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For many people, one of the major attractions of a trip to Japan is the chance to visit some of its world-famous gardens and experience the visual beauty and tranquility they encapsulate. Over the last century and a half, beginning with Japan’s opening, the style has taken root in imaginations around the world, and Japanese gardens have spread far beyond their culture of origin. They are now so recognizable that the name alone likely conjures up images of moss and rocks, raked gravel, and bright, hovering maple leaves. Garden fans know that the visual elements, however, are just half of the appeal. Through carefully executed design and a history rooted in two religions, Japanese gardens manage to evoke a kind of awe that inspires inner calm and introspection.
As an aspiring garden designer, I’ve long been fascinated by the design language of Japanese gardens, and living in Kyoto has been a crash course in experiencing some of the best examples firsthand. I also firmly believe that gardens are a gateway to experiencing nature, which is itself an essential part of our experience of the world. While visiting a Japanese garden can be a beautiful and enjoyable experience, building a small one of your own raises the benefits to a whole new level, creating a beautiful space to enjoy and a space for mediation and calm, apart from the bustle of everyday life. A bold proposition, but building a garden might be the most beneficial thing we can do right now. It gets creative juices flowing, it’s healthy, it has long-lasting benefits, it’s good for those around us, it’s good for the environment, and it’s fun.
Despite a strong shared design language, Japanese gardens are hardy uniform. The raked karesansui gravel gardens popularized by 14th century Zen Temples are just one branch, though probably the most iconic and widely known. Unpacking the origins of the style reveals a fair bit of fascinating history which hopefully renders them more understandable, and therefore reproducible. The gardens we know today came about through a fusion of design influences, including Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, and Buddhism introduced along with elements of Chinese culture beginning in the 6th century.
Read more about the religious and philosophical history of Japanese gardens.
But Japanese garden design hasn’t stopped in the intervening centuries. In addition to the deservedly famous Zen temple gardens, there are also a growing number of excellent small gardens which have largely flown under the radar. These have grown out of the traditions of tsuboniwa, small courtyard gardens in Japanese townhouses; and the tiny, electrifying, small-scale delights of ikebana, flower arrangements that make you think.
You’re likely to spot these new pocket gardens in trendy cafes and restaurants featuring interior-facing spaces, or extremely thin slivers of adjacent land. Sometimes glass-walled, sometimes set at floor level and no larger a fish tank, just a glimpse of green and slate, their language is modern and trendy, but maintains strong connections to the past with shared design elements. Hotels and new buildings are increasingly sporting lush planters with angular modern designs reminiscent of the vases used in ikebana, providing great visual contrast for the plants growing in them. Green rooftops and walls are softening the edges of urban brutalism, slowly becoming a part of the urban warp and weft of modern Japanese cities. With these trends, Japan often feels like the future and demonstrates a way we can have dense, functional cities that both serve the needs of people and are more inclusive of plants and nature.
Now, more so than perhaps any time in the past, it seems like a direction we need to pursue. The division between our human environments and nature seems to be growing, along with an awareness that the environment can’t take much more, and that we are actually healthier when we spend more time in nature. Gardening has always been an accessible option, even if just in pots and containers, and Japanese gardens may just be the blueprint we need.
So say you’re garden curious but not sure you have the master designer chops to pull off the next Ryoan-ji. No worries. Some of the best art is appropriation, and there’s nothing wrong with borrowing beautiful ideas for your design. Garden designers of eras past could never have dreamed of the resources we have at our disposal – the ability to call up pictures from around the world in an instant, order books, or watch tutorials online. So before anything else, do a dive and see what’s out there, find some ideas that appeal, and get a general concept of what you might want to try. It’s important to try to imagine the feeling you are trying to create. If you find yourself going off course as you proceed, you can always come back to it and readjust.
Let’s talk about some of the major design elements and concepts in a Japanese garden. This won’t be an exhaustive list, rather a compilation of some interesting ideas and techniques that might appeal to your sensibilities and get your creative instincts going.
