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The Art of the Japanese Garden

Gardening in Japan has always been a form of artistic expression using nature imagery as a vehicle. Very much like painting or sculpture, gardening is a means of giving physical, sensory form to emotional or spiritual matters. Though not purely an intellectual pursuit, highly developed theories of gardening have nevertheless been detailed in treatises dating back as far as the 11th century. Garden design, as is true of all the other Japanese arts, is not taught directly; instead skills are "acquired" over the course of time spent working as an apprentice to a master, by example as well as oral instruction. The process of learning by assimilation may well have existed before the influence of Zen Buddhism but it was certainly reinforced by Buddhism’s inherent distrust of the spoken word and emphasis on "direct transmission" of ideas through action. In order to understand design as it is applied to the Japanese garden the student has two options: one is to come and spend ten years as a gardener's deshi (apprentice), the minimum time considered appropriate before a master would allow a pupil to go off and start his own business; the other option is to take an independent and inquisitive look at what constitutes design.

Understanding Components of Design

Theoretically, design can be broken down into three components: design principles, design techniques, and design elements. Design principles are the guiding ideas by which a garden is constructed and, by which, the fundamental spirit it is hopefully expressed. Design techniques are the methods by which principles are given form in the garden and the elements are the physical parts that are used. This elementary analysis gives a rational handhold with which to grasp the meaning of design but it must be remembered that it is only a way of understanding—not the design process itself. Principles are not foregrounded or used to systematically build gardens; instead, during the course of an apprenticeship, the student is exposed to all three aspects of design. The student indirectly absorbs these lessons and when, finally digested, utilizes them unconsciously to build a garden.

This small, courtyard garden is in the tradition of Dry Gardens (karesansui) but uses moss instead of stones as a focal element. The rhythmic motion of the moss hillock and raked sand patterns is intended to recall the calming effect of waves at the seashore. Spiral Garden, Private Residence, Kyoto.

Of the three components of design—principles, techniques and elements—it is the latter which are the most superficial or, let us say, the most "exposed." Because of this exposure, the elements—moss and twisted pines, rocks and white sand, stone lanterns and stepping stones—are the best known and most often associated with the Japanese garden. However, it is the principles (and the techniques by which those principles are expressed), that are the basis of what makes the gardens of Japan unique. When trying to recreate such a garden in an alien cultural or physical climate, importation of the elements alone will only succeed in making a garden "Japanesque," whereas, with a clearer understanding of Japanese design principles and techniques, one can create a garden with a truer Japanese spirit. Without the traditional elements a garden might not even look Japanese at first glance but will have the harmony and subdued beauty that is most attractive in Japan’s more famous gardens. This is not to say that to include traditional elements is wrong, but simply of lesser importance, and avoidable altogether if one so chooses.

Japanese Design Principles

Wildness and Control

The innumerable themes in Japanese garden design, like those in the poems of Japan, are represented in images of wild nature. Where poets use words, nature images in the gardens are expressed through the controlling hand of the gardener. Japanese gardens are particularly dependent on control which is why they require so much intensive maintenance. Striking a harmonic balance between wildness and control, between the beauty of nature and that of man-made things, becomes a fundamental concern of the gardener.

The tea garden (roji) is a path - from waiting room to teahouse as well as from a lesser to a greater state of mental and spiritual awareness. Crossing the rough stones to the waiting bench, visitors leave behind the world of the city and enters the greener world of nature . Hiden-in Temple, Kyoto.

Nature in Japan can rage with untold fury—typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and tidal waves. Living with Nature means controlling it. Japanese gardens reflect this control but they also display the pacifying influence of Buddhism, which sees man as an integral part of nature, and of the native Shinto religion whose gods inhabit nature. The dichotomy of awe and respect on the one hand, and the need to control nature on the other, fuses within the garden to create a single harmonic aesthetic. This effect is most easily seen in the treatment of plantings whose forms are stylized derivations of natural images—windswept pines, craggy old plums—which are created and maintained very deliberately by the gardener.

