The elements of Japanese garden design, if used properly, result in spaces that are peaceful, calm and tranquil. Learn how the various elements are used.
Have you had the opportunity to visit a Japanese garden, either in Japan or one created overseas? What feelings did you come away with? Usually I come away with a feeling of being tranquil, peaceful and calm. It really is a meditative experience.
Japanese gardens are designed purposefully to impart that feeling of peacefulness and tranquility. Through a clever use of various elements and features and focus on keeping the overall design simple and uncluttered, there isn’t the busyness you might see in a typical western style garden.
Let’s have a look at the various elements of Japanese garden design and how they contribute to the overall look and feel of a Japanese garden.
One of the main elements you will find in a Japanese garden is water. Water symbolizes movement and brings energy to the garden. Water is a symbol of life as we can’t survive without a clean source of water nor can plants and animals.
On the practical side water provides cooling in summer. Bodies of water take time to heat up and cool down, so help to buffer the micro climate found in the garden.
The subtle sounds of a stream running over rocks or water splashing into a pond from a waterfall also adds to the feeling of serenity in the garden. It helps to mask out sounds coming from outside of the garden such as vehicle traffic.
Water features come in many forms including ponds, streams, waterfalls and water basins (usually in temples and shrines for washing hands prior to praying or entering).
What about fountains? Western gardens usually have these as water features, but fountains that put on a show of dancing water are fairly rare in traditional Japanese gardens. The ones you do see are usually just peacefully bubbling out of a water basin. This is because fountains require electric pumps which would not have been available hundreds of years ago when Japanese garden design was being developed.
Koi (colourful carp fish) make the water come alive with movement and colour. They can be very playful, especially if they get used to the humans that feed them. As with other pond fish, they help to regulate the natural balance in the pond.
See also the section on rocks and stones for “water” features that don’t actually use any water.
An element as simply as a rock or stone may at first seem like nothing special to add to a garden. However the Japanese have integrated these hard features into their gardens in ways that complement the softer features such as plants and water.
Rocks in a Japanese garden are positioned and “planted” into the ground so that they look like they have been there for a long time. It is customary to dig a hole and place the rock into the hole, filling in around it. What you see above ground is only part of the whole, kind of like an iceberg.
The number of rocks is also crucial and three is a common number to use in a grouping. Definitely odd numbers are more common.
Stones are used in various ways as well. The most common way is to create a dry stream bed instead of having actual water. This gives the illusion without the expense and work of having running water, which usually involves pumps.
Islands – Shima
When a Japanese garden has a large enough pond, usually it also will have an island or two. These are often landscaped the same way as the rest of the garden, containing mature trees, mosses and flower bushes such as azaleas.
A common practice is to make an island look like an animal. Turtles or tortoises are popular and usually simply require a large rock placed accurately as the head and smaller rocks for the tail and legs. The actual island rising up from the pond surface acts as the shell. This adds a playful element to the garden.
And islands also are found in dry landscaping, where there is no actual water. Often you will see a mound of earth with plants and trees on it in the middle of an expanse of raked gravel or stones.
Bridges – Hashi/Bashi
Bridges usually are built over water. And they obviously serve the purpose of guiding visitors safely over the water without getting wet.
However in Japanese gardens bridges also act as structural features that anchor a scene. We’ve all seen the bright red lacquered bridges in typical Japanese gardens. While these are prevalent and eye-catching, they are not the only type.
Often bridges are quite plain, made from wood and left to weather to a grey colour. Or they are built from concrete or local stone for more durability. Regardless of how fancy or plain they are, they provide an additional element that complements the water feature and plants around it.
Common also are stepping stones that act like a bridge as they allow you to cross a pond without getting your feet wet. This feature brings the visitor closer to the water surface to make you feel like you are walking on water! Obviously these are more dangerous than the traditional bridge and are only used with very shallow water features.
But not every Japanese garden has actual flowing water (the wet kind!). And yet bridges feature prominently even in those gardens.
How can that be?
