Japanese Garden Design: A Helpful Illustrated Guide

Updated: Jul 19

Japanese Garden Design

As human beings we all have the desire to bring nature into our busy lives. The Japanese garden serves as a space that allows us to appreciate the beauty of both nature and our creativity. The Japanese garden may seem like a very natural and beautiful space, but what we need to remember is that nothing in the garden happens by accident. Japanese garden designers have spent countless hours trying to create a special place that seamlessly blends together human creativity, a nature-inspired scene, and the practicality of a budget and obtainable local materials.

With all of that in mind I have aimed to create a Japanese garden design: a helpful Illustrated guide that will hopefully provide some tips on how to develop the best garden for your space. There are many different elements to Japanese garden design and I will show you a variety of these different garden styles, ornaments, and structures that you may be able to incorporate into your Japanese garden landscape.

Some believe that by definition you can only create a Japanese garden within Japan, which may be true in a technical sense. I however believe that you can create the essence of a Japanese Garden in your space, wherever that is, by adhering to the traditional principles that have guided Japanese landscape architects for centuries.

If you would like to explore some background info on what the main purpose of a Japanese garden is check out this article.



Decide Your Japanese Garden Style

A good starting place for designing your Japanese garden is to decide what style of garden you are interested in and will l best fit the intended space. Traditionally most Japanese gardens can be divided into four main styles including the Japanese strolling Garden, the rock garden, the courtyard garden and the tea garden or hermitage garden. Some of these styles definitely overlap and you can blend different elements together to create your garden.



The Japanese strolling garden, or Kaiyu-Shiki, is meant to be leisurely wandered through. Some of these gardens highlight man-made hills, ponds and waterfalls, while Zen Gardens or Rock Gardens, Karesansui, are designed with more of a contemplative and meditative role. The Courtyard Garden, or tsubo-niwa, are often in smaller and closed areas of a home or temple and with an idealized miniaturized scene that can allow your imagination to take you somewhere else. The Tea Garden or Hermitage Garden, Roji, can be enjoyed while participating in a tea ceremony or making the journey to the teahouse.Japanese Strolling Garden

Japanese strolling Garden (Kaiyu-Shiki Teien)

Daisen Japanese Garden in Osaka

This type of garden may be what most people outside of Japan think of when they hear the word Japanese garden. Outside of Japan many of the Japanese Gardens that we get to see have stemmed from some type of Friendship Garden with a sister city. Most places outside of Japan are not limited in space as severely as the Japanese are, so it’s very common for us to associate a garden with a park. We often do have the space so large park-like gardens have been established in cooperation with Japanese designers, but unfortunately often lack the maintenance needed to really show off the beauty of a Japanese garden.

Tsukiyama Hill in Daisen Japanese Garden

In a larger area you can often include a pond that will have waterfalls and large man-made hills, winding pathways and many Japanese garden ornaments such as lanterns. In North America many Japanese Gardens have gone overboard with sort of cluttering the garden with everything Japanese. I don’t want you to feel like you need to incorporate all of the elements into your design. An austere de-cluttered garden is much more effective than going overboard with Japanese symbols in a garden.

In Japan many aristocratic Gardens have become public gardens now. Many were developed in the time when the daimyo had aimed to create basically a large playground for the aristocrats. Some of these gardens were heavily influenced by Chinese styles from the Heian period and others with more of an Edo era feeling, leading these to be somewhat inconsistent in their designs. Some of these Gardens heavily influenced from Chinese gardens include deeper ponds and winding streams that were meant for small boats. The aristocrats would row out and enjoy the pond, sometimes having a flower viewing festivals or writing poetry.



Usually there are a few different routes to take that lead you through the garden and at various spots along the path are places to stop or sit and take in a different view.

Koraku-en in Okayama and Kenroku-en in Kanazawa are two of the best examples of stroll gardens in Japan. These large par-like Gardens have vast lawns and ponds that are really a testament to the appreciation of the style of garden. The man-made hills, or Tsukiyama, became a very important feature of these gardens. They represent large mountain ranges and really help create a large landscape image in a smaller area.

I encourage you to play around with adding some type of man-made hill in your garden. This can be a difficult thing to do if you have a flat yard, but elevation changes are one key point to creating a natural-looking landscape. Japan is about 75% mountainous and so many of the Japanese landscape designs that you see include this type of mountain and also island designs in them.

If creating a man-made hill or waterfall another important point to keep in mind is that they should have some type of solid backdrop. Having a good background behind a hill or a waterfall is important so that it doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of nowhere. Therefore making use of evergreens or Japanese maples can be quite effective. The Japanese maples are often used to sort of hide where the top of the waterfall is actually coming from. A great Japanese garden usually has elements of mystery and not fully being able to see everything from one position.