The Seasons

Arguably there are two kinds of gardens in the world: those built in harsh climates to provide physical and aesthetic diversion, and those built in relatively temperate zones which accentuate and revel in local surroundings. Japanese gardens are most emphatically of the latter variety. The Japanese archipelago is a diverse ecological environment. The Japanese pride themselves on their four seasons (shiki), which many (untraveled) Japanese consider unique to Japan. The truth, of course, is that there are many places around the world with four seasons and many places within Japan—to the north and south—without. In fact, only the central region from Kyoto to Tokyo has the quintessential four seasons which smoothly blend into each other so that practically each month has its own distinct feeling. The incorporation of the seasons in all their abundance and subtlety into garden design is a primary consideration but it could be said more properly that keen attention to the intricacies of the natural world is the dominant consideration, no matter how many seasons.

There is an adage, most often associated with Zen Buddhism, that the only permanent thing in our world is change itself. The acceptance of change as intrinsic to the nature of existence in "this world" was expressed in the Heian aesthetic mujokan—a reveling in the ephemeral—and has since become a principle influencing many of Japan’s arts. The change of the seasons is an apt vehicle for visualizing this concept and it has long since become a standard motif in poetry, painting, and of course gardening.


In the Sakuteiki, an 11th century gardening text, is written the following principle: "Keep close to heart the works of past masters and, giving due respect to the opinions of the client, imbue the garden with your own taste." (1) Giving respect to the client's wishes is a given for all garden design anywhere; being attentive to the "works of past masters" can be called "incorporating tradition." Japanese artists have characteristically built upon previous styles rather than replaced them—"succession rather than superposition." (2) The importance placed on hierarchy and lineage, strongly reinforced if not initiated by Confucian thought, runs deep in the society as a whole.

The lantern and gently overflowing water basin are from Kyoto, Japan. The lantern is made of rare Taiko-iwa granite and the basin was originally a huge, circular stepping stone, now turned on its side and carved to create a fountain. Private Residence, Connecticut.

With regard to design, it should be realized that 90% of all "designs" are "givens": aspects that are determined by the nature of the materials, the site, and climate—just to mention a few of the predominate constraints. Obvious examples are sometimes forgotten: Water does not flow uphill, rocks fall over if not set well, and plants die when planted in the wrong place. All of these factors have become basic to a body of knowledge that designers now call tradition. Any "design" must obey these factors or invite failure. Incorporating tradition does not however mean visionless replication of past forms. The proper sense of traditional incorporation was expressed succinctly by the 17th century poet, Matsuo Basho: Do not seek to emulate the old masters. Seek what they sought. (3)

Personal Expression

Art not only reflects social and cultural values, but art can be a vehicle for individual expression as well. The personal influence in gardening can encompass a wide variety of manifestations—as many manifestations as there are garden designers. Religious or political ideas, comments on man's relationship to nature, or our place in the cosmos, humor or satire—any emotion or spiritual feeling can be represented in the garden. To give just two examples: Some gardens have been given over to evoking themes captured in the poetry of a previous era while others contain allegories of Buddhist thought. When a garden is designed without a guiding cultural spirit it can be relegated to the status of aesthetic play, thus it may fail to convey any significant meaning. The Sakuteiki stresses this point. In the opening lines of the text a designer is urged, in addition to studying nature and the works of past masters, to "devise one's own taste"—waga ga fuzei wo megurashite. One’s taste is an endlessly evolving issue; there is no proper form or limit to the things that can be expressed within the confines of the garden.

Japanese design gives preference to simple materials that weather well over time. The untreated cedar of the fences, copper trim, and granite paving stones all fit this requirement . Private Residence, Connecticut.


