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Traditional Japanese Gardens
The "Icon" Of All Spiritual Gardens

August 15, 2010
John Stuart Leslie

Making a garden in the traditional Japanese style may seem easy until you do a little research and find out there is a lot underneath the surface that complicates the issue.

If you are the type of personality who simply cares about what things look like, then you may not appreciate knowing about the historical evolution and development of Japanese gardens. However, knowing the intent and purpose of a garden adds to its appreciation.

In addition, if you prefer balanced, symmetrical European style gardens, then Japanese may not be for you. They are diametrically opposed in design philosophy.

Japanese Garden Design Online

Describing what Japanese gardens are not is perhaps a good way to start out. Here is a bullet list to get the basics:   

Japanese gardens (traditionally) do not have: 

·       Borders or beds of flowers; 

·       Symmetry: whether bilateral, radial or axial; 

·       Ornate designs 

·       Clutter of accessories; 

·       Potted plants; 

·       Gaudy, bold “splashes of color”; 

·       Pink flamingos or other decorative elements; 

·       Human centered designs; 

·       Large expanses of recreational grass. 



What Japanese gardens do have (traditionally speaking) is a reverence for nature. The use of natural materials dominates the elements of the design. 


·       Stone (in the form of boulders, rocks, gravel or sand);

·       Water (actual or symbolic), earth, trees and shrubs;

·       Manmade elements such as stone lanterns, bridges, water basins;

·       Enclosure usually formed by fencing, hedges or the architectural structures;


Using mostly natural materials, the design intent of a Japanese garden is to re-create and capture the essence of the natural landscape, whether creating it onsite or using techniques like “borrowed scenery”.


There are several styles of Japanese garden derived from the historical progression of their development.  They are generally the following:


·         Hillside garden;

·         Tea garden;

·         Karesansui (dry landscape);

·         Strolling garden.


The Hillside gardens began as gardens designed to be viewed from certain vantage points such as the residences, or rooms within palaces of Emperors and the like. These gardens incorporated waterfalls and ponds. Bridges were included to access islands created in the ponds.japanese garden design bridge


At one point in history, islands were symbolic of Paradise (Pureland Sect of Buddhism), or the afterlife, and the bridge was symbolic of the path of life, the journey to Heaven.


There is a parallel here between the eastern concept of Paradise and the western concept of the Garden of Eden. Both celebrate the virtues of the raw, pure form of the earth, of nature itself. But in the western (biblical) version, that purity was lost through the committing of sin.


Eastern thought at its roots especially Taoism, reveres nature in its pure form. Nature is much larger than mankind and in fact dwarfs man in the context of the Cosmos.


That relationship is more understood in the east and is reflected in not only gardens, but other cultural endeavors including landscape painting, Ichibana, pottery, etc. 


Tea Gardens were a style of gardens that originated from the importation of tea from China. As Chan Buddhism was introduced to China through one known as Daruma, he also introduced tea so that the meditating monks would not fall asleep. The popularity of tea as well as this sect of Buddhism was brought to

Japan, where it was known as Zen Buddhism


. japanese tea garden design

Thus tea became very popular and developed into a ritualized social event utilizing a special tea house. The invited guests would come through the garden before entering the tea house separated by some form of fencing to divide the outer tea garden from the inner space. 


They would then go through a ritualized practice of cleansing the mouth via the water basin outside the entry and humbling themselves upon entering by crouching down low to enter through the small doorway. At night, the paths were often strategically illuminated using a stone or iron lantern. 


Karesansui style gardens or “dry landscape” gardens were of a style that developed generally at the same time as the Tea Garden era but were much more austere than and not as interactive as the Tea gardens.


Dry landscape gardens consisted of stones and gravel. The use of plant material was very sparse if at all. The types and styles varied depending on what the layout of the stones and gravel was supposed to symbolize. However, the idea was that the stones represented mountains, as islands in the ocean or a lake. Gravel represented water as the ocean or lake.


Zen Garden Dry Rock Garden Japanese Style

Sand was raked to mimic the ripples on the water’s surface or the ocean’s waves. Course gravel was used to represent fast moving water as in a stream, whereas finer gravel represented as calm pond and more tranquil feeling. 



The fourth major style of Japanese garden is the Strolling Garden. They were interactive, in that the use of stepping stones were incorporated so people could wander and meander throughout the garden. This allowed for a much richer experience as design concepts such as “seen and hidden” or progressive realization was utilized.


In other words, the paths were purposely irregular and not so easy to navigate. This allowed the designer to manipulate the gait of the walker so that they had to pause at key vantage points or to be made aware of a subtle message, otherwise passed by if the walker was not in a state of mindfulness. 


When you observe a Japanese garden whether a photograph or in person, does you wonder, "What is the purpose of this place?" You would probably know that it was a place constructed to be a "garden", but can you sense what the designer was thinking? Does it contain the elements intended?


Your perception of the space has much to do with your expectations of how a Japanese garden appears to you as well as how it makes you feel. You may be turned off by a Karesansui garden, thinking "Where is the water, bridge and stone lantern?"


Conversely, do you need to be informed that the rocks symbolize a turtle and a crane, and that the animals in turn symbolize longevity? Would you have less of an enriching experience if you were clueless of the hidden symbols within the garden?


There is a perception of a space that people can sense that also cannot be (by most people) expressed in words. It is the same feeling you get when you enter a restaurant, a hotel lobby, or any distinct space wherein you can say that it "feels good". You can't really put your finger on it, but it "just does".


Whether a garden has "soul" is not so much contained in the objects within the garden, but rather, one's sense of space and appreciation for what they are seeing and feeling. Your ability to "feel" the soul of a place is in direct proportion to what you are allowing yourself to feel. But you must be present -- be mindful.


There is always soul - or spirit, contained in any garden. How you perceive that soul or spiritual energy, has much to do with your thoughts and feelings at the time. In other words, if you are in a great mood, your energy level is high, don't you think that you will see the good in the garden? You will be in alignment with that energy vibration that you are sending out. You will especially notice those certain features that resonate with your vibration.


There is much to see in a Japanese garden, but what is captivating is to see into the mind's eye of its creator and grasp the intention behind the physical objects within the garden.

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