‘It’s Tokyo minus the stress.” That’s how one Japanese colleague described Hiroshima to us shortly after my wife, Angeles, and I arrived here, near the end of the last millennium. So, what’s its secret? Well, there’s its size for a start. And having six rivers flowing through it certainly helps. But, as we discovered, the key to Hiroshima’s laid-back charm lies in its serene green spaces.

Prior to moving to Japan, I’d never stopped to consider what the explorer and art historian Langdon Warner (the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones character) called the “spiritual symbolism” of Japanese gardens. They were designed, wrote Warner, to “express the highest truths of religion and philosophy precisely as other civilizations have made use of the arts of literature and painting.”

I first glimpsed what he meant after stumbling upon some of the tiny gardens tucked away beside temples that most tourists never get to see. Like the intimate Seiganji, which is exquisitely designed with the economy typical of all Zen art: a little pond, a maple, a stone lantern or two, an azalea. Its message is clear: This garden is intended for meditation, not walking round or playing in.

Then there’s the dry-stone mindscape at Saizoji Temple: meticulously-raked white gravel and enigmatic islands of rock. But what exactly do they represent? Zen expert D.T. Suzuki maintained that Japanese gardens express the spirit of Zen, so, driven by my Western obsession with rational explanations, I asked Saizoji’s priest to elucidate. “It’s not something you can explain,” he said. “You have to experience it.”

Hiroshima’s gardens start just across the road from the airport, with Sankeien, a 6-hectare garden replicating in miniature the mountains, villages and Inland Sea scenery of Hiroshima Prefecture. Sankeien is built in the circular-tour style that became popular in the Muromachi Period (392-1573). The first thing to greet the eyes is a lake, well-stocked with colorful koi carp — an irresistible invitation to buy a bag of fish food at the office, stroll along the wooden walkway jutting out into the lake and trigger a feeding frenzy.

Back in the 16th century, some gardeners maintained that the positioning of the rocks was more important than the foliage. Sankeien upholds this notion: more than 7,000 tons of rocks were used in its creation.

If Sankeien is an example of what Hugo Munsterberg termed an “artistic re-creation of nature,” then the grounds of Mitaki Temple — just two stops from Hiroshima Station — are quite the opposite: The temple and outer buildings rise organically from the dense forest, blending with the vegetation as if they’ve always belonged there. Now, in November, Mitaki’s maples dye the sunlight red, just like stained-glass windows.

This vital role played by the changing seasons in Japanese gardens was originally made clear to us on our first visit to Hanbe garden, a garden-restaurant-spa complex, one bright morning in December — the one month when nothing’s blooming or changing color.

“There’s nothing special to see this month,” apologized the kimono-clad receptionist. But even without blossoms, Hanbe was magical, from the soothing sound of water gently falling from the waterwheel to the sight an old tanuki (Japanese racoon dog) grumbling as it wandered through the azaleas.

“Why do you want to go to Hanbe garden?” joked a journalist friend from the Chugoku Shinbun newspaper. “Are you getting married?”

We weren’t, but it turned out that Hanbe’s gorgeous garden is a popular backdrop for wedding photos, so you often encounter brides and grooms there in sumptuous kimono, with camera crew in tow.

Hanbe boasts 50,000 azaleas, 1,000 maples, cherry trees, iris and hydrangeas, ensuring that — barring December when all is bare — there’s a different natural wonder to savor each month. Hanbe also maintains that a fairy lives on one of the islands in its ponds, though we didn’t see any evidence of this.

“Gardens should be appreciated as a piece of art,” says Adachi Zenko, founder of Adachi Museum of Art in nearby Shimane Prefecture. To accentuate this point, the museum is set in a splendid natural environment that has won the U.S. Journal of Japanese Gardening’s best Japanese garden award 11 years running.

This juxtaposing of art and nature can also be found in downtown Hiroshima, where its three major art museums are located within its three principal parks. Together they comprise Hiroshima’s Art-Nature Triangle, the basis of a tourist campaign promoting Hiroshima as “the city where water, green(ery) and art intersect.”

