Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, Finding Inspiration

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens
Japanese Garden at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens

One of my favorite things to do since I’ve been living in Tokyo is to pick out any garden on the map and go for an explore. It’s a pretty great way to see the city considering the abundance of gardens and parks scattered throughout. On this particular day, I discovered Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, which wasn’t even close to what I thought I was looking for.

It was the very beginning of summer and the tail end of the Ajisai (Hydrangea) blooming season. I was excitedly looking for the most stunning display of blooms that I could find. Back home in the scorching Los Angeles heat, Hydrangeas—total water hogs—have simply gone out of fashion because they do not conform to our Water Wise culture. This was my opportunity to see something new.


After reading one of my trusty expat blogs I landed on the perfect place to see them: Hakusan Shrine! It took me a full hour on the train followed by a 10 minute walk to get there. But I’m always happy to go to great lengths for a fabulous garden. As I approached, a throng of visitors with impressive camera equipment in tow told me that I must be in the right place.

The shrine was small but beautiful, and there were blooms but certainly not in the vast quantities I had imagined. Try as I did to be enthusiastic the wow-factor I was looking for after such a long journey was absent. But, I’d been living in Tokyo for about a year now, so I fully appreciate that there is an unimpressive ratio of hits to misses when you follow recommendations on expat blogs. One just has to be prepared, each time, to experience either knock-your-socks-off amazement or utter disappointment.

I spent a generous 20 minutes at the Shrine, pulled out my phone and found another patch of green on the map to go and check out. I’m so glad I did!


The Koishikawa Botanical Garden is an extension of the Graduate School of Science at the University of Tokyo. Visitors to the garden—locals, foreigners and students alike—were exploring, relaxing, and working to identify and classify the various species of plants.

It was early summer. The weather seemed to be easing me in to the oppressive heat that would descend any day. I entered the garden and strolled along a densely wooded path, up the side of a ravine, emerging onto a clearing. In stark contrast, orderly botanical gardens grouped specimens of medicinal, aromatic and systemic plants. The demonstration of biodiversity and intricate classifications of vascular plants marched in tidy double rows. This seemed a total divorce from the wild that I had just passed through moments ago.

Next in my discovery were vast meadows carpeted with blooming clover. All a-buzz, it was alive with drunken bees and butterflies loop-de-looing from flower to flower.

The garden expanded out before me with ever more surprises. My next stop was a memorial—a substantial stone with a plaque nearby commemorating the 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama Earthquake. It along with the resulting fires and tsunamis decimated the city leaving 140,000 people dead and thousands homeless. Survivors flooded into the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens for refuge. While many left within a few months, some stayed, making it their home for over 2 years.


Continuing on I walked through another more wooded section of the garden before coming upon a clearing. Beyond it revealed a magnificent traditional Japanese garden. The babbling river spilled into a picturesque lake where a gasp of Koi and a few turtles were paddling about. Beyond the lake sat a stunning red building housing the University’s museum. I’m not exaggerating to say that the beauty of this garden stopped me in my tracks.

Although I felt satisfied with my journey at that point, I wasn’t even close to finished. There was a shrine nested into a hillside, and a Ginkgo biloba tree, instrumental in the early days of botanical research. Newton’s Apple Tree, said to be grafted from the original and given to Y. Shibata, the former president of the Japan Academy by Sir G. Sutherland the former director of the National Physical Laboratory is also there. That’s right, a grafted apple tree from which the fateful apple tumbled upon the revered physicist’s head is right there in Tokyo.

My last stop at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens was a demonstration trial of sweet potato farming. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal but I assure you, sweet potatoes are a thing here! Tiny example—Starbucks does not offer a Pumpkin Spice Latte in Tokyo, rather a Sweet Potato Latte. No joke!

All in all this garden was a real treat!


Koishikawa Botanical Gardens is beautiful on so many different levels. It is a supremely peaceful place. Whether you prefer fields, woods or the gardens, there is something for everyone. Respite from the chaos of the city lets you enjoy the beauty of nature and inspired design.

This experience, however, was so much more than that. It was a reminder that every so often it’s important to step off the path you’re on. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we’re we think we’re supposed to be doing, that we miss opportunities. We miss the bigger picture.

That day in July, I thought I was going to see a shrine and some Hydrangeas. That was the plan. Once the plan turned out to be a bust and a total disappointment there was a slight pause: do I pack up and go home, or improvise?

When I’m designing a garden, I know exactly what products and materials I want to use. I’ve already done the research from over 20 years in the business. There’s one place I go to for modern planters and a different one for traditional planters. I go to the same vendor for lighting because they have exactly the model that I prefer. I know what types of stone I can get at my trusty rock and gravel supplier, Sunburst Rock. And yet, I know that there are innumerable resources, both conventional and otherwise, out there.


This little adventure in disappointment and triumph reminds me that in my quest to create spectacular, innovative gardens I must spend more time seeing the world around me. The most amazing objects, places, and creative ideas are there for the taking. When I’m hyper focused on finding something specific, perhaps I’m missing something even more exquisite. By accepting that the shrine wasn’t a win then opening my eyes to possibilities, I discovered something even more valuable.

Happy hunting!