Japan has a rich gardening heritage that goes back more than a thousand years. Japanese gardens give visitors peaceful places to meditate, and they typically feature natural elements that serve symbolic functions. Simple yet stunning, these unique retreats come in multiple varieties. In this article, you'll learn about 10 styles of Japanese gardens and the distinctive qualities of each.
The Chinese introduced gardens to Japan in the 6th century. As a result, the earliest Japanese gardens displayed a strong Chinese and Buddhist influence, as Buddhism was very popular in China at the time (and still is today). Paradise gardens are crafted to emulate the Buddhist notion of the Pure Land -- a sort of heaven before enlightenment. Partly due to the civil unrest during this period, the Japanese eagerly embraced the idea of the Pure Land, and these gardens became very popular.
The typical paradise garden has an island in the middle of a pond to represent future salvation. A curved bridge connects the island to the rest of the garden to represent the path one must travel to reach that salvation. Although few original paradise gardens remain, many present-day Japanese pavilions are modeled after the buildings that once graced their grounds.
In the 9th to 12th centuries, noble estates around the (then) capital city of Kyoto frequently contained shinden gardens. The central component of this type of garden was a large pond located next to residential buildings. A brook that fed into the pond often passed underneath raised floors, connecting the buildings with the water. These gardens would also often feature islands and waterfalls.
Shinden gardens, however, are now a thing of the past. We only know of their existence from historical documents and some remaining ponds.
During the late 12th and early 13th century, the ruling class in Japan became enamored with Zen Buddhism and the ritual of the tea ceremony. The ceremony was a formal affair in which tea leaves were ground down and steeped in a bitter broth, which people then passed around in a common bowl. These ceremonies took place in minimalistic gardens that helped create a calm atmosphere for meditation.
Tea gardens are constructed with simple, rustic materials to maintain harmony with the atmosphere, and they center on the ceremonial teahouse. Made from natural materials, these structures blend into their surroundings and are accessed by a path that symbolizes the journey into a more peaceful state of mind. Guests enter teahouses through low doors, so built to humble them upon entering.
The houses are enclosed by an outer entrance garden where participants wait for the ceremony to begin and a sacred inner garden that you do not enter but only observe and contemplate from outside its walls. The outer garden contains several lanterns, a water basin for people to purify themselves by washing away sins and a bench for resting.
A tsukiyama, or hill garden, typically replicates a famous landscape and contains an artificial hill. These gardens and their man-made hills vary in size and feature elements common in various types of Japanese gardens, such as rocks, trees, flowers and ponds. Hill gardens became very popular during the Edo period of Japanese history from 1615 to 1868.
Natural gardens are one of the simplest styles of Japanese gardens. They rarely use ornaments like lanterns or statues, and in place of bridges, gardeners often lay a few flat stones to help visitors cross over any water. Natural gardens try to replicate a woodsy scene as closely as possible. Their designers believe that the feeling of being alone in a forest encourages deep thought and peace of mind.
Natural gardens usually have a full overhead canopy created by unpruned trees, so they are full of shade-loving plants like ferns, bamboo and azaleas. The paths are not sketched out or paved but are formed with a natural substance like dirt, which makes them appear untrodden. Although they might be very close to civilization, these gardens are designed to make you feel as though you are a million miles away, both physically and mentally.
Even if you don't know much about Japanese gardening, you've probably heard of Zen gardens. There are several different styles of Zen gardens, but they typically contain rocks and sand arranged strategically to bring occupants the peace of mind they need to quietly meditate. The name represents the influence of Zen Buddhism on gardening in Japan.
Strolling Pond Gardens
Each of Japan's strolling pond gardens have an ornamental pond as their centerpiece and a path that meanders around the water's edge. These trails frequently branch off to provide spots for contemplation. Like natural gardens, strolling pond gardens feature a variety of plants scattered beside their paths for your viewing pleasure.
Unlike natural gardens, strolling pond gardens also incorporate several man-made objects. Along with benches provided at strategic points along the path to encourage pauses, you might see a heron sculpture in an inlet or a bronze frog basking in the sun. Looking toward the pond, you'll see curved bridges cross the water in several areas.
Modern Romantic Gardens
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan opened up to trade with other countries, and some Western elements began to appear in Japanese gardens. At the same time, people started experimenting with native materials, sparking a renaissance in the artistic design of these exquisite landscapes. Because the style of modern romantic gardens has continued to evolve, those that are designed today typically try to imitate the aesthetic sensibilities of the Heian period of 794 to 1185, which focused on both opulence and nature.
Flat Sea Gardens
In stark contrast to the profusion of green in natural gardens and the abundance of water in strolling pond gardens, flat sea gardens actually feature no water and little vegetation, save for the characteristic black pines that serve as their backdrop.
The "sea" here is made of a wide expanse of sand or fine gravel, which is raked to suggest a pattern of waves on a shoreline. Unlike raking leaves, where the goal is to collect piles, the point here is to comb through the sand or gravel to create a peaceful pattern. To add to the appearance of a vast sea, flat sea gardens possess shorelines of stones and boulders, as well as islands of vegetation. Like several other gardens on this list, benches are placed at particular points throughout the space for contemplation and rest.
The courtyard garden, or tsubu niwa, is a garden contained or enclosed by a building such as a house or temple. These are relatively small, landscaped spaces that are separated from the world outside by the walls that surround them. Because these enclosures are small and situated within a building's compound, they're common in urban areas. Courtyard gardens can vary greatly in appearance, but they usually contain natural elements that work well within a confined space, such as rocks, moss and small trees or shrubs.
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- Gustafson, Herb. "The Art of Japanese Gardens." Sterling. 1999.
- Mizuno, Katsuhiko. "Landscapes for Small Spaces: Japanese Courtyard Gardens." Kodansha International, 2005.
- Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.morikami.org/
- Nakagawara, Camelia. "The Japanese Garden for the Mind: The 'Bliss' of Paradise Transcended." Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs. May 21, 2004. (Jan.19, 2012) http://www.stanford.edu/group/sjeaa/journal42/japan2.pdf
- Olds,Clifton C. The Japanese Garden. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://learn.bowdoin.edu/japanesegardens/index.html