo-ji, Kyoto.

I’m sometimes asked, by people planning a trip to Japan, of my favourite, or recommended gardens in Japan. I always find this surprisingly difficult and often give completely different answers to different people. It varies so much, and memory and emotion play funny tricks. What’s my favourite breakfast? I eat cornflakes most days, but have extremely fond memories of full Scottish breakfasts that I last ate over twenty years ago. Remember also that I’m not particularly obsessed by the gardens themselves - they just happen to be home to lots of nice trees.

My genuine answer, for ‘favourite gardens’ is the ones I stumble across, while walking or driving around, usually lost. They’re often glimpses, no more. So my advice would be to get lost, explore, peek over fences. You won’t get the same experience as visiting temple gardens, but you’ll get a feel of real gardens, in real life.

As for temple gardens, specifically in Kyoto: get a book, get a map. Find a temple you like the look of, find it on the map, and look around for other temples nearby. Kyoto isn’t a huge city, but you don’t want to criss cross around unnecessarily - take a train, bus or subway (I often walk, it’s barely more than an hour top to bottom, although inevitably there are detours to be had) to an area, and explore that area. There’s stacks to see. Knock off a couple of biggies that you’d be mad to miss, but then nose around the back streets and drop in on the intriguing looking temple that might just have a cherry tree in perfect flower, or a pine tree with gardeners swarming over it. For example, once you've seen Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, and traipsed down the Path of Philosophy, why not visit Honen-in. Most temples are only ¥600 a pop - fantastically good value even if you only spend half an hour there.

But what are MY favourite gardens?

As I said, it changes. I used to think Shisendo-in and Touji-in (be careful, there’s also a Toji-in) were my top two in Kyoto, for reasons I can no longer recall. I visited both again in January 2016 and was underwhelmed, although I did see a fabulous Cryptomeria Dai Sugi near Shisendo that I’d never seen before. That trip, my best experiences were at Enkoji (no, not that Enkoji, closed to the public and without a garden - the other one, with a garden, and a lovely guy at the entrance who I enjoyed talking to) and a visit with one of our suppliers to Kennen-ji. 

The Arashiyama area is definitely worth a visit - Gio-ji is my fave, and gives Saiho-ji a run for its money if it's moss you’re after. The outer reaches of Kyoto are always fun. If you’re up for a bit of a journey, you’ll enjoy Yoshimine Dera, and you’d be a fool not to drop in on Shobo-ji if you’d made it that far already. You’ll need a car, or bike.

My family-in-law are from a place called Tondabayashi. it’s less than 50 miles to Kyoto, but we rarely bother - there’s so much to see in rural Osaka and Nara. Taima Dera is a corker. A brother-in-law or uncle to drive you around is helpful.

Shikoku? Very fond memories of Zuigan-ji in Tokushima. Kyushu - Suizen-ji. Southern Honshu, may as well visit the Adachi museum to see what all the fuss is about (it is extraordinary but definitely not one of my favourites.)

Up north? Dunno, I’m usually up there on business, no time for gardens. Kenrokuen, over on the west side of Japan is fun.

What about private gardens? There is no garden open scheme in Japan, and really, domestic gardens aren’t made to be visited, especially by large numbers. Get an introduction, know the right people, sweet talk old ladies outside their house as they’re sweeping their gateway… they all work. It’s a shame though, because the domestic gardens are great. Imagine coming to the UK, visiting Hampton Court and Hidecote, and leaving thinking you’d had a good look at English gardening.

There, I hope that helps.  Feel free to add your thoughts below…

Gio-ji, Kyoto

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