Explore Tokyo’s finest Japanese gardens
Explore Tokyo’s finest Japanese gardens
Video, Tokyo

Tokyo’s finest Japanese gardens

High above the city, Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo boasts some of the most stunning views of the megalopolis. Head back down to earth, and there’s no better place to escape the pace of Tokyo, than in the serene surroundings of a Japanese garden. Here, Sophie Walker chooses her top horticultural spots within an hour of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. From bamboo groves to an urban homage to Canada, there is much to please the eye and soothe the soul

The historic: Kōkyo Higashi-gyōen (Imperial Palace East Gardens), Tokyo

In central Tokyo, within the grounds of the former Edo Castle (now Tokyo Imperial Palace), these extensive park gardens (pictured above) are situated in the political heart of Japan, overlooked by towering skyscrapers. The broader, more open gardens have a gently sloping zoysia grass lawn, prized for its distinctive yellow colour in winter. Within the complex, enclaves lead to other more intimate spaces such as the Ninomaru Gardens, which were destroyed by fire in 1867 but restored in the 1960s to the specification of a drawing left by the ninth shōgun Ieshige (1712–61). As a tribute, the gardens contain trees donated by every prefecture of Japan; the irises were donated from the nearby Meiji Grand Shrine and the carp in the pond were bred at the suggestion of the current Heisei emperor, a marine biologist.
Distance from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo: a five minute drive

The surprising: Canadian Embassy, Tokyo

Garden designer Masuno Shunmyō, a Sōtō Zen priest of Kenkō-ji temple in Yokohama, continues the tradition of ishidatesō (the literal transation of which is, ‘a priest who stands on stones’). For him, garden design is a spiritual practice: he sits in contemplation before working on a garden in order to cultivate a relationship with the space, the materials he will use and the visitors who will enjoy his work. This garden (pictured above) is on the fourth floor of the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Sharply cut stones bear the marks of their drilling out of the ground, and their arrangement brings to mind the mountains and glaciers of the northern Canadian landscape. Poised within an urban architecture, Shunmyō’s garden creates a subtle space. The tree tops below in the neighbouring Akasaka Palace form shakkei (borrowed scenery) into the water garden, which is accessed by a geometric path hovering above the water’s edge. Shakkei is a technique where distant views are incorporated into the garden setting and thereby become part of the design.
Distance from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo: a 15 minute drive

The mysterious: Nezu Museum, Tokyo

Conceived as a shinzan-yūkoku garden that recreates the tranquil atmosphere of deep mountains and mysterious valleys, the Nezu Museum’s (pictured above) modern garden offers peaceful and unexpected respite from the bustling city of Tokyo that surrounds it. Entered along a long geometric bamboo passage designed by Kengo Kuma – who also built the museum – the garden reveals a series of deepening layers as the garden path leads further into the verdant space. At each turn, you’ll make new discoveries – no fewer than four teahouses, two large ponds, an array of stone sculptures and a small shrine – and yet the garden retains a sense of intimacy. It is a testament to the cultural commitment of its founder, the early 20th-century entrepreneur and collector Kaichirō Nezu (Jr.).
Distance from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo: a 15 minute drive

The relaxing: Tonogayato Teien, Tokyo

This expansive stroll garden (pictured above) (quite literally, a garden that is designed to be strolled through) is complete with forests of bamboo and fields dotted with red pine trees, as well as a teahouse designed for viewing the autumn leaves. A natural spring feeds the Jirō Benten pond at the foot of cliffs, allowing visitors to look down on the scene – a rare viewpoint in a Japanese garden. The space makes skilful use of the borrowed scenery of rising hills and of the abundant wells of the Kokubunji area of Tokyo. It was designed as part of the holiday home for the industrialist and politician Eguchi Sadae, but was opened to the public in 1974, after being bought by the City of Tokyo.
Distance from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo: a 45 minute drive

The serene: Hōkoku-ji (Take-dera ‘Bamboo Temple’), Kamakura

Founded in 1334, the small temple of Hōkoku-ji – the family temple of the Ashikaga shōguns – is backed by a bamboo grove of around 2,000 stunning moso blue bamboos (pictured above). It was created by the Zen abbot Tengan Eko at the request of Ashikaga Ietoki, grandfather of the first Ashikaga shōgun. The caves carved into the rock at the back of the garden are similar to those at nearby Zuisen-ji. The view of the caves is interrupted by an array of geometrically clipped shrubs and trees that form the foreground of the garden, like a patchwork of texture; cloud-pruned (niwaki) Podocarpus trees are particularly impressive. Stop by the small teahouse hidden behind the bamboo grove for a bowl of powdered green tea and some traditional Japanese sweets.
Distance from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo: a one hour drive

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