Another thing to take into consideration if you are making the man-made hills is what type of ground cover are you going to use. Having grass on the hill maybe the best option if the hill is not too steep and you’re able to mow it. We have developed a variety of different grasses that can both grow in full sun to fairly shaded areas. You could also try a low-growing ground cover like ivy for a slightly different shade of green and a different look.

Rock Garden – Karesansui

Karesansui is the term used to describe a dry Rock Garden. We often lump this category into what we call Zen Gardens, a rock garden is only a Zen garden if it is located at a Zen temple or built by a Zen monk with those specific intentions. There are numerous examples of dry Rock Gardens at Shinto shrines, Shingon Buddhist temples, Pureland Buddhist temples, museums, parks, and people’s home gardens. Some of the famous Zen Gardens, such as Ryoanji in Kyoto, have dominated the image of the raked sand and lumped all of this style of garden together. You can have a contemplative or meditative garden or simply an aesthetically pleasing dry Rock Garden without making it religious, which is what a Zen garden technically is. Japanese Rock Garden

Karesansui Japanese Rock Garden in Kyoto

The setting of stones and the placements of stones and the groupings together are given a high priority in the Japanese garden. This is where you start to see the development of an original Japanese style garden and a divergence from ancient Chinese styles. Still see Taoist symbolism in the form of creating a scene from Mt. Horai and the Immortals, the level of thought and strategy that goes into creating Japanese Rock Gardens is unique to itself.

Stemming from Japan’s native religion or philosophy Shinto comes the belief that everything has a spirit. Therefore rocks and boulders are seen as sacred because there is an innate power and this is something that should be respected and appreciated. This is seen as everything having a life force or flowing energy about it. This is our connection to Mother Earth.Ryoanji Zen Rock Garden – Kyoto



  1. Stone Setting

Your dry garden scene will seem more natural if you lean towards groupings of odd numbers. Odd numbers and asymmetry tend to feel more natural than equal divisions and equal heights of the different stones or trees planted. In photography as well, there is the concept of the golden rule of thirds, which guides you to developing a natural asymmetric balance.

The Courtyard Garden – Tsubo-niwa

The courtyard Garden is where Japan stands out for creating landscapes for small spaces. Usually this space is just less than 11 square feet in size but in a central location of the home.

These Courtyard Gardens serve a real purpose of bringing nature into your daily life, but your home architecture has to allow for it. Often these gardens are best if they are placed somewhere in the middle of the house and has multiple viewing points. The courtyard garden should ideally be centrally located with windows or sliding doors that open up and allow the outside to become part of the inside. If a main hallway surrounds this courtyard garden then you are much more likely to notice seasonal changes or the daily weather and these are all simple little reminders that we are part of something much bigger than us.

Sometimes these Courtyard Gardens can be miniaturized landscape scenes that tried to recreate a whole Japanese scene. What I recommend however is creating something that is more minimalistic and can serve as a sort of spiritual refresher. You can still include various Japanese ornaments with a minimalist concept that will allow you to leave your creative mark on nature.

  1. Water

The courtyard garden should have some element of water in it but this can be accomplished in a variety of ways you can have actual water or a small waterfall or possibly a koi pond but you do have to take into consideration the maintenance issues with keeping running water or a pond in that space. You can employ different types of Rock Gardens that you could have smaller gravel that is raked to show waves or ripples in the water, or what is meant to symbolize water. You can also have stone water basins, which provide both interesting and creative ornament that can hold actual water. I have done this many times and you get the effect of having actual water in the garden with a lot less maintenance. You have to refresh the water every so often but it’s also nice to place seasonal leaves or flowers floating on top, which also highlights the seasonality of the scene.

The number of different hardscapes can be used as well and you could incorporate interesting Stone pavement or pathway Stepping Stones through the garden. small slabs can also represent Bridges and Japanese lanterns can also be used.

  1. Courtyard Trees and Plants

One thing to keep in mind in your courtyard garden is the amount of sunlight that you get. With having more walls surrounding the garden most likely your sunlight will be limited so you might plan on more partial shade type of plantings. Where many people have problems with getting moss to grow this type of garden may be your best option. Too much direct sunlight and definitely hurt the moss but the key is the moisture.

Having a hose that you can miss the garden with every so often will definitely encourage a thriving moss garden. If you have the hose connected and it’s very easy to just step out and mist it in the evening or early morning then you are more likely to take care of it more frequently if it’s right near your everyday activities.

You can have a few specimen trees as highlights with boulders and shrubs but the planting should probably be limited due to the Limited space and more shade that a tree will create. A sculpted Japanese black pine could look very well in the courtyard garden. Many times people will fit in the lower branches and send the leaves of different types of trees like Japanese maples or a dogwood to highlight the seasons as well as keep the garden lighter and brighter.