At first glance, simple garden maintenance would not appear to qualify as a design principle. Gardens are usually seen as developing in three stages—design, construction and maintenance—so design and maintenance would appear to be independent activities. In reality, if the degree of maintenance the host is able or willing to undertake is not considered from the beginning, the design will fail to some degree. So, maintenance must be thought about at the outset as a basic consideration of the garden. In addition, a great deal of the elegance and dignity of the Japanese garden is not the result of the brilliance of the designer nor the skill of the gardener who constructed the garden, but is developed over the course of time by the caring hand that nurtures it. This patina evolves from years of care, like the wooden floors of temples, polished smooth from daily wiping. In the case of tea gardens, for instance, although the heavy work of maintenance may be left to a professional gardener, tea masters are impelled to involve themselves with the care of the garden. In doing so they come in touch with the change of the seasons which is central to the aesthetics of tea.

Japanese Design Techniques

Enclosure and Entry

Most Japanese gardens are unambiguously enclosed. At times this is simply due to the compressed urban nature of the site, but more often the enclosure is used as a frame. This frame suggests how the garden will be viewed and to what degree the surroundings will be incorporated into it; but most importantly, the enclosure allows for the garden to be viewed as an independent work of art. If not for the enclosure, the garden would be juxtaposed against its surroundings and the subtle scale relationships within it would break down.

Void and Accent (Ma)

With regard to the spatial development within the gardens, the most important design technique is called "ma", a tiny word that has complex meanings as various as space and time. The term ma, can be defined as a space or void that is physical, social, or related to time—or a combination of all the above. Ma is the result of events or objects that "frame-out" a void and cause it to be. Ma is, therefore, not simply the result of these bracketing elements but the focal point itself. The punctuation of movement in Japanese dance or Noh theatre, moments of silence in Japanese music, the social distance held between host and guest during a tea ceremony, and the emptiness left in an ink painting are all discussed in terms of ma.

Ma can exist as a physical space experienced when moving through the garden, it can be a visual space in a contemplation garden that is only entered with the mind, or it can be a time/space: a pause that is created in movement through the garden to enhance one's appreciation of it. In religious terms ma can be used to represent the concept of mu, nothingness, that is a central posit of Zen Buddhism. Aesthetically, ma is the technique used to create yohaku-no-bi, the beauty of paucity that was so important to the arts of the middle ages.

This gaA seasonal flower or fruit (in the case, a local persimmon) is placed in the hollow of a stone for one point of color (above) and water is flowed into the laver for the sound it makes.


Beyond the aesthetic aspects of design, gardens can be imbued with meaning by interweaving symbolic images. But in order for these images to have meaning, it is necessary that the owner/user of the garden have the same understanding of the symbols as that of the designer. In most cases these symbols are part and parcel of the society's collective heritage and so both the designer and client will often take them for granted without explanation. Symbology is a particularly common design technique in the Japanese garden and there are myriad types. The very fact that symbology played such an important and ubiquitous role in the gardens hints at one way in which they were perceived: as metaphorical artworks. Understanding these symbols gives insight into the meaning of the gardens and, although the concepts involved stem from societies and philosophies of the past and at times seem trite or stereotypical, many hold lessons that are as relevant today as they were in the past.

Borrowed Scenery (Shakkei)

Shakkei, literally borrowed scenery, is a technique for enlarging the visual scale of the garden beyond its actual physical boundaries by incorporating a distant view as an integral part of the garden. Originally called "ikedori" (capture alive), this technique was brought to its most refined form in the gardens of the Zen temples during the Muromachi period (1393-1568) under the influence of the ink landscape paintings of the day. It continued to be used over the following centuries and can now been seen in a wide variety of gardens.

Reuse (Mitate)

Mitate is a design technique that was originally associated with the tea garden and has become common in many gardens since the middle ages. Literally translated as "seeing anew" it is the process of finding a new use for an old object. The pieces themselves are called "mitatemono" (the suffix mono means things). In the tea garden some of the best examples of mitatemono are the chozubachi, stone lavers used for cleansing the hands and mouth before entering the tea house. Another common use for found stone objects is as a paving material, often combined with other stones into long, rectangular sections of paving that are called "nobedan" or "ishidatami" (stone tatami).

