The film focuses on Takao Akizuki, an aspiring 15-year-old shoemaker, and Yukari Yukino, a mysterious 27-year-old woman he keeps meeting at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden on rainy mornings. While Takao is skipping his morning class to design shoes, Yukari is avoiding work due to personal problems in her professional life. Yukari tells Takao nothing about herself, including her name, while Takao opens up to her, sharing his passion for shoes by offering to make a pair for her. When Takao learns Yukari's identity, emotions come to a head as both learn that they have been teaching each other "how to walk". Shinkai wrote the story as a tale of "lonely sadness", based on the meaning of the traditional Japanese word for "love", and uses shoes as a metaphor for life. The story's motifs include rain, Man'yōshū poetry, and the Japanese garden. The age difference between the two main characters and their character traits demonstrate how awkwardly and disjointedly people mature, where even adults sometimes feel no more mature than teenagers, according to Shinkai.
The Garden of Words premiered at the Gold Coast Film Festival in Australia on April 28, 2013 and had its general release on May 31, 2013 in Japan. For the Japanese premiere, the film was screened with an animated short called Dareka no Manazashi (だれかのまなざし, lit. Someone's Gaze), also directed by Shinkai.