What are Japanese Gardens?

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

Japanese gardens are popular for their aesthetic, simple, and meditative design. This type of landscape design has been around for thousands of years and over time, these gardens have altered to reflect the changing eras throughout Japanese history. These gardens were originally inspired by Chinese gardens, however, Japanese gardens use different elements which represent different aspects of the garden and symbolize different things throughout Japanese culture. These elements are what create the serene, minimalist settings that are Japanese gardens. These elements are used to create man-made and artificial hills, mountain-like, and river-like landscapes while also being a space to reflect and meditate. 

Japanese garden

The Elements: 

The elements used in Japanese gardens are thoroughly thought out and are important aspects of the garden. These elements may vary based on the type of Japanese garden, however, they are vital aspects that help make a Japanese garden so spectacular.  Water is a vital aspect of some Japanese gardens, symbolizing calmness, renewal, continuity, wonder, and circulation. Water is one of the most prominent aspects of a Japanese garden. Some Japanese gardens use stones to create different elevations which the water flows over creating a circulating movement. Water can be represented in many different forms such as ponds, streams, and even dry river beds.  Dry river beds are a vital aspect of Zen gardens. Dry river beds are made out of sand or gravel and are used to represent water and purity. These dry river beds allow for an empty, meditative environment. Bridges are another important aspect of Japanese gardens. Bridges are seen as privileged spaces where people can go look out at the entire landscape. Bridges are typically designed in an arc-shape or zig zags and work harmonically with the surrounding natural setting.  Stones are another element that help to produce the beautiful landscapes in Japanese gardens. Stones are used to create hills and valleys which allow ponds and streams to circulate water over. Stones are often used in these gardens to create water basins, lanterns, figures and summer houses. Lanterns and stone lanterns are vital to these gardens as well and are used to represent the four natural elements: water, fire, earth and wind.  Additionally, gateways and fences are popular elements in specific types of Japanese gardens, often used to separate the inner and outer garden areas.  Don’t worry we didn’t forget about plants. Plants are vital aspects of Japanese gardens and there are a variety of plants that can be used in these gardens. Popular deciduous trees include Serviceberry, which has beautiful white flower masses in the Spring and symbolizes youth, the Japanese Maple which has an appealing fall color, Crabapples which are trees with white or pink flowers in the Spring and also symbolize youth and renewal, and Pines, which are usually pruned regularly to get a desirable, harmonious shape, and adds beauty to the landscape during the winter months. Evergreens and pines are used more than flowering plants in Japanese gardens because of their simple and consistent qualities.  Other plants include the Lotus, which is also known as “flower of Buddha” and is considered a sacred plant that rests peacefully on the surface of pond, Irises which grow in a variety of colors and are represented in Japanese art for their protective and purifying qualities, Rhododendron or Azaleas are another common plant used along with Bamboo, Horsetails, Cherry Trees, Wisterias, Japanese Holly, Lavender, Lilies, Japanese Catmint, Bonsai Trees, and Moss. Clearly, there are a variety of plants that can be used to create these beautiful settings. 

lotus flower

Lastly, Koi Fish and Carp are another element of Japanese gardens. These fish add vibrant colors to gardens since they are easily seen in the shallow ponds, and they are used more as a decorative element. They are commonly referred to as “living flowers” and symbolize both strength and perseverance. 

Koi Fish in Japanese garden

Types of Japanese Gardens

The three main styles of Japanese gardens are Karesansui, Tsukiyama, and Chaniwa. These styles have different meanings, and use different elements to represent these meanings. 

Karesansui gardens, also known as the Zen garden, represent the spiritualism of Zen Buddhism and use sand or gravel to represent a river or pond instead of using water. This peaceful garden creates a space for people to relax, meditate and do yoga. These gardens also contain boulders of various shapes and sizes, and are commonly referred to as “yohaku no bi” which means the beauty of empty space. 

Tsukiyama gardens are also known as Hill or Pond gardens, and they represent natural scenes or settings that usually include hills, stones, trees, bridges, fish, ponds, and a variety of plants. This garden is also known for being a stroll garden where people can walk peacefully along pathways. 

Lastly, Chaniwa gardens, or Tea gardens, are types of Japanese gardens which have a ceremonial tea house. Tea gardens typically have two separate sections: the inner garden and the outer garden. The outer garden follows a path that leads to the inner garden and these two sections are separated by covered gates. Before entering the inner garden, it is custom to wash your hands in a stone water basin. This is typically the smallest of the three types of gardens while the Hill gardens are the largest. These gardens also typically have a Kakei, which is a bamboo pipe that water constantly flows through. 

Japanese gardens are beautiful, spiritual, and meditative spaces that incorporate many different elements and plants to create these serene landscapes. They are known for their extraordinary beauty and are carefully crafted and designed down to the smallest element in order to create this peaceful and reflective space for people to enjoy, meditate, and connect to nature. Japanese gardens are used year round due to their year long qualities and display Japanese culture and art in a different way. 

Japanese Garden

Japanese Garden Style

Check out our blogs on Bamboo and Botanical Gardens 

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