As was mentioned above, Japanese gardens often have simulated water, usually streams, made from carefully placed river rocks. Bridges are used in those situations to span the “stream”, not to keep visitors dry but to preserve the layout of the rocks, make walking easier and to again provide a structural element.
Stone Lanterns – Ishi Toro
Stone lanterns were originally added to Japanese gardens for their practicality. Using either candles or oil, they could be lit at dusk and then the gardens could be used safely at nighttimeja.
Nowadays many lanterns are simply decorative and not actually used to light up the garden. They just add to the interest in the garden.
However you will see lanterns retrofitted with electrical lighting in public gardens to mimic their original purpose of lighting the way.
A traditional stone lantern has six parts. Here is a diagram showing what each part is called and where it sits in the lantern “sandwich”:
Pagodas – Gorin no to
Pagodas (to, butto, or toba) are a feature coming from China. Stone pagodas usually don’t exceed 3 meters in height and are purely decorative. Wooden pagodas can instead be the size of a small apartment building, towering above the garden like a control tower at an airport.
You won’t find these in every Japanese garden. I find the smaller stone pagodas fit into a garden much better and the stone will take on a soothing patina of moss and weathering that makes it fit well into an established garden.
Structures, walls and fences
Every garden needs to have some structural elements. Japanese gardens are no exception. Since these gardens are often part of a temple or shrine, we expect to see the temple buildings or shrines. But there are also some other common structures that you will find.
Walls and fences help to divide up the garden into separate spaces. These can take the form of bamboo fences, stuccoed walls and hedges, although the last one is not as common as in western gardens. Not every garden has them and often these are attached to other structures such as buildings. And when you have a fence you need a gate or entrance and these can often be elaborate with covered roofs as seen above.
Tea houses are the typical structure that are common in Japanese gardens. They are a place to go to relax, maybe escape a rainstorm and enjoy the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Other covered seating areas are popular to provide a refuge from some of the heavy rains common during the rainy seasons. It could just be a simple bench with three walls and a roof, similar to a bus stop shelter.
Before we go on to the next section are you looking for more visiual inspiration and ideas? Check out this video that is a compilation of some of the photos I have taken since 2002 on five trips to Japan.
Just click on the red arrow to play it right in this blog post and then continue reading after watching the video. Enjoy!
The stereotypical zen garden usually contains a perfectly raked expanse of light-coloured sand or fine gravel. These gardens are painstakingly kept clean of fallen leaves and flower petals and raked daily into pleasing designs.
They often are used to simulate calm-running water just like stones are used. In this case the raking is done in the direction of the water flow and often rocks are placed mid-stream and the raking is done around them to simulate the water dividing to run around the rocks.
Special rakes are used to make the designs. It is fascinating to watch someone rake a design and you then can appreciate the work and time that it takes even for a moderately complex design.
A path is often seen as just a way to get from point A to point B. But in a garden it isn’t always designed that way. In fact, a path is seen more of a way to slow down the visitor and have them enjoy the other elements in the scene.
Japanese gardens are no exception. A path doesn’t always lead you straight to your destination. It is designed to lead you to various viewpoints and get you to experience parts of the garden you might not otherwise see. Often a path is designed to show you a borrowed view (shakkei – see below). It may lead you to a teahouse but along the way bring you closer to a water feature or lead you over a pond on a bridge.
Various different materials are used to surface a path. Stones and gravel are the most common, mainly because of cost but also because it makes a pleasing crunching sound underfoot and was used in ancient times to warn you of intruders.
Wood slices and flat rocks are often used as stepping stones with moss strategically planted between the individual slices or stones to soften the look of the path.
And the Japanese are into recycling/reusing as well. I’ve seen paths made from broken stone roof tiles, “planted” in the ground on edge.
Gardens come alive with the introduction of flowers. This is also true in Japanese gardens, although flowers are seen only as a temporary burst of colour at various times of year. They don’t necessarily define the garden.
Native flowers figure prominently, however because there was a lot of influence from China, many flowering plants do originate from China many hundreds of years ago.