Tea Garden or Hermitage Garden, Roji

Roji refers to the garden that you walk through to get to the teahouse and literally means “dewy ground” in Japanese. The Tea Garden is said to create an air of simplicity and therefore most of the garden design and plantings stay closer to natural design relying on local items and materials. This type of garden came about in the time when wabi-sabi was gaining a foothold on Japanese aesthetics. Check out this great article on designing your wabi-sabi home and garden.

Japanese tea Garden Path

Although often this is a garden leading to a teahouse, sometimes the term is also a Hermitage Garden. The tea houses at the time were sometimes very pristine and elaborate but other times they may have seen like a run-down hut in the woods, which may actually be a better showcase for the essence of wabi-sabi.

Sen-no-Rikyu and Kobori Enshu are both major developers of this style of Japanese garden, with Rikyu leaning towards keeping it natural and Enshu leaning towards adding creative elements.

Roji Tea Garden Pathway

The roji garden is usually divided into an inner and an outer there is usually an entrance gate that starts you on the path in the outer garden, then after following a winding path usually with a variety of stepping-stones and nobedan stone pavement, you come to a machiai seating area. You are meant to sit here and take in the view and also wait to be called into the Teahouse by The Host.

  1. Tea Garden Plantings

Keeping with the theme of creating a natural garden, usually the Tea Garden plantings are centered around evergreen items and plants and shrubs like ferns, hostas, and moss. Japanese plum trees and Japanese maples can also be found in the Tea Gardens.

Tea Gardens are usually intended to mimic a stroll through the forest path. in the Northeast this type of setting might be very close to a woodland Garden and if your home isn’t this type of setting the tea garden Maybe the perfect style of Japanese garden for you to incorporate in your landscape. Often these pathways are shady and natural and often more subdued without bold flowering colors. In Japan the plant selection is a combination of the designer’s intuition and choice as well as what Tea Ceremony school they might be affiliated with. That being said a simple and solid Evergreen base is a great starting place.

  1. Prune for Komorebi

Even in a naturally designed garden that may seem unplanned to some people a regular pruning of the trees should be done. In the west we often plant for allowing extra space for the tree to grow into it’s area and therefore refrain from planting trees near each other or close to a house or other structure for example. In Japan however, space is often limited and you will still see a wide variety of trees or tightly planted together this is because once or twice a year most of the garden trees will be pruned both aesthetically for shape and also a thinning of the leaves. You do want to allow a bit of sunlight to glimmer through the trees and this can be done by trimming the trees so they don’t become too tall, bulky, and heavy on top with leaves. The Japanese even have a term for when the sunlight glimmers through the trees, it is called komorebi.

  1. Tea Garden Ground Cover

In the central area of Japan in Osaka and Kyoto, where the Tea Gardens began and flourished, moss tends to fill in as ground cover very naturally because of the humidity. in order for Moss to thrive it needs to stay moist. Ferns are another common ground cover, but other than that usually you will only see bare dirt. In the gardens you can often see The Gardener’s sweeping the dirt with bamboo brooms removing the small debris and weeding along the way. Ground cover like we use in the west, such as mulch and bark, is never used in the traditional Japanese garden. Modern gardens are starting to make use of them but still seem out of place for a tea garden

· Elements of the Tea Garden

Some of the main elements of the Tea Garden include a variety of stepping-stones, or tobi-ishi, and nobedan stone pathways that are usually paved or mortared underneath. Typically there is a water basin, called a tsukubai, to cleanse/purify your hands and mouth and also Japanese lanterns called toro.

The Tea Garden usually starts with some type of Japanese gate which can be a large open entrance with no doors, doors that you have to open and can’t see through, or a waist-high open bamboo fence type of door. Even if a tea garden is found within a larger Japanese garden, the roji will often define its own space with bamboo fencing or thick hedges. This type of garden is meant to take you to another place a place where you can forget about all of your worldly concerns and is designed keep you focused on appreciating the moment.

Other Japanese Garden Design Elements

The following are some garden ornaments that are used in a variety of garden styles and have a number of different styles.

Japanese Stone Lanterns, Ishi-Doro

Tor, or lanterns in general, were originally used in Buddhist temples to light the pathways on the temple grounds. However in the Heian Period (794–1185) Shinto shrines and home gardens are started to use them so they slowly began to loose the religious affiliation. Taima-dera Temple in Nara, where I actually spent a lot of time and lived nearby for a few years, houses the oldest known stone lantern.

There are 5 main types of stone lanterns that you will see in the Japanese garden, but there are actually dozens of sub-categories as well. Kasuga-Doro Stone Lantern

Kasuga-doro Stone Lantern

1) Pedestal Lanterns, or tachi-doro. These are one of the most common and the firebox that holds the candles is decorated with deer or peonies. An example of this is the Kasuga-Doro named after Kasuga Taisha. This type of lantern is often affiliated with temples and shrines and tends to have a more sophisticated and elegant air to it.

