A disciplined, nature-based landscaping approach

Japanese gardens are traditional gardens with design concepts that are accompanied by Japanese aesthetics and philosophical ideas, avoid artificial ornamentation, and highlight the natural landscape. 

Plants and worn, aged materials are generally used by Japanese garden designers to suggest an ancient and faraway natural landscape, and to express the fragility of existence as well as time's unstoppable advance.

Garden Elements

The ability to capture the essence of nature makes the Japanese gardens distinctive and appealing. 

Japanese gardens have always been conceived as a representation of a natural setting. The Japanese have always had a spiritual connection with their land and the spirits that are one with nature, which explains why they prefer to incorporate natural materials in their gardens. 

Traditional Japanese gardens can be categorized into three types: tsukiyama (hill gardens), karesansui (dry gardens) and chaniwa gardens (tea gardens). The main purpose of a Japanese garden is to attempt to be a space that captures the natural beauties of nature.

Traditional Japanese gardens are very different in style from "occidental gardens". The contrast between western flower gardens and Japanese gardens is profound. Western gardens are typically optimized for visual appeal, while Japanese gardens are modeled with spiritual and philosophical ideas in mind.

The small space given to create these gardens usually poses a challenge for the gardeners. Due to the absolute importance of the arrangement of natural rocks and trees, finding the right material becomes highly selective. The serenity of a Japanese landscape and the simple but deliberate structures of the Japanese gardens are what truly make the gardens unique. 
"The two main principles incorporated in a Japanese garden are scaled reduction and symbolization.

Ancient Japanese art inspired past garden designers. The Japanese garden had its own distinct appearance beginning with the Edo period.The idea of these unique gardens began during the Asuka period (c. 6th to 7th century). Japanese merchants witnessed the gardens that were being built in China and brought many of the Chinese gardening techniques and styles back home.

In Heian-period Japanese gardens, built in the Chinese model, buildings occupied as much or more space than the garden. 
The garden was designed to be seen from the main building and its verandas, or from small pavilions built for that purpose. In later gardens, the buildings were less visible. 


Japanese gardens always have water, either a pond or stream, or, in the dry rock garden, represented by white sand. 

In Buddhist symbolism, water and stone are the yin and yang, two opposites that complement and complete each other. A traditional garden will usually have an irregular-shaped pond or, in larger gardens, two or more ponds connected by a channel or stream, and a cascade, a miniature version of Japan's famous mountain waterfalls.

In traditional gardens, the ponds and streams are carefully placed according to Buddhist geomancy - the art of putting things in the place most likely to attract good fortune. 

The rules for the placement of water were laid out in the first manual of Japanese gardens, the Sakuteiki ("Records of Garden Making"), in the 11th century. According to the Sakuteiki, the water should enter the garden from the east or southeast and flow toward the west because the east is the home of the Green Dragon, an ancient Chinese divinity adapted in Japan, and the west is the home of the White Tiger, the divinity of the east. Water flowing from east to west will carry away evil, and the owner of the garden will be healthy and have a long life. According to the Sakuteiki, another favorable arrangement is for the water to flow from north, which represents water in Buddhist cosmology, to the south, which represents fire, which are opposites (yin and yang) and therefore will bring good luck.

The Sakuteiki recommends several possible miniature landscapes using lakes and streams: the "ocean style", which features rocks that appear to have been eroded by waves, a sandy beach, and pine trees; the "broad river style", recreating the course of a large river, winding like a serpent; the "marsh pond" style, a large still pond with aquatic plants; the "mountain torrent style", with many rocks and cascades; and the "rose letters" style, an austere landscape with small, low plants, gentle relief and many scattered flat rocks.

Traditional Japanese gardens have small islands in the lakes. In sacred temple gardens, there is usually an island which represents Mount Penglai or Mount Hōrai, the traditional home of the Eight Immortals.

The Sakuteiki describes different kinds of artificial island which can be created in lakes, including the "mountainous island", made up of jagged vertical rocks mixed with pine trees, surrounded by a sandy beach; the "rocky island", composed of "tormented" rocks appearing to have been battered by sea waves, along with small, ancient pine trees with unusual shapes; the "cloud island", made of white sand in the rounded white forms of a cumulus cloud; and the "misty island", a low island of sand, without rocks or trees.

A cascade or waterfall is an important element in Japanese gardens, a miniature version of the waterfalls of Japanese mountain streams. The Sakuteiki describes seven kinds of cascades.
It notes that if possible a cascade should face toward the moon, and should be designed to capture the moon's reflection in the water. 
It is also mentioned in Sakuteiki that cascades benefit from being located in such a manner that they are half-hidden in shadows.

