When most of us think of a Japanese garden we think of either Zen rock gardens or gardens that revolve around water features. Various architectural Japanese items also come to mind like bridges, arbours, pergolas, and fences. All of these things are popular features of Japanese gardens, but this beautiful type of landscaping is a bit more complex.
Japanese gardens are characterized by balance and tranquillity. Their evolution in time has been affected by Japan’s history. Building such a garden is not very difficult, but it does require patience and a thorough understanding of this garden style.
In the following guide, we will discuss the history of these gardens and their definitory elements. We will also provide you with a step-by-step guide that will help you build a Japanese garden adapted to your style and needs.
History of Japanese Gardens
Visiting a Japanese garden is a unique experience. Unlike a normal garden which is solely a celebration of nature, the Japanese garden is infused with history, art, and spirituality. Many of the historic gardens that you can visit in Japan are hundreds or even thousands of years old. These gardens are built with durability in mind. They are meant to imbue their visitors with feelings of responsibility and to inspire them to care for the gardens for future generations. You can’t infuse a new garden with history, but you can build it with respect towards its history.
In the early years, these gardens were strongly influenced by Chinese art and religion. Their genesis can be traced back to the 7th century and it coincides with the period that Buddhism was introduced in Japan. Zen gardens flourished from the 12th to the 16th century, while Zen Buddhism expanded throughout Japan. At the beginning of the 17th century, there was also a significant interest in tea gardens. Larger rock gardens gained popularity from the 17th to the 19th century.
Nowadays, Japanese gardens integrate modern elements as well. The Zen style and minimalism can go hand in hand. As such, it can be easy to design a Japanese garden that complements a modern building. Nonetheless, the creative process behind the construction of the garden remains the same. So, to create such a garden, you must familiarize yourself with the elements that define it.
Elements of the Japanese Garden
Before we discuss the different types of Japanese gardens, we must first take a look at all the elements that can be found in these gardens. Some Japanese garden styles only feature a couple of elements, whilst others can have a mixture of all the elements.
Water is the major element that defines a Japanese garden. Depending on its state, it can have different meanings. Still water symbolizes a reflection of life, whereas flowing water embodies the constant continuity of life. Some gardens may not have any water elements, but they have other elements which symbolize water. For example, Zen gardens feature sand of pebbles arranged in flowing patterns that resemble water. How you use the water also matters as it reflects Japan’s traditions and beliefs.
Ponds should respect the lay of the land. Waterfalls should face the moon to reflect its light. Streams should flow either from east to west to ward off evil spirits or from north to south to bring good luck. Streams were used in various ceremonies in Japan, so it is common to create sitting areas along stream banks. In these areas, people can watch the movement of the water whilst engaging in various activities.
Water basins are also very common. They can have a strong visual impact, but their purpose is mainly functional. They are meant for visitors to wash their hands and/or mouth before various ceremonies.
Rocks usually symbolize stability, except for pebbles or gravel which can symbolize water. Vertical rocks or volcanic rocks represent mountains. Horizontal rocks represent islands or the earth itself. Smooth rocks are often used as stepping stones or to create paths.
There is a lot of freedom when it comes to the use of rocks in these gardens. There are specific structures, but spontaneous arrangements are also common. An arrangement of three rocks symbolizes the Buddhist trinity. In simple terms, the tallest rock represents heaven. The medium rock represents humanity and the smallest rock is the bridge between the two.
Bridges and Islands
As water is considered a purifying element, the crossing of the bridge represents a purification ritual. Usually, bridges are used to cross a stream or a pond, to reach an island where you can find a temple or a meditation space. Arched bridges are more popular, but flat bridges are also quite common.
Islands are commonly associated with sacred ground. Japanese mythology is filled with examples of sacred islands. An island can also symbolize the garden itself, as a sacred space, separated from the chaos of the outside world. Not all islands must be reachable. Some can simply be represented by bigger rocks.
Fences and Gates
Fences are very simple in the Japanese garden. They are usually made of wood or bamboo. Since these gardens are defined by continuity, fences are rarely used to separate garden sections. However, they can be used to separate the garden from the outside world. Manicured hedges can also be used instead of traditional fences.
Gates are significantly more important than fences. The most common gate is the Hōgei Niwamon, a large wooden gate that welcomes visitors to a place of tranquillity. How large the gate is, depends on the size of the garden. Grand historic gardens can also have stone gates, but small home gardens can feature smaller gates, with or without a roof. Red tori gates are also widely used.
Trees and Flowers
Like any garden, the Japanese garden is a celebration of nature. Trees and flowers are used to beautify the space, but also to hide as much of the outside world as possible. Later on, we will dive deeper into the specific trees and flowers that are used in a Japanese garden. It is important to understand that plants are used based on their blooming periods. It also matters how their foliage changes throughout the seasons. In an area with a climate different from that of Japan, you will have to adapt and use native plants with similar characteristics.
Traditional Japanese lanterns are called Toro. The most popular lanterns are made of stone, but metal or wood lanterns are also widely used. They were adapted from traditional Chinese lanterns and were initially used in shrines and homes. Lanterns represent fire and are used so that the gardens can incorporate all of the four natural elements: earth, water, fire, and wind.