Of these three green spaces, the one we most often return to is Shukkeien garden. It was built in 1620 by Ueda Soko — a warrior who became a Buddhist monk, tea-master and landscape gardener — as a garden for the villa of Asano Nagaakira, daimyo of the Hiroshima area. As Steve Jobs once remarked about Tokyo’s gardens, it’s simply “the most sublime thing I’ve ever seen.” The adjoining Prefectural Art Museum, built in 1996, houses a collection of 4,500 works of art.

To enter Shukkeien is like stepping into the fictional Doctor Who’s Tardis: it distorts all normal concepts of time and space, cramming a miniaturized version of the landscape of Xihu (West Lake) in Hangzhou, China, into a space of just 40,000 sq. meters.

Shukkeien contains many of the elements of Zen landscape gardens introduced from China by Zen priest Muso Kokushi (1275-1351): evocatively-shaped rocks, rustic pavilions and a large pond with small islands. Around Takuei Pond, with its hump-backed Rainbow Bridge, winding paths lead you through miniature mountains, valleys, rice fields, bamboo groves and tea plantations.

It’s a joy to lose yourself along one of the little side trails, or feel all wabi sabi among the half-hidden nooks and waterfalls, while Shukkeien’s moss-covered rocks and stone lanterns are a must-see for Japan’s growing lichen-loving legions of “moss girls.” Watching a kingfisher darting into Takuei Pond as frisbee-sized turtles bask on the islets, you forget you’re a five-minute walk from the bustle of central Hiroshima.

Some say that rainy days are the best time to experience Shukkeien. Maybe “best” is a slight exaggeration, but they have a point. The rain not only keeps the crowds away, it also brings out the fragrance of the foliage, makes the stones gleam and the moss glisten. Sheltering in one of the secluded tea huts, little more than a roof held up by four wooden pillars, you’re also out of the rain but “among” it at the same time. You can pretend you’re 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho, composing 17-syllable odes to the chattering frogs.

In Shukkeien’s Seifukan teahouse, with its thatched roof and lyre-shaped window, a different tea ceremony is held each month to celebrate the flowers of each successive season. In September, there’s even a tea ceremony for moon-viewing.

Another angle of the Art-Nature Triangle is formed by Hijiyama Park. Overlooking downtown Hiroshima, this 70-meter-high hill is a splendid maze of trails that snake through densely-forested slopes of pine and evergreen oaks, ideal for wistful walks on what musician Van Morrison called “golden autumn days.”

It is crowned by the award-winning Museum of Contemporary Art, opened in 1989, Japan’s first public contemporary art museum. Henry Moore’s huge bronze “The Arch” stands before the museum, framing a panoramic view of the city.

For the final angle of the triangle we dive deep into the heart of the city at the Hiroshima Museum of Art, home to a collection of European Impressionists and post-Meiji Era (1867-1912) Japanese paintings and built as a prayer for peace in 1978. In front of the museum stands a flowering chestnut tree donated by Pablo Picasso’s son, Claude.

The museum grounds, together with Central Park and Hiroshima Castle, which lie just over the road, cut a broad swathe of greenery right through the center of Hiroshima. In fact, looking down from the roof-garden of the adjacent multi-story Pacela shopping mall (yes — there’s a garden up there, too), the circular museum looks like a spacecraft floating in a sea of green.

Hiroshima Castle provides a fitting place to end our tour of the city’s gardens. For it was here, in 1589, that feudal lord Mori Terumoto decided to build himself a new castle, and a whole new town to go with it. In spring, the banks of the carp-filled moat metamorphose into a fleeting pink epiphany of cherry blossoms. These days though, as the leaves redden and fall, the mood becomes more restrained and contemplative, putting me in mind of Basho’s haiku: On a bare branch / A crow has settled/ Autumn evening.

Getting there: Hiroshima is four hours and 20 minutes by the Nozomi shinkansen from Tokyo Station and just under two hours from Osaka or Kyoto. To find out more about Hiroshima, visit visithiroshima.net.

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