Rocks and Sand

Rock, sand and gravel are an essential feature of the Japanese garden. 

A vertical rock may represent Mount Horai, the legendary home of the Eight Immortals, or Mount Sumeru of Buddhist teaching, or a carp jumping from the water. 
A flat rock might represent the earth. 
Sand or gravel can represent a beach, or a flowing river. 
Rocks and water also symbolize yin and yang in Buddhist philosophy; the hard rock and soft water complement each other, and water, though soft, can wear away rock.

Rough volcanic rocks are usually used to represent mountains or as stepping stones. 
Smooth and round sedimentary rocks are used around lakes or as stepping stones. 
Hard metamorphic rocks are usually placed by waterfalls or streams. 

Rocks are traditionally classified as tall vertical, low vertical, arching, reclining, or flat. Rocks should vary in size and color but from each other, but not have bright colors, which would lack subtlety. 

Rocks with strata or veins should have the veins all going in the same direction, and the rocks should all be firmly planted in the earth, giving an appearance of firmness and permanence.

Rocks are arranged in careful compositions of two, three, five or seven rocks, with three being the most common. 
In a three-arrangement, a tallest rock usually represents heaven, the shortest rock is the earth, and the medium-sized rock is humanity, the bridge between heaven and earth. Sometimes one or more rocks, called suteishi ("nameless" or "discarded"), are placed in seemingly random locations in the garden, to suggest spontaneity, though their placement is carefully chosen.

In ancient Japan, sand and gravel  were used around Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Later it was used in the Japanese rock garden or Zen Buddhist gardens to represent water or clouds. White sand represented purity, but sand could also be gray, brown or bluish-black.

Selection and subsequent placement of rocks was and still is a central concept in creating an aesthetically pleasing garden by the Japanese. 

Dry Rock Gardens

The Japanese rock garden, or "dry landscape" garden, often called a zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water.

A zen garden is usually relatively small, surrounded by a wall, and is usually meant to be seen while seated from a single viewpoint outside the garden, such as the porch of the hojo, the residence of the chief monk of the temple or monastery. 
Classical zen gardens were created at temples of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto. They were intended to imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and to serve as an aid to meditation about the true meaning of existence.

Japanese rock gardens became popular in Japan in the 14th century thanks to the work of a Buddhist monk, Musō Soseki (1275–1351) who built zen gardens at the five major monasteries in Kyoto. 
These gardens have white sand or raked gravel in place of water, carefully arranged rocks, and sometimes rocks and sand covered with moss. Their purpose is to facilitate meditation, and they are meant to be viewed while seated on the porch of the residence of the abbot of the monastery.


During the Heian period, the concept of placing stones as symbolic representations of islands – whether physically existent or nonexistent – began to take hold, and can be seen in the Japanese word shima, which is of "particular importance ... because the word contained the meaning 'island' Furthermore, the principle of "obeying the request of an object", was, and still is, a guiding principle of Japanese rock design that suggests "the arrangement of rocks be dictated by their innate characteristics".

The specific placement of stones in Japanese gardens to symbolically represent islands (and later to include mountains), is found to be an aesthetically pleasing property of traditional Japanese gardens.

Stones, which constitute a fundamental part of Japanese gardens, are carefully selected for their weathering and are placed in such a way that they give viewers the sense that they ‘naturally’ belong where they are, and in combinations in which the viewers find them. As such, this form of gardening attempts to emblematically represent (or present) the processes and spaces found in wild nature, away from city and practical concerns of human life.

Rock placement is a general "aim to portray nature in its essential characteristics" – the essential goal of all Japanese gardens. 

While stones are also central to Japanese gardening … as stones were part of an aesthetic design and had to be placed so that their positions appeared natural and their relationships harmonious. The concentration of the interest on such detail as the shape of a rock or the moss on a stone lantern led at times to an overemphatic picturesqueness and accumulation of minor features that, to Western eyes accustomed to a more general survey, may seem cluttered and restless.

Such attention to detail can be seen at places such as Midori Falls in Ishikawa Prefecture, as the rocks at the waterfall's base were changed at various times by six different daimyōs.

Garden Bridges

The bridge symbolized the path to paradise and immortality.

Bridges could be made of stone or of wood, or made of logs with earth on top, covered with moss; they could be either arched or flat. If they were part of a temple garden, they were sometimes painted red, following the Chinese tradition, but for the most part they were unpainted.