While not necessarily associated with Japanese gardens, there are other elements that can be found in these gardens. Such is the case of arbours, benches, gazebos (Azuma-ya style), and sheltered sitting areas (Machiai).
Types of Japanese Gardens
The Karesansui Garden
These are by far the most popular gardens associated with Japan. They can also be referred to as zen gardens, dry gardens, or rock gardens. They use sand or gravel, arranged in flowing patterns that represent water. The Zen garden symbolizes simplicity, its main purpose is to induce meditation or simply tranquillity.
The Tsukiyama Garden
The main elements of the Tsukiyama garden are the pond and the hill. This type of garden is designed for strolls so it needs to have a relatively large size. Since it represents natural scenery, the elements of this garden need to appear spontaneous. It can also incorporate streams, bridges, flowers, and other elements provided that the pond and the hill remain the main points of focus.
The Kaiyushiki-teien Garden
This is another garden designed for strolls, but it has a more ordinate nature. It features a circular path which is usually walked clockwise. Like the Tsukiyama garden, the Kaiyushiki-teien garden can incorporate elements from other styles. For example, it can feature rocks, ponds, streams, trees, or flowers.
The Chaniwa Garden
Also known as a tea garden, this garden features a stepping stone path that leads to a tea ceremony house. Tea spots can also be accommodated in other Japanese gardens. The Chaniwa garden stands out due to the ceremony house which represents the main point of interest. This garden has two sections, which are usually divided through a gate. The tea is served in the inner section and a water basin is placed upon entry for cleansing.
The Paradise Garden
Just as its name suggests, this garden symbolizes paradise, specifically the Buddhist paradise. It is characterized by a large pond filled with lotus flowers. It can also feature islands and bridges as well as traditional pavilion buildings. This is typically a large-scale garden. Unlike other gardens, it can’t really be scaled-down and adapted to smaller spaces, as that would cancel the paradise effect.
The Tsuboniwa Garden
This is the best Japanese garden for small enclosed spaces. It is also known as a courtyard garden. It uses screens and other bamboo elements to hide backgrounds. Due to its limited space, such a garden is not designed to be entered. Its purpose is purely decorative, to create a natural oasis in an urban or otherwise cluttered space.
The Chosen-shoyū-teien Garden
Also known as the Japanese pond garden, this garden style differs from the rest, as it is not designed for strolls or meditation. The pond is the main element of this garden style. It features a building with two wings where guests can sit and enjoy the scenery.
Plants to Use in Japanese Gardens
As we already mentioned, it is always best to use native plants in any area. Nonetheless, if you live in an area with a climate similar to Japan, you can use traditional Japanese plants:
ommonly referred to as Hakone Grass, this is a shade-loving decorative grass used mostly at the bases of trees. It has a flowy look which perfectly integrates the zen style. This attractive grass thrives in moist woodland, on wet rocky cliffs, and any mountainous region.
Hakone grass can adapt to many different types of environments, so you shouldn’t have any problems filling your garden with this attractive ornamental. You can learn more about growing and caring for this ornamental grass by reading our complete guide to Hakone Grass.
It is hard to picture a Japanese garden without the famous sakura (flowering cherry tree). March and April are the best months for visiting Japan. During these months there are numerous festivals dedicated to watching and celebrating sakura.
The weeping cherry tree is a beautiful species native to Japan that you absolutely must grow in your Japanese garden.
Delicate blooming flowers are widely appreciated in Japan. Rhododendrons make no exceptions. They are relatively easy to grow and will reward you with their beautiful blooms if you give them access to plenty of natural sunlight. They need neutral or acidic soil and can be grown both in the ground and in pots.
Rhododendrons bloom in early spring and they put on a spectacular show with their colourful flowers. Learn how to grow and care for them by reading our complete guide to Rhododendron.
Any fern will look stunning in a Japanese garden, especially if you combine them with moss and other decorative plants. Ferns are big lovers of shady locations, so you can grow them in corners where sun-loving plants won’t do so well.
Japan is home to many different types of ferns including Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), also known as Eagle fern, which is a common addition to Japanese gardens. Polystichum shield ferns, Dryopteris wood ferns, and Cyrtomium Holly ferns are popular choices as well.
Pink, delicate blooms are very popular in Japan, so pink peonies are definitely a must-have. Peonies thrive if you plant them during fall in a sunny location. It takes a few years for them to establish, but once they mature, they will reward you with gorgeous flowers. Moreover, they have a very long lifespan.
If they are cared for, they can live for up to 100 years and many people pass them from generation to generation. Peonies are native to many different regions of Asia, Europe, and North America, so they will probably do just fine in your garden as well. Read our complete guide to Peonies to learn how to grow and care for these beautiful flowers.
This shrub blooms in early summer, so it is a good plant to have if you want to enjoy its purple blooms even after spring ends. Wisteria should face south or west and it needs sturdy vertical support. It looks best when trained to grow on walls, trellises, and arches. Wisteria is a fast-growing vine that requires nutritious, well-draining, loamy soil and it can quickly overpower nearby plants, so make sure you have plenty of available space for it to grow.
