From a Zen sand garden in Portland, to an Edo-style strolling path in Seattle, here is a guide to the country’s most beautiful Japanese gardens.
Those of us dreaming of traveling to Japan will have to practice the art of patience, as the country has currently barred leisure tourism from 152 nations including America. Fortunately, we can still experience the beauty of Japanese culture, architecture, and spirituality at authentic gardens located throughout the United States.
America has over 200 public Japanese gardens, which are designed to evoke the feeling of an untouched mystical landscape. Many include traditional structures like a tatami-floored tea pavilion, and natural features such as koi fish ponds. In response to the pandemic, most gardens require guests to wear masks, and offer limited numbers of timed tickets per day.
Spring gives us a short window to admire cherry blossom trees at a Japanese garden. Visitors can take part in hanami, the age-old tradition of picnicking under the pink flowers. In the age of COVID-19, the concept of “mono no aware”—a wistful recognition of impermanence, as represented by the falling blossoms—hits especially close to home.
Spend time outdoors at America’s most spectacular Japanese gardens, and get immersed in the elegant culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.
1. Japanese Hill-and-Pond at Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn’s 52-acre Botanic Garden is famous for its visually striking Japanese Hill-and-Pond. Designed by Takeo Shiota, the Japanese garden debuted in 1915, making it one of the oldest in America. Look for a dramatic red Shinto torii perched over the 1.5 acre pond, which was modeled after Japan’s famous Miyajima Gate.
The surrounding hillside gardens are carefully arranged shizen-style to highlight natural formations. A winding path turns to reveal a five-tiered waterfall, blanked by ferns that hang “just so” for a serene effect. With details such as a curving wood bridge and a tiny Shinto shrine, every vista feels like a scene from an ancient painting.
Between March and May, the Cherry Esplanade explodes into color with double rows of blossoming trees. Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden houses 27 species that bud at different times, covering the “Cherry Walk” with petals ranging from white to dark pink.
Open Tuesdays-Sundays (except holidays), 990 Washington Ave, 718/623-7200, bbg.org, admission $18.
2. Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon
After World War II, many American cities founded Japanese gardens as a way of rebuilding cultural understanding. In 1967, Portland transformed the former Washington Park Zoo into a green space based on Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophies. Today, their Japanese Garden is considered one of most impressive in the nation.
Most gardens adhere to one traditional landscaping style, but Portland’s designers decided to showcase five historical forms over 5.5 acres. The Sand and Stone Garden features swirls of gravel and minimalist boulders, which encourage the Zen contemplation of emptiness. In contrast, Kashintei Tea House sits in an otherworldly grove, prefaced by a mossy path of irregular stepping stones. The showcase extends to the present with Kengo Kuma’s LEED-certified Cultural Village, a blend of contemporary steel and glass with ancient aesthetics.
Open Thursdays-Mondays, 611 SW Kingston Ave, 503/223-1321, japanesegarden.org, admission $18.95.
3. Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Florida
South Florida has a surprising century-old connection with Japan. In the early 1900s, a group of Japanese farmers established an agricultural colony named Yamato in what is now Boca Raton. They introduced innovative crops and farming methods to stimulate the local economy, but the project failed to take off and was abandoned by the 1920s.
In 1977, Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens opened to honor this local heritage. The villa has a permanent exhibit about Yamato Colony, with thousands of artifacts such as teacups and textiles. The surrounding 16 acre garden is known for its elegant strolling paths marked by stone lanterns and basins. Admire the collections of tropical plants, and don’t be surprised to see turtles, iguanas, and alligators basking in the central lake.
Morikami specializes in bonsai exhibitions and classes: anyone can learn how to trim and grow a tree in the tiniest of planters. On Saturdays, witness an intricate Japanese tea ceremony at Seishin-an teahouse. Visitors can also stop by Cornell Cafe to enjoy a bento lunch on the open-air terrace.
Open Tuesdays-Sundays (except holidays), 4000 Morikami Park Rd, 561/495-0233, morikami.org, admission $15.
4. Shofuso Japanese House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Since opening its doors in 1958, Shofuso’s careful attention to authenticity has reflected Philadelphia’s post-war friendship with Japan. The garden’s centerpiece is a magnificent 17th century-style house surrounded by weeping cherry trees. Designed in the shoin-style, the fully-functional home sits under a long peaked roof balanced on wood posts. Step inside rooms with tatami mats and sliding white shoji screens. In 2007, artist Hiroshi Senju installed twenty waterfall murals on mulberry paper, creating a permanent exhibit that flows with the living space.
Shofuso House overlooks a koi pond and an acre of photogenic gardens. Pause to feed the fish, and contemplate the sound of a three-tiered waterfall. Look for a towering stone statue of the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo, nestled by a wall of bamboo. (In the winter, the deity wears a bright red hat and bib for protection.)
Open Wednesdays-Sundays, Lansdowne Dr & Horticultural Dr, 215/878-5097, japanphilly.org/shofuso, admission $12.
5. Seattle Japanese Garden, Seattle, Washington
Seattle’s Japanese Garden was inspired by the “stroll gardens” of the Edo era. In the 17th century, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and samurai. The daimyo, or feudal lords, built winding paths around their castles that let guests discover scenic views at every turn.
Since 1960, Seattle residents have enjoyed exploring the meandering paths around the Japanese Garden’s pond. Each bend reveals dazzling details such as a zigzagging wood bridge, or a simple teahouse from Tokyo. Landscape designer Juki Iida seeded a variety of plants native both to Japan and the Pacific Northwest. He also travelled to the Cascade Mountains and brought back 500 granite boulders, which he arranged around the waterfall. The effect is natural and harmonious, revealing vistas bit by bit as you journey along the path.
Open Tuesdays-Sundays, 1075 Lake Washington Blvd E., 206/684-4725, seattlejapanesegarden.org, admission $8.
6. The Cherry Blossom Grove, Washington, DC
In 1912, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo City, Japan, gifted 2000 cherry blossom trees to Washington as a symbol of the growing friendship between the countries. The trees were planted around the tidal basin on the National Mall, and fill the monuments with a saturated pink every spring at peak bloom.
Washington, DC, holds the annual cherry blossom festival every spring (though it is cancelled this year due to COVID), which brinngs people from near and far to see the beautiful trees.
Open year-round. The National Mall, DC. Free to visit.