Japanese gardens are famous the world over for being uniquely beautiful. They are also among the few gardening styles incorporating design elements that have remained constant for centuries, as detailed in paintings, illustrations, and literature. This historical connection adds to the fascination of this appealing style, and the visual simplicity of Japanese landscaping is further balanced by the subtle complexity of the principles that lay beneath it.
The earliest gardens in Japan, prior to the 9th century, were influenced by Chinese models inspired by traveling diplomats. When the capital of Kyoto was established in 794, gardens began to take on more local influences and native Japanese garden aesthetics began to form. The main types of gardens one saw during this period were palace gardens, villa gardens, and temple gardens. Many of the design elements arose from the traditional Japanese religion of Shinto, which teaches that gods and spirits are present in the natural landscape.
One early Japanese garden design was the "Paradise Garden" which featured pavilions joined together by corridors. Then came the custom of having a large flat gravel space between the gardens and the main hall, to be used for events or merely admiring the garden vista. These gravel paths and courtyards are also seen around Shinto shrines.
By the 12th century, Chinese influence was once again seen in Zen Buddhism, and the popular Zen garden aesthetic was born. Zen gardens are designed for spiritual meditation. Zen gardens also were known to use the principles of feng shui, also known as Chinese geomancy, a system for aligning energy via objects in the home and landscape to achieve harmony and balance.
Other traditional Japanese gardens whose design elements have found their way into Western landscaping include the pond garden, the tea garden, the dry landscape garden, and the enclosed garden. Perhaps the most loved element of a Japanese garden is the cherry tree blossoming in spring: this is an annual event drawing many tourists in Washington, DC, and in botanical gardens throughout the U.S. Cherry blossom season is a national festival in Japan.
Japanese Paving Styles
Even though the distinctive raked gravel paths and walkways of Zen gardens are the most common paving style associated with Japanese gardens, there are other possibilities. Natural stone pavers are commonly seen, and every effort is made to have the paths look natural and harmonious within the landscape.
Plants to Include
Japanese maple trees are by far the most famous and recognizable part of a vibrant Japanese landscape. These trees come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and foliage colors, and if they work for your hardiness zone, they are a very beautiful component of a Japanese landscape design. Japanese maples are very slow-growing, so be aware if you buy a small specimen it will be a few years before it grows large enough to fill in your landscape. Some of these trees can grow up to thirty feet tall, while some specimens are more like shrubs and don't get taller than three feet.
The autumn foliage colors of Japanese maples include burgundy, bright red, deep orange, pink and yellow-green. Color is important in feng shui and red is significant in Japanese culture, symbolizing energy, vitality, and power. If you can't have a Japanese maple in your garden, consider another shrub with bright autumn foliage such as ninebark, amsonia, or burning bush.
Moss is also commonly seen in Japanese gardens, especially clinging to rocks and stones. Indeed, in Japan, a proper garden design is thought to be incomplete without moss. Moss can be picky about its growing conditions (it likes moist, misty air to thrive) so be aware this design element may need extra attention.
Other plants to include are peonies (both herbaceous and itoh), flowering quince ('Cameo' has beautiful pale peach flowers), anemones, rhododendrons, small evergreens, ornamental cherry trees, trees with showy spring blossoms such as flowering almond or redbud, camellias, and azaleas. Peach trees are also well-loved in Japan.
Rocks and stone features are a very important component in Japanese landscaping design. In traditional Japanese gardens, stones were often used to symbolize animals or figures from mythology, such as tigers or dragons, and chosen for their appropriate shape and size to create such designs.
In Zen gardens, decorative items or statuary related to the spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism may be included in a garden as a focus for meditation. But even people who do not practice Zen Buddhism as a religion may enjoy a Zen garden for its sense of peace and visual harmony. Statues of Buddha, Kuan Yin, or other Japanese cultural symbols such as dragons or pagodas can be added for an authentic touch.
The pond garden is one of the most popular traditional Japanese garden designs, using a naturally occurring or man-made pond as its focal point. Most water features seen in Japanese gardens are natural or functional rather than merely decorative, and the pond in a pond garden may hold fish (as with a koi pond) or have water lilies as a food source for pollinators and amphibians. But water features are also intended to be sources of beauty and contemplation. Small bridges are featured in Japanese garden designs also and are a deeply symbolic structure, representing the connection between humanity and nature, as well as the journey into the afterlife. Bridges must appear to fit naturally and seamlessly into their setting so as to perpetuate harmony in the landscape. Materials can vary widely, from natural stone to wood painted with red lacquer.
Traditional Japanese gardens have unique styles of fencing that are often handmade, using special knot tying and other techniques, from natural materials such as bamboo or grasses. You can achieve a similar look by using pre-made bamboo or willow fencing. As with bridges over water features, sometimes one sees fencing in Japanese gardens painted red, a color associated with good fortune.