Japanese Design Elements

Design elements are easily grasped; accordingly many have become symbolic of the gardens themselves, but they are essentially superficial aspects of the garden. The following describe the symbology behind a few of the elements most commonly associated with the Japanese garden:

Rocks (Iwa, ishi)

In ancient Japan prominent rocks jutting from the landscape or sea (iwakura) were seen to be places where the Gods would alight when descending from the heavens or mountain tops. Accordingly, the prototypical image of rocks is as sacred objects—mediums to the realm of the gods. This image was joined in the following centuries by two other images that came from China: Horai and Shumisen. Horai is a legendary mountain in the sea purportedly somewhere off the coast of China, that was said to be the abode of the Immortals. Building a Horai image in one's own garden was an attempt to entice the immortals to alight in order to receive their blessings. In the garden Horai is represented by a stone, usually of unusual shape, that is placed solitarily in a pond.

Shumisen derives from the Buddhist description of the cosmos in which there is a central immovable mountain surrounded by eight seas and eight ranks of mountains. The mountain at the center is called "Shumisen." In the garden, Shumisen is usually recreated as a prominent upright stone often placed in the rear of, and higher than, a cluster of other rocks that form the base of a large triangular shape.

The serpentine shape lends structural support as well as a beautiful line to this rammed earth wall. The groundcover, Pachysandra, is a Japanese plant but is rarely used in Japanese gardens. It is planted here to give a"Western" feeling. "N" Residence, Kyoto, Japan.

During the Heian and early medieval periods, under the influence of theories of geomancy certain rocks were believed to be imbued with all manner of supernatural powers and were given names to reflect this. The rules of divination (eki) determined how these named rocks should be positioned. It was believed that a fortuitous arrangement of such stones could provide good fortune for the owner of the garden; likewise, evil would befall the person who ignored the importance of the rules.

By the late middle ages, when gardens were built much in the same way as the ink wash paintings of the day, rocks became representative of mountains as they may be found in a dramatic, realistic landscape, rather than in legends. It is significant, however, that the gardens were not modeled after Japanese landscapes, but those seen in Chinese paintings. The concept of discovering an inner reality by contemplating wild nature, as practiced by Chinese recluse philosophers, was the central theme in both the paintings and the gardens.

This grand wooden structure was dismantled and moved to this site to be used as a large restaurant. The stone-paved entry employs hand-carved granite from Qingdao, China. Awa-no-sato, Tokushima, Japan. Below: The water laver (chozubachi) - an iron vessel set on layered, rammed earth - serves to bring a point of real water into an otherwise "dry" garden. Awa-no-sato, Tokushima, Japan.

White Sand (Shirakawasuna)

White sand has become synonymous with Japanese gardens. Earliest uses may have been in the creation of the sacred spaces (kekkai ), clearings made in the woods around particular trees or rocks (iwakura ). Although there is no historical evidence to prove otherwise, it is common for shrines today to spread sacred ground with white sand as a sign of purification—this habit may have been passed down from ancient times. Both the southern court of the Heian period Shinden palaces and the stone gardens (karesansui) of medieval Zen temples include white sand as integral part of the garden design.

In the case of the Heian gardens, the use of white sand was primarily functional. In addition to adding a formal air to the courtyard, white sand also provided a dry, flat area that could be used for large gatherings. In contrast, Zen gardens instill the material with the symbolic meaning of water. In the karesansui, white sand takes on the meaning of streams, waterfalls, rivers, or the broad ocean. Lines raked into the flat expanses of sand mimic the rhythmic motion of the waves and the ethereal effect of moonlight reflecting on the sand was highly esteemed.