Read our article about Wisteria plants to learn more about growing and caring for them.
This tree looks great in most seasons, but it is particularly stunning in the fall. ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple trees have been an important element in Japanese gardens since the 1700s and they can easily adapt to many different environments.
They thrive in regions with moderate temperatures, such as England. Place it in an area where it can become a focal point when it grows. Ideally, it should get plenty of morning sunshine, and a tad of shade in the afternoon. The Japanese maple tree is slow-growing and doesn’t need a lot of attention. Learn more about it from our complete guide to Japanese Maple.
Our list wouldn’t be complete without this beautiful blooming plant. Lotus is a sacred plant and a must-have in a Japanese pond garden. You can grow lotuses from rhizomes in just a few days and they spread very quickly. They need plenty of sunlight and if your pond does not freeze they can overwinter.
It is best to grow lotus plants in containers. You can place the containers in ponds, but it will be easier to care for them in containers where they still need special pond soil.
Japanese Black Pine
The pine represents longevity in Japanese culture. The black pine, in particular, is very popular, especially in its native coastal areas. It needs well-drained acidic or alkaline soil, a sunny location, and plenty of room to grow its crown as its branches can spread as much as 8 meters (25 feet).
The Japanese black pine can adapt to most types of soil, but it will require additional fertilization in soils that are nutrient-poor.
This is a very important plant in Japanese culture. Bamboo is a sturdy plant, with many uses, which is why it symbolizes prosperity. Bamboo needs a good amount of moisture but it can adapt to many environments. It needs a sunny location and moist but well-drained soil. It grows relatively fast and adds a lush vibe to any garden.
If you don’t have a lot of space to create a Japanese garden, you can still enjoy this amazing plant and bring it inside in a decorative container. Lucky bamboo plays a big part in the culture of Feng Shui and it can symbolize different things based on the number of stalks. Read our article about Lucky Bamboo to learn more about this fascinating ornamental plant.
The Ginko is one of the oldest tree species, having survived even the ice age. Also known as Maidenhair Tree, Ginko Biloba is a tree that can adapt easily to urban environments and are resistant to pollution and many types of pests and diseases.
Ginko trees must be planted in a partially sunny location, in well-drained soil. They can reach a top height of 15 m.
This plant has thousands of cultivators that come in all colours and forms. Camellia Japonica is native to mountain forests, but it can adapt to other environments. It has medicinal uses and it is an iconic plant in eastern art due to its gorgeous blooms. It likes morning sunshine with dappled afternoon shade.
It also needs acidic soil with good drainage. Camellia japonica can be planted alongside Japanese maples and other blooming plants such as Azaleas, Magnolias, Hostas, and even Ferns. Curious to learn more about this beautiful flower? Read our complete guide to Japanese Camellia.
The macrophylla variety which changes colors from pink to blue is particularly popular in Japan. Hydrangeas need partial shade and well-drained soil and thrive in areas with mild summers.
Hydrangeas grow quickly, so they will reward you with their beautiful blooms as long as you offer them ideal growing conditions. Read our complete guide to Hydrangeas to learn what these fascinating plants need.
How to Design a Japanese Garden
Now that you know a few key features and plants that you can use to create a beautiful Japanese garden, it’s time to learn more about designing it. How you design the garden depends on the garden style that you choose. However, following a few simple steps will simplify this process for you.
Step 1 – Hide the Backgrounds
As we already mentioned, the Japanese garden must be a secluded location, hidden from the outside chaos. As such, use fences, trees, and shrubs to hide your background.
Step 2 – Plan Specific Areas and Focal Points
Based on the garden style that you have chosen, separate the garden into distinct areas (sitting area, pond area, and so on).
Step 3 – Choose Your Plants
The plants must be chosen based on their blooming periods, but also the lighting potential of your garden. For example, a courtyard garden might have little natural lights, so you should choose fewer blooming plants and more ferns and mosses.
Step 4 – Build the Water Features
The water features will most likely require the most amount of work if they are not naturally found in your garden. If you have a natural pond and stream, it is best to use it as it is, rather than try to alter it to fit a specific design. If adding a real water feature is too much work, you can create beautiful water-like patterns by using pebbles and nice-looking rocks.
Step 5 – Play with the Decorative Elements
Once you’ve designed your areas, built the water features and planted your plants. It is time to play with structures and decorative elements. If you use strong colours, it is best to use the same color throughout all elements. For example, if you have a red roof pavilion on an island, you can complement it with a red bridge and red tori gates. The lanterns, the benches, and the rest of the decorative elements can be combined however you see fit.
Japanese gardens are truly spectacular and if planned with care and consideration, they can become spaces of meditation and tranquillity. A Japanese garden can bring some peace and quiet to our busy lives and can transform even a small outdoor area into an oasis of life. We are fascinated by Japanese gardens, so do not hesitate to share your thoughts and experiences with us. Let us know if you have a Japanese garden and what your favourite Japanese plants and features are.