The Different Types & Elements of Japanese Gardens

Date Posted: 11 September 2018

What is a Japanese garden?

Japanese gardens are serene and simple places of calm, providing a peaceful retreat for reflection and meditation. They avoid the extravagance of many Western garden designs, and consist mostly of evergreens, rocks, pebbles, sand, ponds and waterfalls.

Any architecture found in the garden tends to be minimalistic, with the focus primarily on natural landscape rather than elaborate and ornate designs. Worn and natural elements are integrated into the gardens, and bright colours are used in a direct manner to represent seasonal shifts. 

What are the elements of a Japanese Garden?

A Japanese garden consists of six key elements:

1.     Water

Water is a constant in Japanese gardens, as a reflection of life and its fundamental role in human existence. Ponds, streams and waterfalls are all popular features. In dry rock gardens known as Zen gardens, water is instead symbolised by sand.

Traditional gardens consist of asymmetrical ponds, positioned as they would be in nature. Ponds symbolise the ocean or a lake, while waterfalls represent a miniature version of Japanese mountain streams. It is advised that waterfalls should face towards the moon to capture its reflection.

It is thought that water flowing from east to west will carry away evil, and that the owner will have a healthy and long life. Water flowing from north to south is said to bring good luck.

2.     Rocks

Rocks are an important feature of a Japanese garden, and carry different symbolic representations:

  • Vertical rock – Mount Horai, Mount Sumuru or a jumping carp
  • Horizontal rock – islands or earth
  • Sand and gravel – the ocean or a flowing river
  • Rough volcanic rocks – mountains

Smooth rocks are normally used as stepping stones or around lakes, while hard metamorphic rocks are placed around waterfalls or streams.

Arrangements of three rocks are most common in Japanese gardens - the tallest rock represents heaven, the medium-sized rock is humanity, and the bridge between heaven and earth is shown with the smallest rock.

Rocks are also evident in clusters of two, five or seven, and are sometimes placed in a random configuration to represent spontaneity.

3.     Trees and Flowers

Trees and flowers are arranged carefully to create a picturesque scene, or to hide anything unsightly. Trees are selected for their autumnal colours, and flowers are chosen by their season of flowering. Moss is often used to suggest that the garden is ancient.

Some of the most popular trees and flowers include the lotus (sacred in Buddhist teachings), pine (representing longevity), azalea, oak, bamboo, cherry, maple and gingko trees.

4.     Bridges and fences

Bridges have been known to symbolise the path to paradise and immortality, and are most often made of natural materials such as wood, stone or logs covered in earth and moss. They are either arched or flat, and became particularly popular in the Edo period when stroll gardens first emerged (see below for more detail).

Fences are made of bamboo or wood and are kept simple. They are either inner fences, outer fences or fences that extend from the house to the garden.

5.     Stone lanterns and water basins

A stone lantern provides a dim light that softly illuminate elements in the garden, and represents the four natural elements – fire, water, earth and wind.

Stone water basins are intended for visitors in tea gardens, with guests expected to wash their hands and mouth before the tea ceremony. The water flows through a bamboo pipe into the basin.

6.     Fish

Koi are domesticated common carp found in Japanese gardens. They were first developed in Japan in the 1820s, where the various colours were established through careful breeding. Koi is a homophone for ‘affection’ in Japanese, and the fish (known locally as nishikigoi) are a common symbol of love and friendship.

The different types of Japanese Gardens

There are two distinct types of Japanese garden: those designed for walking, and those intended to be viewed from a building or veranda.

Read below for some more detail on the different types of Japanese gardens:

Karesansui (Rock, Dry, Zen Garden)

The Karesansui Garden consists mainly of carefully arranged rocks of varying shapes and sizes surrounded by sand. Flowing sand and gravel are used to represent the sea or rivers, while rocks embodies an island.

The garden represents the spiritualism of Zen Buddhism, and provides a space and simplicity that’s ideal for meditation. The dry garden was introduced in the 14th century when military rulers embraced the newly introduced Zen Buddhism, which had a strong influence on garden design.

Tsukiyama (Hill and Pond Garden)

Tsukiyama refers to the creation of man-made hills, and is a classic type of Japanese garden that embodies a miniature of natural scenery. Hills, ponds, streams, stones, bridges, flowers, plants and long winding paths can all be found in a Hill Garden, with the aim to facilitate a peaceful stroll. It is typically larger than the Zen Garden.

Chaniwa (Tea Garden)

Like the Hill Garden, a Tea Garden is bigger than a Zen Garden, and features a path often made of stepping stones leading to a tea ceremony house.

Tea Gardens reached the height of their development during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) when the tea masters refined their design by embodying them with the spirit of "wabi", or rustic simplicity.

The garden is made up of an inner and outer garden, with guests using a stone basin (tsubaki) for ritual cleansing when entering the inner garden through the middle gate. Stone lanterns provide both effective lighting and an atmospheric decorative element. 

Kaiyushiki-teien (Stroll Garden)

A beautiful garden designed in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) for a leisurely stroll along its winding circular path, which is walked clockwise. This garden typically contains a pond, islands, trees, artificial hills and rocks, as well as features from other styles of gardens. Beautiful views can be admired from different viewpoints when visiting a Stroll Garden.

Japanese Paradise Garden

Japanese Paradise Gardens (also known as a Pure Land Garden) were introduced during the Heian Period by Buddhist monks and devotees of the Amida sect. The garden consists of a pond with lotus flowers, trees, islands, a bridge and a large Buddhist pavilion, and resembles a Buddhist paradise.

This garden represents the Buddha sitting on a raised level surface or island, contemplating in the middle of a lotus pond. These gardens are peaceful and relaxing, taking guests back in time to the Heian era (794-1185).

Chisen-shoyū-teien (Japanese Pond Garden)

Also from the Heian (794-1185) period is the Japanese Pond Garden, which was originally introduced in China. This style of garden contains a large pond in front of a building with two distinct wings. They are places of stunning scenery where guests can sit and relax, soaking in the surroundings.

Tsuboniwa (Courtyard Garden)

The small space often found between Japanese buildings can be turned into a scenic beauty spot known as a Courtyard garden, made up of simple arrangements with elements from Zen, Hill and Tea Gardens. In the past many traditional samurai properties boasted Courtyard Gardens, as did various Japanese merchants. Today they are more likely to be found in temples, and the residences of aristocrats. They were introduced in the Heian period and developed into the Edo (1603-1867) era.

What’s evident is that Japanese gardens are designed to capture natural beauty through simplicity, and to represent the serenity of Japanese natural landscapes. Each garden is a place for peacefulness and meditation that one often seeks to recreate.