Water (Mizu)

Water is often used allegorically in the garden. Buddhists found the natural process of water springing from a mountain source, gathering strength as it rushes down a valley, and eventually spreading out wide and calm in the sea, to be an apt metaphor for human existence. Birth, growth, death, and rebirth—Buddhism proposes that if one has lived purely, the last step, instead of rebirth, would be ascension to Nirvana and removal from the cycle. The wide expanse of sand in contemplation gardens that represents the sea not only provides a visual calm, but can also imply peace of the afterworld.

Bridges (Hashi)

Bridges are used functionally for the purpose of crossing water but there is also a symbolic aspect to them as well. The word for bridge, hashi, is a homonym with the word edge. Symbolically, then, a hashi bridges the gap (ma) between one edge and another. This is often seen as a link between two worlds, that of man and the gods. In the Heian period (785-1184) pond gardens, for instance, and the central island (nakajima) in the pond, represented the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, also known as the Western Paradise. A curved bridge leading from the central courtyard to the island symbolically connected "this world" with "heaven," inferring the possibility of rebirth in paradise .

In the contemplation gardens of Zen temples, bridges are often built into the landscape. These gardens were modeled after Chinese style ink paintings which also often included a bridge as part of the scene. A central theme of these paintings was the contemplation of nature by a recluse philosopher in order to discover the inner meaning of life. The symbolic reason for putting the bridge in the painting carried through to garden design as well. The bridge is representative of the passage out of this world of man and into the world of nature, as well as representing the journey from an ordinary plane of consciousness to a higher one.


In Asian iconography, pines are an image of longevity, which derives from the ancient image of pines which covered Horai island, more than the actual lifespan of pines in nature. Being evergreen they also represent permanence, in contrast to the changing aspects of, say, maple trees. In addition, the two most popular pines in the garden, the red pine and black pine, are symbolic of the mountains and the seashore, respectively. This is due to their natural habitats and is a good example of "learning from nature."

Plums and Cherries (Ume to Sakura)

Plums and cherries are symbolic of evanescence and have been favorite garden plants since Heian times. In the middle ages the life of the samurai was equated with the brevity and intensity of these flowers. The plum, pine, and bamboo form a classic botanical trio in Japan and is also used as a ranking system. Named by their Sino-Japanese pronunciations, sho-chiku-bai (pine, bamboo, plum), these three plants are said to represent three good things in descending order, something like Best, Great, and Good. Gardens in restaurants and inns will sometimes use these three plants in combination as an image of felicity.

In a twin garden for father and son (who live in adjoining houses), the father's side is "Japanese;" natural and intended to be viewed from the nearby veranda rather than entered. The son's side is "Western;" allowing entry onto a patio made of silver-grey Japanese tiles similar to those used on traditional roofs. "N" Residence, Kyoto, Japan.

The Future of the New Garden

The gardens we think of as being "Japanese" all originated during the medieval period (15th-17th century) or later. Gardens before that time, while not Western in their aesthetics, included some aspects that are now thought of as being non-Japanese, like the ample use of flowers and grasses.

As one small example of contemporary innovations in garden design, there is a trend among "new garden" designers to use split granite stones in their gardens rather than the natural boulders of the past. This is caused by the rising costs and diminishing availability of natural stones as well as a shift in tastes, but it is also in part a response to modern architecture. Buildings of the past were made of subdued, natural materials and rocks taken from the rivers or mountains with a patina of age suited them. Now steel, glass, concrete, and other processed materials dominate the architectural scene. Some designers feel this requires a new garden material that has the visual strength to compete with current surroundings.

It is unlikely that the Japanese garden will change radically over time. "Succession rather than superposition"—the aphorism continues to hold true today. Moreover, the lessons that the gardens of the past project are by no means dead or meaningless; the aesthetic qualities expressed in them can be felt as strongly today as when they were first created.

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June 17, 2019, 8:39 am PDT

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