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Residential Japanese Gardens: Ideas From Japan

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

Having spent many years in Japan I have begun to understand some important landscape design principles for designing a residential Japanese garden. I have made detailed notes on many Japanese home gardens and I hope this article can give you some tips for creating a Japanese garden at home.

There are three questions that you need to ask yourself in order to see which direction you would like to proceed in.

1) Is it a Japanese garden for the public or a garden for you?

Many houses in Japan have a wall or fence around their front and back yards. If anything, Japan lacks space and you’ll find that even in the countryside a low wall may be put up just to define the space. Sometimes this is done with wood or bamboo fencing or thick trees and shrubs to define the area. Often this provides a nice backdrop for the garden and can create a sanctuary like feeling. If this is what you are going for then you will need to think of which methods is best for containing your garden.

You can however have a garden that is more open and a part of you overall curb appeal. Some gardens in Japan incorporate the driveway parking spot (often not in a garage) into the layout of the front garden. You can use different stones and gravel to have that space as part of the garden scene when no car is parked there. This is how many modern urban houses in Japan with very little space are making the best use of it.

Mounds and boulders with thinned out trees could also be displayed in the yard and appreciated from both the street and the house view.

2) Are you going for a modern or traditional Japanese garden style?

Another idea to keep in mind is if you are going for a modern or traditional style Japanese garden. We have many images of Japanese temple gardens or large strolling gardens that just may not be the right fit for the look of our home or the size.

If you are creating a place of solitude and enclosing the area then you may want to lean toward a more traditional style. If on the other hand you were looking for something that may fit the overall look of your home it may be better to aim for more of a modern Japanese style garden. You may find that touches of Japanese elements or a more subtle landscape design of mounds, boulders, and nice “S” curve defined edging will better fit your property.

3) How creative of a Japanese garden do you want to have?

This comes down to you as an individual. You have already begun thinking about incorporating a Japanese landscape design into your residential property, so there is already some amount of boldness within you. How much do you want to recreate a beautiful garden from Japan or learn the basic elements and make it your own creative interpretation? Most garden masters in Japan today are also being creative in their own ways, don’t let trying to adhere to a tradition hold you back. In the picture above you can see you they used Shou Sugi Ban, a method of charring cedar, to represent tall mountains in the Japanese garden. If you'd like to learn more about Shou Sugi Ban check out my article on The Complete Guide to Yakisugi, (Shou Sugi Ban).

There are no right or wrong answers and you don’t need to have an answer right now. Just keep it in mind as we go along and make note of which Japanese elements of the garden you are drawn to and which pictures inspire you the most.

Japanese Architecture and Western Architecture

The differences here can be vastly different, but then again even traditional Japanese architecture compared to contemporary architecture in Japan is also very different. The house plays a role in the Japanese garden. The garden plays a role in people’s lives. People’s lives are lived and experienced in both spaces.

In the picture of the Japanese Garden Viewing Room you can see that from the inside you can open the shoji screen doors and see the garden very clearly. There are even glass doors that slide open on the other side of the hallway to fully connect the inside and outside on weather permitting days. With allowing the hallway a full view of the garden also you are not restricting the Japanese garden view to times when you are only in that particular room. This could be a central hallway that you pass through many times a day, thus bring that look and feeling of the garden into your everyday actions. You can't miss it. If it is front and center and always visible you are also more likely to maintain it by weeding and removing fallen leaves etc.

The Japanese home is designed to incorporate views and access to nature very easily. Large windows, sliding doors, whole walls that get slid into pocket doors to break the divide from inside and outside. Of course we can have large sliding doors and picture windows too, but often this needs to be especially thought about ahead of time when building. Those are some of the things you need to consider when designing a residential Japanese garden. Connecting the inside with the outside is very important in bringing nature into our lives on a regular basis.

Nature Inspired but not Natural

Residential Japanese gardens aim to bring serenity into our busy lives through allowing us to experience a connection with nature. That being said, the Japanese garden is a highly thought out and constructed garden based on our ideas of a natural scene. They are nature inspired but not natural, as in raw nature left alone to grow wild. It is not the wilderness, but a space that highlights human being’s interaction with nature. Wabi-sabi is a concept that comes up often in Japanese aesthetics and it refers to appreciating the beauty of imperfection.

