Invitations to Stillness: Japanese Gardens as Metaphorical Journeys of Solace

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This post, courtesy of our friends at Kyoto Journal, is adapted and condensed from an article by Japanese garden expert Mark Hovane. You can click here to read the entire article, and read other insightful stories about Japan and Asia in Kyoto Journal.

There is a significant and growing body of global research documenting the power of nature to heal and relax us, restoring physical, cognitive and emotional balance.

Shisendo karesansui (dry gravel “Zen”) garden Kyoto
Shisendo karesansui (dry gravel “Zen”) garden Kyoto. Photo by John Einarsen, courtesy of Kyoto Journal

Japanese gardens have had religious underpinnings since the earliest times from both the indigenous Shinto belief system as well as from the later cultural import of Buddhism. Sacred, otherworldly and extraordinary, they were even written about in Japanese mythology such as the Nihon Shoki.

Traditionally the Japanese believed that natural elements of nature were manifestations of god spirits called kami. These spirits were thought to temporarily reside in mountains, rivers, trees and stones. Later as Zen Buddhism from China took hold in the twelfth century, many gardens were constructed within temple precincts to provide spaces for contemplation and stillness, removed from the stresses of the secular world. Their aim was to reduce the elements of nature to symbolic representation to present a minimalist essence.

Zen is based on the practice of seated meditation as a core spiritual discipline with the aim of connecting the individual to the larger cosmos. The gardens found in these temples assisted the individual to escape worldly afflictions and strengthen spiritual resolve.

Saihō-ji (西芳寺) Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple located in Matsuo, Kyoto. Photo by John Einarsen, courtesy of Kyoto Journal

As transformative healing spaces, the most relevant Japanese gardens are those which had their origins in medieval Japan. Highly influenced by Zen philosophy; the dry landscape karesansui gardens were usually located in Zen temples, typically featuring white sand/gravel as a base cover to metaphorically represent the element of water. Larger stones placed within this expanse of raked ground represented mountains. These gardens were completed with minimal vegetal material.

The other highly symbolic, contemplative spaces were tea gardens, roji, which developed towards the end of the sixteenth century, usually surrounding a tea house or hut, designed to prepare the guests spiritually as they moved slowly towards the tea event. Later small courtyard gardens, tsuboniwa, appeared in merchant townhouses, machiya, to represent a condensed version of a tea garden. Each of these different types of garden had a raison d’être of focusing attention inwards.

Kōtō-in (高桐院) garden sub-temple of Daitoku-ji, Kyoto. Photo by John Einarsen, courtesy of Kyoto Journal

Thus it can be seen that only with the rise of Zen in medieval Japan did gardens become so deliberately symbolic of the human quest for inner understanding. From these historical principles, it becomes clear that Japanese gardens are potent opportunities for self-realization, tranquility and peace. Buddhism has investigated the garden as a tool for religious teaching, practice and contemplation for centuries. Garden maker and twelfth-century Zen priest Muso Kokushi observed:

He who distinguishes between the garden and practice cannot be said to have found the Way.


Kōtō-in (高桐院) garden sub-temple of Daitoku-ji, Kyoto. Photo by John Einarsen, courtesy of Kyoto Journal

In Japan, the very act of tending a garden is also a form of Buddhist practice. It implies a commitment to nurturing a daily habit that cultivates our own inner healing and spiritual growth. The garden invites humility and rewards compassionate and patient maintenance.

In fact, the meticulous care required of a Japanese garden, in particular, distinguishes it from many other cultures’ landscaped spaces. Partially this is a response to the extremely limited physical space that necessitates a delicate balance of scaled relationships between garden elements.

It is a well-known rule for traditional gardeners that a great garden relies 40% on design and 60% on maintenance. Every element in the Japanese garden from the shape of the pruned pine trees to the careful placement of stepping stones has intention and is specifically designed to cultivate nuanced awareness. The contrast between what is placed and what is left blank brings to life a pictorial space that leaves room for our imagination.

Symbolism and metaphor in the garden also offer powerful tools to help humans reconcile their own lives and relationships to both society and the larger forces of nature. The American garden scholar Kendall Brown argues that “The opportunity for direct engagement with nature is what makes all gardens compelling but, as Japanese gardens function so effectively as philosophical and physical microcosms, their power is even stronger.” (Kendall Brown. Visionary Landscapes (Tuttle 2017))

Tōji-in (等持院) Buddhist temple of the Rinzai Tenryū sect, Kyoto. Photo by John Einarsen, courtesy of Kyoto Journal

There is a very deliberate order and conduct which is necessary to fully experience the Japanese garden as an immersive art work in progress. Exquisitely choreographed pathways, gates and water features are all consciously designed to slow the visitor down, allowing a divesting of the outside world to encounter timeless space.

Japanese gardens need time to work their magic and draw the visitor in. A Japanese garden is a sensitively managed visual environment, always at the centre of which is the visitor’s experience. A fundamental design concern has always been the question of exactly how will the visitor interact with the space? This very particular way in which the garden engages the visitor is one of the key elements that distinguishes it as a healing space.

Visit Kyoto Journal for the full article by Mark Hovane.  


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