When large promenade gardens became popular, streams and winding paths were constructed, with a series of bridges, usually in a rustic stone or wood style, to take visitors on a tour of the scenic views of the garden.

Stone lanterns and water basins

Japanese stone lanterns ("platform lamp") originally were located only at Buddhist temples, where they lined the paths and approaches to the temple According to tradition, they were introduced to the tea garden by the first great tea masters, and in later gardens they were used purely for decoration.

In its complete and original form, like the pagoda, it represents the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. 
The piece touching the ground represents chi, the earth; the next section represents sui, or water; ka or fire, is represented by the section encasing the lantern's light or flame, while (air) and (void or spirit) are represented by the last two sections, top-most and pointing towards the sky. 
The segments express the idea that after death our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental form.

Stone water basins were originally placed in gardens for visitors to wash their hands and mouth before the tea ceremony. 
The water is provided to the basin by a bamboo pipe, and they usually have a wooden ladle for drinking the water. In tea gardens, the basin was placed low to the ground, so the drinker had to bend to get water.

Trees and flowers

Nothing in a Japanese garden is natural or left to chance; each plant is chosen according to aesthetic principles, either to hide undesirable sights, to serve as a backdrop to certain garden features, or to create a picturesque scene, like a landscape painting or postcard. 

Trees are carefully chosen and arranged for their autumn colors.
Moss is often used to suggest that the garden is ancient.
Flowers are also carefully chosen by their season of flowering. Formal flowerbeds are rare in older gardens, but more common in modern gardens. 

Some plants are chosen for their religious symbolism, such as the lotus, sacred in Buddhist teachings, or the pine, which represents longevity.

The trees are carefully trimmed to provide attractive scenes, and to prevent them from blocking other views of the garden. Their growth is also controlled, in a technique called niwaki, to give them more picturesque shapes, and to make them look more ancient. It has been suggested that the characteristic shape of pruned Japanese garden trees resemble trees found naturally in savannah landscapes. 
Trees are sometimes constrained to bend, in order to provide shadows or better reflections in the water. Very old pine trees are often supported by wooden crutches, or their branches are held by cords, to keep them from breaking under the weight of snow.

In the late 16th century, a new art was developed in the Japanese garden; that of the technique of trimming bushes into balls or rounded shapes which imitate waves. According to tradition this art was most frequently practiced on azalea bushes.

It was similar to the topiary gardens made in Europe at the same time, except that European topiary gardens tried to make trees look like geometric solid objects, while ōkarkikomi sought to make bushes look as if they were almost liquid, or in flowing natural shapes. 
It created an artistic play of light on the surface of the bush, and it also brought into play the sense of 'touching things' which even today succeeds so well in Japanese design.


The use of fish, particularly colored carp, or goldfish as a decorative element in gardens was borrowed from the Chinese garden. Goldfish were developed in China more than a thousand years ago by selectively breeding Prussian carp for color mutations. 
By the Song dynasty, yellow, orange, white and red-and-white colorations had been developed. 
Goldfish were introduced to Japan in the 16th century.

Koi were developed from common carp in Japan in the 1820s. 
Koi are domesticated common carp that are selected or culled for color; they are not a different species, and will revert to the original coloration within a few generations if allowed to breed freely.

In addition to fish, turtles are kept in some gardens. Natural environments in the gardens offer habitats that attract wild animals; frogs and birds are notable, as they contribute to the gardens with a pleasant soundscape.


The early Japanese gardens largely followed the Chinese model, but gradually Japanese gardens developed their own principles and aesthetics. These were spelled out by a series of landscape gardening manuals, beginning with "Records of Garden Making" in the Heian Period.

The principles of sacred gardens, such as the gardens of Zen Buddhist temples, were different from those of pleasure or promenade gardens.

Zen Buddhist gardens were designed to be seen, while seated, from a platform with a view of the whole garden, without entering it, while promenade gardens were meant to be seen by walking through the garden and stopping at a series of view points. 

However, they often contain common elements and used the same techniques.

Basic Principles

It is said that the heart of the Japanese garden is the principle that a garden is a work of art. "Though inspired by nature, it is an interpretation rather than a copy; it should appear to be natural, but it is not wild."

Miniaturization. The Japanese garden is a miniature and idealized view of nature. Rocks can represent mountains, and ponds can represent seas. The garden is sometimes made to appear larger by placing larger rocks and trees in the foreground, and smaller ones in the background.

