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The Complete Guide to Small Japanese Gardens

Updated: Jun 3

Whether you are designing your own garden or looking for ways to better appreciate a garden, this complete guide to small Japanese gardens will take you through both traditional and contemporary garden principles.


One of the beauties of a small space is that you do not need to take care of a large area; therefore you can spend your money on more quality items but will need less of them and less overall upkeep.

Small Japanese Garden in Kanazawa

Small Japanese Garden in Kanazawa

Often because these gardens are smaller in nature it means that there is more likely going to be some type of enclosure, walls, hedges, and barriers to the outside world. Garden plantings may need to be adjusted to partial shade or shade-loving plants due to these type of open-air restrictions.

Small Japanese gardens have a rich history in Japan. With the lack of space that the Japanese home has, even in many rural areas, garden designers have aimed to bring nature into the everyday lives of people. This tradition continues today and later we will see how these modern gardens are still complementing a modern lifestyle.

First, we should start with looking at the past to see how where the future can take us. Japanese courtyard gardens and tea gardens are two good places to start looking for some ideas for small gardens.

Japanese Courtyard Garden (Tsubo-niwa)

Our Family Tsubi-Niwa in Fukui

One of the first places to draw inspiration for a small Japanese garden is the traditional Japanese courtyard garden, or tsubo-niwa. Japan has always had a lack of space in its urban and even rural areas where houses are still constructed closer together. A long tradition has developed because of having to work with this limited space, and it continues today large number of modern Japanese gardens continuing to be added to new construction.

However, as the increase of new construction continues people wonder what type of identity the Japanese garden will take on. As Japanese architecture and construction continues to develop, I find it interesting how modern garden designers a still developing a modern rustic style that complements the new Japanese identity. I still have a love for the traditional courtyard gardens, and hope that they continue to be preserved, but they did fit a specific time and place in Japan that is not the same as it is now.

Courtyard gardens are not only merely small gardens, but by definition they are part of the home, often surrounded by 4 walls. They become a part of your daily life as you can constantly see the garden from different angles and at different times of day with different lighting. Often these types of gardens are traditionally more natural, but with architecture changing it will be interesting to see how the contemporary courtyard gardens develops as well.

Tea Gardens (Roji)

Tea Garden with Nobedan Pathway

Tea gardens, or Roji, may also give you some inspiration when looking for design ideas for a small Japanese garden. These gardens do wonders with the use of space that is tucked around corners of the tea ceremony room, or cha-shitsu.

Tea gardens may have a strolling garden leading up to the cha-shitsu, which can all be done in a very tight space. This creates awkward corners in which you have to use you imagination as to what types of plantings and stones will do good in this area. You have to keep in mind how large those planting will eventually grow and if/how you are going to prune them to restrict their growth. There are two paths to choose from when thinking about your garden and we can look to the tea masters for some guidance.

  1. Sen-no-Rikyu

Rikyu was a famous tea master whose schools still continue today. He created tea houses with the image of being nestled in the forest at a monks hermitage. His garden style therefore was to seek the greatest display of nature and its natural setting. He preferred natural materials and letting nature slightly take over and “weather” the scene, let the moss grow, and let the dark evergreen come through. He created places of solitude using only materials that would have been naturally found in nature.

2) Oribe/Enshu

In stark contrast to Rikyu, his disciple Furuta Oribe, along with Oribe’s student Kobori Enshu, took to a much bolder garden design. They wanted to highlight creativeness and their human touches to the garden. They wanted to show the artificial elements to a garden and they used different geometrical shapes for stepping stones, sharp edged mountain “boulders” that protrude quite high, and highlighted straight lines and cut stone. Keep these two contrasting garden design philosophies in mind when you are thinking about what style of garden you are drawn to.

Miniaturization

The idea if miniaturization can be overdone sometimes with trying to create a whole entire landscape scene in a small garden space. Adding in too many lanterns and pagodas, bridges and deer-scares all in the same space will most likely look a bit too contrived. Instead, take a small part of nature and recreate it. Try not to clutter the garden.

Evergreen

Many Japanese gardens are designed with being able to enjoy them all four season. Perennials and evergreen trees and shrubs are the staple of many gardens, avoiding annuals with bright pops or color that have to be replanted each year.

Thinly Pruned Garden Trees

In small Japanese gardens you can often see trees that have been thinly pruned with very few leaves left. Sometimes people might consider this spindly, but it is adding airiness to an area that would otherwise be taken over by the way pines and other trees expand and grow. If pruned and shaped well in fact, very few trees need to be used in the garden at all. The less you have the more your eye can focus on what is there.

small Japanese Gardens

small Japanese Gardens

StonesA variety of boulder and stones will most likely also play a role in your garden. They may be the main focus if you are going for a dry rock garden theme. Small boulders and nestle against a pruned shrub or represent a mountain on an island in the ocean. They can also be set in order to give the appearance of a waterfall with a taller narrow rock representing the water falling.

Usually pea gravel or turkey grit can represent the ocean with waves and ripples if you want to rake in different designs. One thing to keep in mind if you are thinking about a rake-able rock garden is the trees over top. You will need to set aside a lot of time for maintenance in a garden where the leaves are constantly falling into it. Evergreen trees are always a plus.

Moss

Moss is a beautiful accent seen in many different styles of gardens in Japan. In small modern and traditional gardens, where space is limited, this creates the base of a great “mountain” scene. Because this lush green carpet is much easier to handle in a smaller garden than a larger garden space, I highly recommend looking into adding moss to your garden.