The rocks are placed in a certain way, sometimes naturally sometimes bold. The moss or ground cover is weeded frequently and not allowed to let nature take it over. The trees are pruned sometimes in bonsai-like style to invoke an idea of clouds in the distance. Sometimes they are thinned with many branches and leaved or pine needles removed to give the garden and airy or aged feeling. Waterfalls are lined with concrete for longevity or sometimes left as dry gardens to symbolize water.

As you can see in this Nature Inspired Japanese Residential Garden picture, boulders lining the pond, numerous trees in the background, koi fish in the pond...have all been added to create this landscape scene from what was once a blank and treeless canvas. The extant to how far the owner of this house in Nara prefecture went to create a natural Japanese strolling garden with koi pond can not be understated.

With a project this size though, the landscape nursery and Japanese garden designers that I worked with in Osaka, Furuka Teijyuen, also maintain the garden and do cleanup, pruning water maintenance etc. This may not be a service that you have in your area as skilled Japanese gardeners with maintenance teams are hard to come by outside of Japan are probably also quite costly.

Therefore you need to keep that in mind when you are designing and building your garden, it's easy to put a garden down on paper but the execution and maintaining of it are the hard part. That is why I am against those garden design plans and kits you can buy, they do not take into consideration your particular space and the ongoing maintenance they are creating.

Here is an example of a front garden that is much small in size and scope. From this angle it is more appealing to guests coming up the nobedan, paved stone walkway. What you can't see is that just around the corner of the house are windows to see the garden and Japanese lantern with a bit of a backdrop built in with the height being sloped upward.

None of these techniques or styles of gardening is natural, but the goal is to create something inspired by nature that also subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, shows the relationship of human beings with nature.

The Garden is Never Complete

One thing to keep in mind is that the garden is a living, growing, and evolving thing. Think of Japanese gardening as a hobby. You do not finish a garden and then just leave it alone and be done with it. Every season things change, need to be cleaned, pruned, and sometimes rethought. This is an ongoing process that should bring joy and happiness in completing small tasks daily or weekly. Even the most beautiful garden over 100 years old would be overrun by nature if let sit for 1 year. Traditional Japanese gardens have a high level of attention given to the details.

With that in mind, you may choose to go down the path of a more modern Japanese garden or a garden in which you allow nature to take the lead. There is nothing wrong with this and you can still create something that is inspiring and serene.

For example, I know that many people have the dream of having a Japanese rock garden that they can rake waves and ripples into, but logistically this can be quite difficult. You have to take into account the types of trees that are surrounding it. You are setting yourself up for a lot of cleaning if you anything other than evergreens nearby. A large amount of debris and leaves blow into the rock garden and have to manually be removed or the garden looks quite dirty.

I made this mistake when I added a rock garden “stream” in the back patio of one of our Japanese restaurants. Nearby was a large elderberry tree and not only did the leaves blow into the white and grey stones, but the berries fell and stained everything blue and purple. I had to redesign it but it was a hard lesson learned. The garden is never complete though, but I should have better planned my garden with the setting in mind before starting out, instead of merely saying this is what I want to put in.

Your Location, Region and Zone

This leads me to my next point. You need to evaluate your situation and location before starting out. Like the previous story, I had a dry rock garden in mind beforehand. Because I like the look of it but also in part because I thought it was easier to maintain than an actual water feature with pumps, liner etc. The maintenance of keeping the dry rock garden clean and then having to redo it definitely outweighed the time and cost of adding in an actual waterfall and small pond.

These Japanese black pine have been grown and pruned in Osaka and getting ready to load onto a shipping container heading to a large nursery in Europe. Furukawa Teijyuen has been growing and pruning various Japanese garden trees that start here and end up in similar climates like Italy, where these trees will soon find their new home.

You shouldn’t try to force a garden style in that just doesn’t fit. When it comes to planting, you should also keep your region and zone in mind. You need to check to see at what zone a Japanese black pine will grow in before spending a large amount of money on a specimen tree. I am in the Northeast of the US and am somewhat limited by what tree species will make it through the freezing winters we have.

