The Big Three Japanese Gardens

Japanese gardens, or nihon teien, are traditional gardens built to express and symbolize native rituals and beliefs and mold landscapes to an idealized form. Originally designed for relaxation and recreation of the upper class, Japanese gardens were originally closed to the public. However, the concept of the gardens has changed nowadays to become an art appreciated by all.

Japanese gardens, in contrast to the name, have their roots in China. The concept of the gardens was brought over by missionaries from the Asian mainland and then the Japanese Imperial Court changed the ideas to suit their own tastes. The first recorded Japanese gardens were those of the emperors and nobility; a scene depicting Emperor Keikou releasing koi fish into a pond in his garden in the first century can be found in the Nihon Shoki, the Japan’s second oldest extant chronicle and the first official history, presented to the court in 720AD.

Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Koraku-en in Okayama, and Kairaku-en in Mito are collectively referred to as the Three Great Gardens of Japan, or sanmeien, as they are said to perfectly express setsugekka, which translates into snow, moon and flowers, the three most beautiful aspects of nature, throughout different points in the year.

Kenroku-en (Kanazawa)

Kenroku-en_Kanazawa, Ishikawa Winter

Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture showcases wintertime beauty.

Kenroku-en is located in Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture. Began by Maeda Tsunanori in 1676, the garden was developed over the course of two centuries. The garden is renowned for its fusion of the conflicting elements of spaciousness and seclusion. The garden is laid out with the theme of unbroken space, allowing one to see a good portion of it from anywhere on the grounds. However, there are also many nooks where one can enjoy the feeling of solitude amidst the open space. A popular attraction is the Kaiseki pagoda on the island in the center of Hisago-ike pond. Admission to Kanazawa Castle Park is free but it is 300 yen ($3) for adults to go into the Kenroku-en. It is a 10 minute taxi ride from Kanazawa station. More information can be found here.

Kairaku-en (Mito)

Plum blossoms at Kairaku-en in Mito, Ibaraki prefecture

Plum blossoms line the paths at Kairaku-en in Mito, Ibaraki prefecture.

Kairaku-en is located in Mito in Ibaraki prefecture. Tokugawa Nariaki, the lord of the Mito clan who ruled the region at that time, constructed this park in 1842 to share an enjoyment of flowers with the people. a descendent of the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, built this garden for the public in 1841. Kairaku-en is renowned for its plum trees; visiting the park in plum blossom season is a must as the garden has over 100 varieties of plum trees, each exploding in a different shades of red, white and pink. The park features the historic Kobuntei, a guesthouse of Nariaki, where he entertained intellectuals from all over the country. Entrance to the garden is free, admission to the Kobuntei costs 190 yen ($2).The garden is a 20 minute bus ride from the north exit of Mito station. More information can be found here.

Koraku-en (Okayama)

Enyo-tei House, Koraku-en, Okayama

A framed view from the Enyo-tei House at Koraku-en in Okayama prefecture.

Koraku-en is located in Okayama in Okayama prefecture. Ikeda Tsunamasa, daimyo (feudal lord) of Okayama, built the garden in 1700 as a place for entertaining important guests and also as a retreat for feudal lords. The garden is known for its vibrant colors year round; plum and cherry blossoms in the spring, irises and lotuses in the summer, maple trees whose leaves turn a fiery red in the fall, and a blanket of white in winter. Popular attractions include a traditional tea plantation, dock used by the daimyo when visiting the garden, and an aviary filled with Japanese cranes. Admission is 400 yen ($4) for adults and 140 yen ($1.40) for children/seniors. The garden is a 10-minute taxi ride from JR Okayama station. More information can be found here.