Moss Garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto

Moss Garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto

The humidity in most areas of Japan is a big helper when it comes to maintaining moss, but the key to successfully growing moss is moisture. In spring and summer you will often get an afternoon rain that keeps things pretty wet. It is a good idea to give the garden a misting, as opposed to a harsh hose spray, in the early evening.

It is a good idea to even let tap water sit for a few days because the chemicals often put in municipal water are too harsh. Rain barrels work great too as a source. With all of this talk of water though, make sure that it is not I a soggy area as too much water is also not good for the moss. There are so many varieties of moss and that makes it actually quite difficult to transplant from one area to another. Each area has specific growing conditions that allow a particular spore to flourish. For this reason

I do recommend a product that has many different spore species in it that you can apply to an area and basically it’s survival of the fittest spore. We’ve had great results with our outdoor and indoor gardens. Moss dislikes direct sunlight and prefers early morning sun and dappled shade in the afternoon.

Water

Water often plays some type of role in the small Japanese garden, even if it is only symbolic. You could have a full waterfall or water feature put in while other places go with a less maintenance approach with only having a shallow pool of water representing a pond or ocean.

You can also go with a simpler approach of having a vessel, pot, or tsukubai (a stone washbasin used to hold purify and wash the hands and rinse the mouth out with a ladle) that holds water. Sometimes seasonal leaves can be placed in there to keep with the seasonal image.

Another approach is with a stone garden that merely suggests a waterfall or smaller gravel that represents an ocean or river.

Garden Art

We are very comfortable with garden art in the west and Japan is also starting to incorporate other items other than just the traditional lanterns and pagodas. Beautiful pottery with ikebana flower displays can also sometimes be scene as being added to the garden and becoming part of the garden. In the modern garden you can see a variety manmade stone art pieces as well as cut stones and different colors stones.

Think of the Viewing Point

One point to keep in mind when designing a small Japanese garden is to which viewpoint will the garden be seen. Small garden are often restricted for one particular reason or another, therefore the viewpoint may only be from one direction. If viewing from your house, say a living room, ideally you will have a very large window or sliding door that can open up to a full view of the garden.

Another thing to think about is also at what angle you will view the garden. If you are standing the garden will be very different if you are seated on a chair or on the floor. The best view is straight on horizontally and not a top down view that you get from standing or having the garden start feet below the floor. This is one probable with many western homes, they are set too high for a Japanese garden, as the garden will look sunken.

Modern Small Japanese Garden Ideas

Modern small Japanese gardens are taking on more of a blend of western garden techniques and creating a new style of garden that both pleases the modern Japanese home owner as well as complements their contemporary architecture.

In this garden they have tried to keep some traditional elements such as mountain mounds (tsukiyama) and a cloud pruned pine, and even tried to incorporate the mountain scene into the backdrop bamboo fence. That being said, the bright flowers and use of grass instead of moss are definitely western influenced. It is had to see from this angle, but a traditional nobedan pathway does lead up the middle and a Kobori Enshu inspired square checkerboard stone is also used.

Modern Rustic Garden

Modern Rustic Garden

This award-winning modern rustic garden display comes from Furukawa Teijuen, the modern Japanese Garden Design and Nursery Company that I trained at in Osaka, Japan. In many of their designs they like to thin out the branches and here you can see the Japanese red pine have been artistically shaped and pruned to give it an aged yet modern look. Mulch is also very rarely used in Japanese gardens but they have used it here with a complimentary cedar fence and deck that I think most westerners can relate too.

Patios are not usually incorporated into Japanese garden design because a lot of the time having patio furniture in the garden would obstruct the main view of the garden, which is probably from the living room. So this poses new problems for a modern designer who is still working with limited space, but the homeowners now want to actually make use of the space as well as observe it from inside.

They want to be a part of the garden and nature while actually relaxing and being in the garden. So either a separate area needs to accommodate patio furniture and possibly a fire pit or this needs to become part of the small Japanese garden somehow.

Modern Japanese Garden

In this design you can see a more artistic approach to the gravel used, as well as incorporating non-standard plantings with colors popping here and there. The pink tone to the stones in the middle of the “riverbed” is quite different and also highlights the different tones of color tones of stepping-stones chosen. Again, the use of mulch around the outside also indicates a divergence from traditional Japanese ground covers. The thinned out trees in the background, sculpted Japanese black pine, and bamboo fences do bring the whole scene together though.

Artistic and rustic Japanese garden

You are also seeing more modern garden designers playing with a wider range of materials. This garden has stone pillars as well as cedar logs, one that they even split and hollowed and turned into the “river” that splashes into a very unique boulder. The cypress in the background is cloud pruned but is left a little bushy. But the thick brown cedar needles that have become the ground cover really do create the scene of being in a Japanese forest deep in the mountains. This garden really is a creative expression of a modern Japanese experience.

It is another example of a garden becoming more interactive with space in the front that could easily become a more useable patio area. At least my daughter was having fun splashing in the waterfall.

I hope this guide to small Japanese gardens has sparked some interest in the potential modern rustic gardens can have as well as maybe given you a few ideas to implement in your own garden. Please visit us at ShizenStyle to see more ways of developing a modern rustic home and garden.

#japanesegarden #modernjapanesegarden #smallJapanesegardens

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