Bamboo in the Japanese Garden

This is a rare example of bamboo being used in a Japanese garden. This is a bamboo forest and garden in Muko City in Kyoto where they are more of a bamboo preservation and museum. Although beautiful, even here you can see that the boulder and shaped shrubs in the distance are separated by the taller species of invasive bamboo. Inside they also show many of the crafts that rely on bamboo and all of the different ways that bamboo has culturally become a part of Japan.

My father loves bamboo and has spent too much money on the Internet buying a variety of bamboo species to try to incorporate into his garden. Sometimes when they say a tree or shrub is hardy for zone 5, for example, you have to realize it can mean life or death for the plant if it is not clearly stated if its 5a or 5b. These subtle differences as well as our currently wild changing weather patterns, in part due to climate change, should steer you away from borderline plants.

Bamboo is another item that is symbolic of Japan but rarely found in traditional gardens. When my father did find a strong species of bamboo that thrives here it eventually took over and area completely. We still don’t get the thick tall timbers of say a madake kind of bamboo, but the roots spread just the same. Because they are extremely difficult to control you will rarely find them within the boundaries of defined garden. Maybe in a backdrop farther behind the wall, but often far away from anything you wish to control.

Think Evergreen and 4 Season Enjoyment

Residential Japanese gardens are made to be enjoyed all year round. Most people live in their house all year round therefore why not create something that can be enjoyed in every season? If you stick more with an evergreen base of trees and shrubs like pine trees, boxwood, azalea, and holly then that should be a strong base for a garden. When thinking on flowers try to stay with perennials and grasses that are going to provide that consistency each year and will also often avoid the bold, bright colors that pop from tropical and annual flowers.

Boulders and lanterns can provide structure and something interesting to look at, even with 3 feet of snow outside. The Yukimi style lantern in particular is designed to be appreciated with a larger top that holds the snow. A waterfall, weather real or not, will provide and entertaining view in the middle of winter as well. Although Japanese maple trees are not evergreen, if you have shaped on over the years with an interesting “S” curve to it this can also be an interesting sight when the leaves have fallen and becomes snow covered.

In this winter Japanese garden scene in Fukui prefecture, the large boulders with evergreen pines and shrubs continue to give us something interesting and pleasing to look at. Fukui, which is located just north of Kyoto and is my wife's hometown, is known for heavy snowfall so the gardens need to be panned accordingly.

The Japanese garden will take on a different form in different seasons, so you need to plan ahead and think about what it will look like when certain trees may flower or loose their leaves. Keep your plantings more limited and consistent tying in the same them in different areas if you have a larger garden.

A Case for the Modern Rustic “Shizen Style” Garden

Although I have trained and studied with traditional Japanese garden designers and nurserymen in Japan, they have also shown me the beauty and artful side of creating a modern Japanese garden. I have coined this term a “ShizenStyle” garden and hence base our whole website and business concept on ShizenStyle, a blend of contemporary yet modern home and gardens styles. “Shizen” in Japanese means nature or natural, therefore we incorporate something that is natural, yet not raw nature. It is the blend of human creativity and nature in a garden set in modern times. We believe the garden can be an outlet of self-expression and still a tranquil and natural place.

This is not a free-for-all fusion though. It is because we have studied and lived in Japan for many years we are able to see and appreciate those garden designers that know the rules and are creatively and purposefully breaking them. There is no one Japanese garden style. And just like all of the traditional Japanese arts, they were never static. They were always changing throughout history and over time. The garden is always changing and each person that comes into contact with it will inevitably leave their mark on it, no matter how much they are trying to preserve a tradition. Change may take place over time slower in Japan, often because some of these gardens may be 100’s of years old, but it was always changing.

Whether you are aiming to create a residential garden that is more a traditional Japanese garden, a modern rustic (or shizen style) garden, something more meditative or contemplative, aesthetically pleasing or recreational, the previous article of “Residential Japanese Garden: Ideas From Japan” hopefully gave you some garden tips and things to think about and help guide you in the right direction.

If you would like to explore more about modern rustic homes and gardens visit us at ShizenStyle.

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