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An Introduction to Japanese Garden Design Principles

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Kyoto Rock Garden

Kyoto Rock Garden

If you are looking to do something a little different with your garden I recommend an introduction to Japanese garden design principles. Even if you only use a few of these concepts, that could take a very average space and give it a lot of depth. Many of us are going for a modern rustic atmosphere and I think we can create something original by looking towards some of these Japanese garden designs.

You don’t have to use all of them or even aim to build a full Japanese garden, but merely using a few of these design principles will set your garden apart and create something unique and original to you.

I spent many years in Japan studying modern and traditional Japanese arts, including Japanese gardens, and I trained with different teachers in Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukui. These are some introductory principals that I noticed would help make a big impact on your garden space.

small Japanese Gardens

small Japanese Gardens


The Japanese garden is a miniature and idealized view of nature. Rocks can represent mountains, and ponds can represent seas. The garden is sometimes made to appear larger by placing larger rocks and trees in the foreground, and smaller ones in the background.


Dry rock gardens aren’t meant to be seen all at once, but the garden is meant to be seen one landscape at a time, like a scroll of painted landscapes unrolling. Features are hidden behind hills, trees, groves or bamboo, walls or structures, to be discovered when the visitor follows the winding path.

The idea of concealment is highlighted when walking on stepping-stones or along a winding pathway. The stones are somewhat uneasy and difficult to walk on so the garden viewer is forced to watch their step. When they look up from a few steps they are pleasantly greeted with a brand new landscape to view and experience. Forcing people to concentrate on where they walk is a way of keeping them present. You can create depth by strategically placing rocks or trees in different areas that also create a new look to the garden depending on what angle you are looking at it from.

“Borrowed” Scenery

Murin-an in Kyoto w/ Borrowed Scenery

Murin-an in Kyoto w/ Borrowed Scenery

Smaller gardens are often designed to incorporate the view of features outside the garden, such as hills, trees or temples, as part of the view. This makes the garden seem larger than it really is. This is somewhat of a debatable issue in Japanese garden design principles. Some people say that you shouldn’t rely on surrounding landscapes to influence your garden, while others say more power to you if there is some element beyond your garden that you can incorporate into your design. I am of the second philosophy, if you can use a mountain, pine trees, maples trees that give off beautiful fall foliage in the distance then go for it!


Japanese gardens are not laid on straight axes, or with a view from only one angle. Buildings and garden features are usually placed to be seen from a diagonal, and are carefully composed into scenes that contrast those right angles. Vertical features can include protruding or taller rocks, bamboo or trees, and horizontal features would be something like a stone garden, possibly raked with lines that lead the eye, and even actual ponds, waterfalls, or streams that flow through.

The weight of an asymmetrical design is balanced even though it is not a mirror image. For instance, if you have a large tree on one side of the garden that will be offset by a pond or stone garden on the other, it balances itself out. The rule of thirds, often found in photography and other art forms, can also be applied. In general, asymmetry is one of the strongest elements to create a natural intriguing garden design.

I hope this short introduction to the Japanese garden design principles will give you a few things to think about. Check out this larger and more detailed Illustrated Guide to Japanese Gardening here if you would like a more in-depth article. A lot can be created in a very small space, you don’t need a large guard in order to create something intriguing. If you would like some more information about Japanese garden please have a look at The Top 5 Myths of Japanese Garden Design.

Again you don’t need to necessarily aim to create a full Japanese garden, but even employing one or two of these principles will help you create something that is unique for you and your space. The blending of modern and rustic is one of the main things we strive for in creating our own ShizenStyle.

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