Concealment. The Zen Buddhist garden is meant to be seen all at once, but the promenade garden is meant to be seen one landscape at a time, like a scroll of painted landscapes unrolling. Features are hidden behind hills, trees groves or bamboo, walls or structures, to be discovered when the visitor follows the winding path.

Borrowed scenery. Smaller gardens are often designed to incorporate the view of features outside the garden, such as hills, trees or temples, as part of the view. This makes the garden seem larger than it really is.

Asymmetry. Japanese gardens are not laid on straight axes, or with a single feature dominating the view. 
Buildings and garden features are usually placed to be seen from a diagonal, and are carefully composed into scenes that contrast right angles, such as buildings with natural features, and vertical features, such as rocks, bamboo or trees, with horizontal features, such as water.


Differences between Japanese and Chinese Gardens

Japanese gardens during the Heian period were modeled upon Chinese gardens, but by the Edo period there were distinct differences.

Architecture. Chinese gardens have buildings in the center of the garden, occupying a large part of the garden space. The buildings are placed next to or over the central body of water. The garden buildings are very elaborate, with much architectural decoration. 
In later Japanese gardens, the buildings are well apart from the body of water, and the buildings are simple, with very little ornament. The architecture in a Japanese garden is largely or partly concealed.

Viewpoint. Chinese gardens are designed to be seen from the inside, from the buildings, galleries and pavilions in the center of the garden. Japanese gardens are designed to be seen from the outside, as in the Japanese rock garden or zen garden; or from a path winding through the garden.

Use of rocks. In a Chinese garden, rocks were selected for their extraordinary shapes or resemblance to animals or mountains, and used for dramatic effect. They were often the stars and centerpieces of the garden. 
In later Japanese gardens, rocks were smaller and placed in more natural arrangements. integrated into the garden.

Marine landscapes. Chinese gardens were inspired by Chinese inland landscapes, particularly Chinese lakes and mountains, while Japanese gardens often use miniaturized scenery from the Japanese coast. Japanese gardens frequently include white sand or pebble beaches and rocks which seem to have been worn by the waves and tide, which rarely appear in Chinese gardens.

The Pond Garden

The "lake-spring-boat excursion garden" was imported from China. 
It is also called the shinden-zukuri style, after the architectural style of the main building. 
It featured a large, ornate residence with two long wings reaching south to a large lake and garden. 
Each wing ended in a pavilion from which guests could enjoy the views of the lake. Visitors made tours of the lake in small boats. 
These gardens had large lakes with small islands, where musicians played during festivals and ceremonies worshippers could look across the water at the Buddha. No original gardens of this period remain.

The Paradise Garden

The Paradise Garden appeared in the late Heian period, created by nobles belonging to the Amida Buddhism sect. 
They were meant to symbolize Paradise or the Pure Land, where the Buddha sat on a platform contemplating a lotus pond. 
These gardens featured a lake island called Nakajima, where the Buddha hall was located, connected to the shore by an arching bridge. The most famous surviving example is the garden of the Phoenix Hall of Byōdō-in Temple, built in 1053 near Kyoto. 

Tea gardens (Tea Houses)

The tea garden was created as a setting for the Japanese tea ceremony.
The style of garden takes its name from the roji, or path to the teahouse, which is supposed to inspire the visitor to meditation to prepare him for the ceremony.

There is usually an outer garden, with a gate and covered arbor where guests wait for the invitation to enter. 
They then pass through a gate to the inner garden, where they wash their hands and rinse their mouth, as they would before entering a Shinto shrine, before going into the teahouse itself.

The path is always kept moist and green, so it will look like a remote mountain path, and there are no bright flowers that might distract the visitor from his meditation. Early teahouses had no windows, but later teahouses have a wall which can be opened for a view of the garden.

Rustic teahouses were hidden in their own little gardens, and small benches and open pavilions along the garden paths provided places for rest and contemplation. In later garden architecture, walls of houses and teahouses could be opened to provide carefully framed views of the garden. The garden and the house became one.

Promenade Gardens

Promenade or stroll gardens (landscape gardens in the go-round style) appeared in Japan at the villas of nobles or warlords. These gardens were designed to complement the houses in the new sukiya-zukuri style of architecture, which were modeled after the teahouse. 

These gardens were meant to be seen by following a path clockwise around the lake from one carefully composed scene to another. These gardens used two techniques to provide interest: borrowed scenery, which took advantage of views of scenery outside the garden such as mountains or temples, incorporating them into the view so the garden looked larger than it really was, and  "hide-and-reveal", which used winding paths, fences, bamboo and buildings to hide the scenery so the visitor would not see it until he was at the best view point.