The first thing that might be helpful is to make a simple list of design elements that could be included in the garden you envision, or in Japanese gardens in general. These can be things like “moss”, “pines”, “rocks”, “asymmetry”. This can be a good exercise just to think about the possibilities – both what should and what should not be considered.
Inclusion of Metaphorical Elements
This is one of the signatures of Japanese gardens – gravel or stones as water, rocks as islands or mountains, thinned pines or rounded bushes as clouds, water as the sky, etc. Is there a particular idea which has always captured your imagination? Use that as a seed and grow from there.
This is another major element in Japanese garden design. Karesansui dry gardens at Zen temples often seem to have more space than substance, whereas other types of Japanese gardens seem to be more fluid with how they incorporate it.
One of the things that really makes the rocks, trees, and other design elements pop in contrast with artificial shapes and patterns. It could be a white wall, a stone path with geometric shapes, a screen with a complex woven pattern. Incorporating elements that the eye clearly recognizes as unnatural leads us to group natural ones, even if they are forced. A gnarled, heavily pruned maple might look out of place in a real forest, but in a carefully arranged bed of moss and raked gravel, it could soothe our mind as the epitome of natural elegance.
Reduction of elements versus what you would find in a natural space is another feature – fewer types of plants, less density, less complexity. Assemble a carefully pared-down version of a scene.
A major element at play in Japanese garden design is miniaturization. Does your original idea include moving cubic yards of dirt and placing multi-ton rocks with power equipment, or can you re-envision the plan on a smaller scale using fewer resources to achieve a similar effect? It is also relevant in terms of how much space you actually have to work with. If you are envisioning a World Heritage Garden but only have a closet-sized area available, you will need to readjust expectations!
Borrowed Landscape Gardens
This is a slick technique employed to make a small garden seem larger or appear as if it extends beyond its actual boundaries. It is done by building up and/or contouring the furthest horizon of plants in the garden so that the viewer’s line of sight then jumps to a distant background feature – usually a hillside or mountain – and skips anything pesky like houses in the midground. For a masterful example of the technique, check out Ritsurin Garden, located in Takamatsu.
This is a term which is often used in Shinto, typically in reference to the boundary around a sacred space. A good example is the red torii gates which welcome you to a shrine; they literally denote the boundary between the profane world and the sacred space of the shrine. Japanese gardens also use this concept of kekkai, lines, divisions as a design element. Conversely, you might think of erasing boundaries, for example, by seamlessly building right up to the edge of the veranda or interior. This removes any barrier the observer feels and effectively has you enter the garden just by gazing out.
If you have never built a garden before – or even if you have – thinking about costs can rein in a lot of extravagant ideas and force you to innovate with what is actually possible. Do you have any resources on hand? Does your design hinge on one design element which costs lots of money or do you have the time and ability to get creative with less costly alternatives? How will that affect the expected look vs. reality and enjoyment?
Upkeep and Care – It Takes Lots of Work to Look Effortless!
This is a major consideration. All those ancient gardens in Japan take lots of work to look effortless. A small army of landscapers toils to remove grass from moss, blow away leaves, and prune pines so that you can see through them. So be sure to factor in how much maintenance you are expecting to do as a part of your design!
Climate and Adapted Species
Plants that grow well in Japan might not be able to survive in your climate zone. One idea to consider is using native stand-in which can confer local hardiness while being pruned or used to achieve the same effect.
Concentration or Contemplation Space
Does your garden have a specific viewing point or effect you hope you impart? Is it for visual enjoyment, meditation, or both? Have you included a place from which to sit and enjoy it?
I like to think about whether my garden design would interest a five-year-old. Kids are instantly honest and don’t have filters, so it’s a good way to think about how your garden will strike people. If you can hold the attention of a child for a few moments, chances are you’re doing it right.
I hope this inspires someone out there to give it a go. If you do, please send us your pictures; we’d love to see what you have created!
Bonus Extra: For a limited time, Japan House London are offering Teikūhikō – high-resolution video tours of some of the most beautiful gardens and calming locations that Japan has to offer via this link: Japan House – Teikūhikō