Rikugien Garden (Tokyo): It's not as centrally located as Tokyo's other gardens, but Rikugien stands out not only for its quintessentially Japanese setting but also because its vistas are unmarred by surrounding skyscrapers. Created in 1702 and later donated to the city by the founder of Mitsubishi, it boasts a strolling path around a pond complete with islets, teahouses, and arched bridges.
Sankeien Garden (Yokohama): Historic villas, tea arbors, a farmhouse, a pagoda, and other authentic buildings, all set in a century-old landscaped garden with ponds and streams, make this one of the most interesting and picturesque gardens near the capital.
Ryoanji Temple (Kyoto): Japan's most famous Zen rock garden, laid out at the end of the 15th century, consists of moss-covered boulders and raked pebbles enclosed by an earthen wall. It is said that it's impossible to see all 15 rocks from any vantage point; see if you can. Come early in the morning for some peaceful meditation and to beat the crowds.
Katsura Imperial Villa (Kyoto): Designed by Japan's most famous gardener, Kobori Enshu, the garden surrounding this imperial villa is, in my view, Japan's most beautiful. A "strolling garden," its view changes with every step but is always complete, perfectly balanced, and in harmony. It's well worth the extra effort involved to see it.
Saihoji (Kyoto): Popularly known as the Moss Temple, Saihoji boasts Japan's most famous moss garden, with more than 100 varieties spread around a pond and giving off an iridescent glow. It's especially beautiful after a rainfall.
Kenrokuen Garden (Kanazawa): Considered by some to be Japan's grandest landscape garden (and rated one of the "three best"), Kenrokuen is also one of the largest. The garden took 150 years to complete and consists of ponds, streams, rocks, mounds, trees, grassy expanses, and footpaths. Best of all, no tall buildings detract from the views. After Katsura, this is my top choice.
Koko-en (Himeji): It isn't old (it was laid out in 1992), but this is a wonderful surprise package of nine small gardens, each one different but typical of gardens during the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867. Upon seeing what can be accomplished with skill and money in little more than 18 years, some gardeners may turn green with envy.
Korakuen Garden (Okayama): Rated one of Japan's three most beautiful gardens, Korakuen was completed in 1700 and incorporates the surrounding hills and Okayama Castle into its design. It's definitely worth a visit if you're in the vicinity, though personally, I like Kenrokuen more.
Ritsurin Garden (Takamatsu): Dating from the 17th century, this former private retreat of the ruling Matsudaira clan is an exquisite strolling garden that incorporates Mount Shiun in its landscaping and boasts 1,400 pine trees and 350 cherry trees. Stop for tea in the Feudal-Era teahouse and contemplate the view at leisure.
Sengan-en (Kagoshima): Laid out more than 300 years ago by the Shimadzu clan, this summer retreat with a 25-room villa was known for its poem-composing parties, held beside a rivulet that still exists. After touring the garden and villa, be sure to visit the nearby museum with relics belonging to the Shimadzu family. This garden is one of my favorites.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.