2) Buried Lanterns, or ikekomi-doro. These are lanterns that do not have a base and the post is buried. Because they are low to the ground you can see them along garden pathways and also near water basins often seen in tea gardens. A famous style of buried lantern is the Oribe, oribe-doro. This style is a cube that has a crescent moon on one side and a full moon on the other side.

Japanese Buried Stone Lanter – Ikekomi-Doro

3) Placed Lanterns, or oki-doro. These are lanterns that are just set or placed on the ground. They often look like hanging lanterns that are just set on the ground near garden or house entrances or along pathways.

4) Snow Lantern, or yukimi-doro. These legged lanterns have a large umbrella like top and a few curved legs. The wide top is there to catch the snow so the shape of the lantern can still be appreciated in winter. Often they are placed by water with maybe 3 legs based in the water and one on land. The number of legs does vary. Kenroku-en is famous for its 2-legged lantern that stretches far out into the water.

5) Rough or Natural Lanterns, or nozura-doro. These lanterns are more natural and rougher, often using unpolished stone to give the garden an accent of age or timelessness.

Japanese Garden Bridges

Japanese garden bridges come in all shapes and sizes and often connect islands to land and cross over streams with actual water or stones representing water. They are often made of either stone or wood.

· Why are Japanese garden bridges red? Well, bridges in Japanese gardens usually aren’t red. A good Japanese garden should aim to keep the colors more neutral and a weathered unfinished wood look is the best kind of bridge to add to you garden. Where we get confused is that Chinese gardens tend to often use bold colors like red and orange in their gardens and pavilions, and Japanese shrines sometimes will also have a red Torii gate or bridge. The Japanese garden usually is trying to create a place where we can experience nature and earth tone colors can be more effective.

Some stone bridges are large slabs that can be walked on or sometimes farther off and only meant to be viewed from a distance.

Zig-Zag Bridge At Osaka Japanese Garden

Japanese zig-zag bridge

Wooden Zig-Zag bridges are used sometimes as well. It is not so common but you do see them sometimes and they create an interesting walking are that again forces you to watch your step, slowing you down to take in the moment.

Arching bridges can also be used, often with a low decorative railing. These type of bridges were more common in the early gardens that were influenced from Chinese gardens where they were tall enough for small boats to pass underneath.

Water Basins, Tsukubai

Tsukubai technically refers to the circular stone arrangements where you cleanse or purify your hands and mouth and can often be found in a tea garden. The actual larger stone or boulder that holds the water is referred to as a chozubachi. They vary from smoothly sculpted cut stone to rough dips in a boulder that hold water. There is usually a bamboo ladle to scoop the water out and rinse.

If you are going for a roji style of garden then you can do away with many of the ornaments but a tsukubai water basin area is still essential. The main stones in the arrangement include the water basin (chozubachi), the Water Bucket Stone (yuoke-ishi) where you place hot water for the tea ceremony when you wash your hands, and the Candleholder Stone (teshoku-ishi). The Candleholder Stone is usually on the left and taller than the opposite Water Bucket Stone, but those can be reversed left and right depending on the particular tea ceremony school.

In front of the chozubachi we have a Water Drainage Area (Nagashi or Umi, sometimes these stones are drain-covering stones) then the Front Stone (mae-ishi). The Front Stone is the stone in front of the tsukubai where you stand and wash your hands. The chozubachi is also deliberately lof most of the time because it forces people to sort of bow in front of the water and lower themselves down to the ground, a humbling action.

I hope this article Japanese Garden Design: A Helpful Illustrated Guide was able to provide a little introductory guidance in Japanese garden principles. As mentioned before, it’s important to look at your landscape setting and decide which style of garden you would like to design. Another very important aspect to the garden is to have a balance of softscape and hardscape. Here are some more ideas for Japanese Garden Structures to add to your garden.

Softscape

Softscapes are the plantings of shrubs and trees ground cover. When you are thinking about inspiration for your Japanese garden first have a look through some of the many different garden styles and examples of gardens in Japan. When you should draw from your own experiences with nature and natural landscapes that inspire you.

Hardscape

After you have an idea about a softscape you should think about what areas you would include some hardscape. This can come in the form of lanterns stepping stones boulders concrete walkways. Remember to keep an asymmetry to your hardscaping, but a good balance between softscaping and hardscaping should be strived for.

At ShizenStyle we are always striving for that balance between natural elements that fit into our contemporary lives. Although this introductory guide to Japanese garden design was based on traditional Japanese garden elements this is a good place to start. From here you can aim to create or take some of these ideas and put them into your own landscape, which may be more of a blend of modern and rustic. If you’d like to see more examples of modern rustic home and garden ideas please visit us at ShizenStyle.

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