Edo period gardens also often feature recreations of famous scenery or scenes inspired by literature; Suizen-ji Jōju-en Garden in Kumamoto has a miniature version of Mount Fuji, and Katsura Villa in Kyoto has a miniature version of the Ama-no-hashidate sandbar in Miyazu Bay, near Kyoto. The Rikugi-en Garden in Tokyo creates small landscapes inspired by eighty-eight famous Japanese poems.

Small Urban Garden

Small gardens were originally found in the interior courtyards ("inner garden") of Heian period palaces, and were designed to give a glimpse of nature and some privacy to the residents of the rear side of the building. They were as small as  about 3.3 square meters.
During the Edo period, merchants began building small gardens in the space behind their shops, which faced the street, and their residences, located at the rear. These tiny gardens were meant to be seen, not entered, and usually had a stone lantern, a water basin, stepping stones and a few plants. 

Today, these gardens are found in many Japanese residences, hotels, restaurants, and public buildings.

Hermitage garden

A hermitage garden is a small garden, usually built by a samurai or government official who wanted to retire from public life and devote himself to study or meditation. 

It is attached to a rustic house, and approached by a winding path, which suggests it is deep in a forest. 

It may have a small pond, a Japanese rock garden, and the other features of traditional gardens, in miniature, designed to create tranquility and inspiration. An example is the Shisen-dō garden in Kyoto, built by a bureaucrat and scholar exiled by the shogun in the 17th century. It is now a Buddhist temple.

Cultural Significance of Garden-Making

In Japanese culture, garden-making is a high art, equal to the arts of calligraphy and ink painting. Gardens are considered three-dimensional textbooks of Daoism and Zen Buddhism. 

The lessons are contained in the arrangements of the rocks, the water and the plants. 
For example, the lotus flower has a particular message; Its roots are in the mud at the bottom of the pond, symbolizing the misery of the human condition, but its flower is pure white, symbolizing the purity of spirit that can be achieved by following the teachings of the Buddha.

The Japanese rock gardens were intended to be intellectual puzzles for the monks who lived next to them to study and solve. They followed the same principles as the suiboku-ga, the black-and-white Japanese inks paintings of the same period, which, according to Zen Buddhist principles, tried to achieve the maximum effect using the minimum essential elements.

Japanese gardens also follow the principles of perspective of Japanese landscape painting. The empty space between the different "planes" is of great importance, and is filled with water, moss, or sand. The garden designers used various optical tricks to give the garden the illusion of being larger than it really is, by borrowing of scenery ("shakkei"), employing distant views outside the garden, or using miniature trees and bushes to create the illusion that they are far away.

Flowers and Plants For A Japanese Garden

Hakonechloa macra, is a pretty grass. Mosses are used between rocks and architectural items and in place of lawn grass.

Quince makes a beautiful addition to Japanese-style planting scheme.  In spring it produces cup-shaped flowers, followed by gold-colored fruits in autumn. The fruits can be made into an awesome jam. Quince can also be trained as a bonsai tree.

Rhododendrons. Azalea, camellia, oak, the elm, the Japanese apricot, cherry, maple, the willow, the ginkgo, Japanese cypress, the Japanese cedar, pine, and bamboo. Peonies and Chrysanthemums, Japanese Maples, Japanese Iris, Asiatic Lilies.

Plum Trees - Dwarf Plum trees can be grown in an ornamental pot in the garden. I have the "Thundercloud" dwarf growing in a big pot in front of a big window in the front garden.

Cherry Trees - ornamental cherry trees are traditional. There are many beautiful weeping dwarfs. My favorite is "Snow Fountain" dwarf weeping cherry tree. Loads of white blossoms very early in spring. Several can be planted in large, ornamental pots. They take up very little horizontal space and grow to about 10 ft. I trim the crown to keep it short, and to encourage weeping.

Wisteria - beautiful in many settings, but in Japanese gardens it’s often grown over large arbors or arches. I'm training one on a large trellis in the center of my Zen Garden

is a Japanese native plant with white, bell-shaped flowers appearing in the summer months.

Japanese Painted Fern - spread by rhizomes. Intersperse with groundcover moss.

Japanese forest grass - A very pretty ornamental grass.

Black or Japanese pines

Water features can be used in even the smallest of gardens, adding to the ambience through bubbling sounds and they attract the songbirds when used in birdbaths. Ponds can be planted with waterlilies and Japanese flag irises. For smaller gardens, consider garden water bowls or trickling water features.

Article is an adaptation of several entries 
posted on wikipedia and in gardening encyclopedias

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