Among the most popular flowers are:
- Azaleas and Rhododendrons
The other form of blooms are found on ornamental trees. The most popular of course are the cherries and plums. Every year in spring Japan explodes with large expanses of white, pink and even green blossoms. The cherry blossom (sakura) season brings a lot of foreign visitors as well to various gardens and riverbanks.
Bamboo is used in two ways in Japanese garden design.
The first way is simply the plants. Bamboo works well as a screen as it is fast growing and usually has roots that spread laterally (although there are some clumping bamboo varieties).
Bamboo also has the quality of making soothing rustling sounds in a slight breeze. This adds to the tranquility of the Japanese garden.
The other way that bamboo is used in the garden is harvested bamboo. It can be used for the following elements:
- Flower supports
- Drinking cups
- Washing ladles
- Deer scarer
Usually harvested bamboo can be found in nurseries and garden centers in various thicknesses and lengths.
Bamboo however is an expendable building material. The Japanese see it as temporary, just like our lives are. And it helps that bamboo grows so fast that it can be harvested regularly for building purposes.
Maple Trees – Momiji
In fall in Japan, the hills explode with a palette of amazing colour as maple trees turn into flaming reds and oranges.
But gardens too colour up as maple trees are a prevalent feature. The array of colours is amazing.
It’s not just the trees that are lit up. As the leaves fall off the trees they carpet the ground, literally creating a red carpet to walk on like at the Oscars or some other major event.
Some maples planted at the edge of a water feature, gracefully arch their branches over the water, creating a reflection.
But even in summer, maples show off their varied hues, somewhat subdued from what they turn into in fall, but still a foundational planting in any garden.
Japanese Pine – Matsu
Besides the coveted cherry, plum and maple trees that provide seasonal colour, Japanese pine trees are the other type of tree that are prominently featured in Japanese gardens. There are both red pines (Pinus densiflora – akamatsu) and black pines (Pinus thunbergii – kuromatsu).
The pine tree may not have flashy blossoms nor fanciful foliage in autumn, but it’s form is still beautiful and adds a lot to the landscape. Plus its foliage is always green, even in winter, providing that life in the garden throughout the whole year.
What is the most interesting is that often you will see pines lovingly supported on various wooden frameworks to keep their heavy branches from breaking or touching the ground. Some of the supports are quite elaborate as you can see in the photo above.
With the many elements already mentioned, there can’t be much bare ground left!
Usually though there is. Simple ground covers exist to tie everything together. Usually they consist of mosses, sedums and low grasses.
With the amount of rain Japan usually sees, these grow quite well in the shady areas under trees and in the shadow of structures and walls.
Borrowed scenery – Shakkei
In essence this design technique uses scenes that are outside of the garden boundaries to supplement what is in the garden.
So typically it may use distant mountains or trees to provide a background to the existing garden. For rural gardens this is usually easy, requiring proper placement of buildings and trees to leave open windows and to frame a scene like you would a painting. Usually seating areas or paths are designed to maximize the viewing of the shakkei.
And it is now very common for a Japanese garden located in the heart of a busy city to have views of skyscrapers and other tall buildings. While these may not be as pleasing to look at as some distant treed hillsides or mountains, these views show the ongoing contrast between ancient Japan and modern Japan.
As you can see, Japanese gardens can contain many different elements. Not every garden has all of these, but for the ones that do, the elements are integrated so well in the overall design that it doesn’t feel cluttered or overwhelming.
Hopefully you can add some of these Japanese garden design elements to your garden to bring some Asian inspiration to your outdoor space. Future blog posts will focus on one element at a time and provide detailed steps and advice on how to add these elements to your garden. I plan to add some to my garden, so I will take you with me on the journey.
I’ve also reviewed a great book that contains projects that use some of these elements. Well worth it to add it to your gardening library.
Do you have a favourite among all of these features? Do you have any elements of Japanese garden design in your garden? Please leave a comment and share what you like and what you have.
And in case you missed it earlier, here again is the accompanying video for this blog post. Just click on the red arrow to play it right in this blog post. Enjoy!
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC