Updated: Jul 19
There are a few misconceptions that we have about Japanese gardens. Just like the many “sushi” restaurants that clutter suburban plazas throughout North America, there is an over abundance of clichés and stereotypes here.
We are going to talk about the top 5 myths about Japanese Gardens. It is through no fault of our own as many of us have not visited Japanese gardens in Japan and what we learned is often through picture books with little to no explanations about the meaning or setting. Many of these photography books only tend to regurgitate these clichés of exoticism. The goal of Japanese gardens is to create harmony, a place of serenity.
I studied modern and traditional Japanese gardens in Japan and trained with a master Japanese gardeners in Osaka and Fukui prefectures. These are just some of the misconceptions that I realized right away.
These large, red and orange entranceways are meant to signify a spiritual place. They are used around the entrances to Shinto shrines and temples. These places of worship occasionally have a garden in them, which is where the misconception derives from. Also although red bridges are sometimes used in Shinto shrines more often you see natural wood bridges, but outside Japan the red bridge is overly focused on. Japanese gardens often do not have bright bold colors. The plants used are almost always perennial and do not use the bright pops of colors we highlight with annuals. Evergreens and natural wood are more often scene than bright red bridges and tori gates.
Dry stone gardens are not ‘Zen’ gardens. An English garden is not a Catholic or protestant garden. The Buddhists who practice the philosophy of Zen have gardens, and are sometimes dry gardens that signify greater meanings, but not always, and that does not make them Zen Gardens. The proper term for what we call Zen Gardens is “Kare-san-sui.” Kare-san-sui means rock garden, which may or may not have anything to do with Zen and are not relegated to temple gardens.
The Japanese garden is, in a few words, a nature-inspired landscape art, and its success does not hinge on including statuary. In fact, such ornament is detrimental unless used with utmost care. Japanese Gardens should include only necessary things, or things which truly contribute to the beauty of the scene. This is not to say that such elements have no place in the garden. When placed properly, statuary like the Buddha or Jesus may add to the viewer’s experience, however that is usually a very personal type of home garden. You don’t usually see a Jesus statue in a public town garden, for example.
Over use of Symbolism
There are symbolic ideas in Japanese gardens; dry gardens, and stone water falls etc., however one can get lost in this idea that every part of the garden is a symbol of something more grand. Sometimes it’s just a well-placed or aesthetically pleasing stone.
Take for instance Japanese lanterns. Many people over use Japanese lanterns and pagodas without realizing that if they are used then the whole garden should represent a mountain scene or some other situation where a small shrine or temple would be scene in the distance. Too many times they are just tossed in for an “Asian” effect.
Sakura are very much a part of Japanese culture, but not the Japanese garden. We tend to lump all things Japanese into our idea of what a Japanese garden is, but in reality most of the time they are scene near temples or just over temple walls as a backdrop for a garden. The main reason is that Japanese gardens are carefully controlled and pruned works of art. There is a saying in Japanese that says, “only an idiot prunes their cherry trees.” Meaning, cherry trees are meant to be appreciated as they are, not sculpted and formed like the other trees and shrubs in the garden. Sakura are mostly appreciated in springtime when they are in full bloom. They only bloom for a short period of time, maybe 2 or 3 weeks, but this has led to the Japanese truly appreciating the shortness of life and enjoying the moment.
Modern gardens in Japan are taking a traditional concept and blending in modern materials and really changing look and feel of the traditional Japanese card. The modern Japanese home is much more contemporary and does not allow for a very large yard. It’s more in Western homes that we tend to have large yards that allow us to put in a landscape design such as Japanese garden. Needless to say, we tend to go overboard because we actually have too much space. Most Japanese gardens are often in very small confined spaces and tend to look awkward when blown up to fit something of our scale.
Another area we tend to be a little lax on is the upkeep. It is the meticulous cleaning and pruning that keep the Japanese garden looking great. Even from a governmental or privatized situation, grants are often awarded for new projects, such as a Japanese garden or teahouse, but it is much more difficult to get a budget for ongoing maintenance event. If this is for you home garden then please keep in mind, the smaller of the garden that you build the less you will have to take care of. But taking care of it little by little is a lot easier than in large doses only a few times a year. Plan for about a few times a week.
So if you’re planning a Japanese garden I hope you keep the previous top 5 myths about Japanese Gardens in mind. I want you to create your own Japanese garden that pleases you and not rely on the stereotypes that you see around. You should aim to go beyond merely copying a tradition and develop your own ShizenStyle. A modern rustic approach to a Japanese garden will make it unique to you and your space.