Updated: Feb 26, 2019
Years ago when I first began studying Japanese garden design in Japan, I learned how Japanese architecture also played a role in creating the landscape.
Garden structures may not be the first thing you think of when you are thinking of Japanese gardens but they do play a strong supporting role.
So, what are the basic Japanese garden structures? The essential Japanese garden structures are the garden gate, bridges, fences, benches, viewing pavilion, arbor (whisteria pergola), machiai sheltered sitting area, azuma-ya gazebo, and of course the tea house.
Now that you have an idea what the basic Japanese garden structures are, you probably still have a few questions. For the remainder of the article I’m going to go into detail about the variety of style some of those structures have and their purpose in the garden.
This may help you decide whether or not a particular structure might be a good fit for you garden or not, or whether such a particular structure is a DIY job you are capable of tackling or calling in a master carpenter.
Japanese Garden Gates
Garden gates or Japanese garden entrances mark the beginning of your journey into a separate space. This space has been defined as a place where human beings and nature have come together to create a form of unique expression and balance.
The different styles that a gate, or mon, can take on can be overwhelming. They do often have a gabled roof (Kirizuma) or a hipped gable roof (irimoya) with cedar shingle on top though.
They can be open with no doors and just pillars on the sides or they can have solid doors that must be opened. This often depends where the garden gate is located. It can be seen with doors if it also represents an entrance to the house.
Many Japanese homes have a wall around their front yard with a garden on the inside that can be viewed from the house, but not scene by the public from the street. These types of structures will be much larger and solid.
Japanese Garden Bridges
There are a few different styles of bridges that you can see in a Japanese garden, such as long, curved, half bridges, or zig-zag bridges. Bridges can either go over a small stream or over something that is merely symbolizing water.
In zen rock gardens you can see stone bridges near boulders representing a waterfall with smaller gravel coming from underneath the bridge. This gravel merely creates the image or illusion of water, so you do not necessarily need to plan for an extensive koi pond or anything like that. Let your imagination take over.
Zig-zag bridges can also be seen as a way forcing the person strolling along to focus on where they step, slowing them down, allowing them to pause and take in the views better.
When referring to structures I am more referring to garden elements that have been man-made, but I guess you could argue that the stone bridges and granite bridges often seen in gardens have actually been carved and chiseled to get that shape.
Are Japanese Garden Fences Always Made From Bamboo?
No. They can be, but wooden fences are also used. Cedar fences can be seen a lot because of the abundance of cedar trees in Japan, but most available wood can be used.
Lower waste high fences are often bamboo fences that define a particular boundary or area of the garden. These often have knots with black twine tying int together which also adds to a unique look.
Barrier of privacy fences are more likely to be made of wood, sometimes with a nice overlapping look or minimal spacing that gives just a glimpse of what is on the other side.
Japanese Garden Benches
Japanese garden benches are more likely to be found in a strolling garden. These types of gardens have the person wander through a few different pathways that creating mystery along the way, surprising you along the way with the next view just around the corner. At some places along the stroll the garden seen may open up and be a good place to sit for a moment and take in the nature or the landscape.
There isn’t really any particular material used, but stone can be a simple garden item that fits well. A wooden seat with a back on it may provide more support if you are expecting a longer time of sitting and relaxing.
Japanese Garden Viewing Pavilion (Moon Viewing Pavilion)
These garden structures were sometimes built with the idea of it being a “Moon Viewing Pavilion,” or Kangetsudai. Often only the back, or sometimes the sides, have a wall behind then allowing you to fully take in the surrounding view. The roof does not overhang too much so that you can actually see the moon at night.
A shingled roof is not necessary so this type of pergola good be a DIY starting point for adding a Japanese garden structure to your design.
Arbors (Wisteria Pergola, Fujidana)
Open-air pergolas can be seen in some Japanese gardens in an area sort of designated as a picnic or viewing area. These can sometimes be very bold structures because in Japan they often plant wisteria trees on the corners, or sometimes in the very center, and the branches grow on top of the arbor.
It creates a beautiful shade spot in summer but you have to have the pergola solid enough to support al of the eventual weight of the branches.
Azuma-ya can be found in similar areas like the wisteria pergola. A major difference is that they have a solid roof with a variety of different roof styles. They tend to be larger and could be a great picnic area or gathering spot.
Machiai (Sheltered Sitting Area)
These are often part of tea garden, or roji. It is the stopping point between the outer-garden and the inner-garden before reaching the tea house. You stop at the Machiai waiting place and reflect on the beauty of the garden and nature and how we can live in harmony with it.
Your host for the tea house greats you here and invites you into the inner garden. This stroll through the inner garden is a place to leave all of your worldly thoughts, ideas, and problems, and make your way toward the teahouse.
The Japanese Garden Tea House, Cha-shitsu
Lastly we come to the teahouse, or cha-shitsu. This is a place to have deep discussions, reflections, tea ceremonies, or simple garden viewing.
I have performed shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, in many tea houses because of the intimate environment and atmosphere it creates. This can be a great place for many small gatherings.
Architecturally this is going to be the most challenging because you are basically building a small house or shed. If you are staying traditional there are many details such as including a tokonoma, or place to display ikebana flowers or calligraphy or
tatami, straw mat, floors on what is called a zashiki. If you are going to actually perform tea ceremony there is also a small kitchen, mizuya, where you will wash the utensils etc.
In the end, tea houses a grand feature to a particular garden style but will require a lot of work, time, and money. But id done right in the right setting it is a work of art.
So there you have my list of basic Japanese garden structures, but you may still have a few other questions. Three other questions that I get asked a lot are:
Are Red Tori Gates Japanese Garden Structures?
No. Tori gates, which are red or orange sometimes but not always, are more associated with Shinto and can be found at Shinto shrines. They are a gateway to a sacred spiritual place that they have defined as pure.
What can be confusing is that sometimes Shinto Shrines do have Japanese gardens within them, but the two are not mutually exclusive. So keep in mind that more than anything, a Tori gate is making a spiritual statement and not a Japanese garden statement.
What is the Meaning of Red Bridges in Japanese Gardens?
Nothing. More times than not you will see red bridges in Chinese gardens and not Japanese gardens. In the west we have overemphasized this feature because of our need for bold colors, but in Japan you almost always see a more earth toned and subtle color of the bridge.
Bridges themselves can have deeper meanings, like symbolizing taking you from one earthly world to a more esoteric place. But this is often not done with a bold orange or red color, which is more of a distraction.
Are Japanese Garden Structures Necessary?
No. You can have a very beautiful Japanese garden without many of the garden structures I mentioned. One thing to keep in mind however, is that Japanese gardens should have some type of boundry or maker, symbolizing where the garden begins and ends. Often a walled backdrop or fence can get the job done, but the space should be defined.
Similar to other elements of the garden, like lanterns, using too many Japanese garden structures in close proximity to each other can be overwhelming. This would create a feeling of anxiousness with seeing it as forced clutter. When in doubt, a minimalist approach will help keep a calming atmosphere and get you closer to the meaning of Japanese gardens. Here are a few simple ways to add Japanese garden design elements to your garden.
If you are interested in checking out some other articles on Japanese gardens and modern rustic living visit me at ShizenStyle.