Each year with the arrival of spring, many of us are becoming more or less enthusiastic gardeners. All the hobby markets, as well as the publishers of many magazines and television channel magazines, that regularly and repeatedly advise us on “when, how and where to plant, how to water, maintain and organize our gardens, they benefit from that.
We love our gardens and we spend lots of our free time on them – except during the winter. But although each garden is a bit different, basic elements of our gardens seem somehow similar. Most often you’ll find a grassy area, utility area for growing fresh vegetables and fruits, ornamental part with flowers for a nice view, a place to sit, often a place for a barbecue, tools storage space, driveway. And all this in different proportions. It does often dependent on the age of the garden, maybe on latest trends, but mainly on the nature and tastes of the owners.
Garden inspired by the style of Japanese gardens
However, if you want a different garden than our “standard”, you might want to think about a garden inspired by the style of Japanese gardens.
It might seem like this is a new trend. Japanese gardens have been inspiring garden designs around the world for many decades. You could even say centuries.
Over the last decades, several Japanese-style gardens and parks with public access have been created all around us. Find some near you, visit it and let the spirit of this place work on you. It might convince you that you want to have a piece of such a world in your garden.
If you would like to create a truly authentic Japanese garden, it is going to take you years of studying before that or you can find a Japanese gardening expert who has already been through all those years of studying. Understanding all the aspects, the proper use of individual elements and the styles of Japanese gardens is not simple at all. Creation of Japanese gardens has been for centuries fundamentally influenced by religious philosophies, such as Shintoism, Buddhism, or Taoist philosophy. Japanese gardens have their rules, traditions, philosophies and specific elements. And to know all that really requires a lot of knowledge.
However, to create your own tranquil oasis of peace and harmony, you do not have to try for a completely authentic Japanese garden, strictly observing all the “rules” and aspects. You can only be inspired by some of these aspects, or allocate a quiet corner in your garden just like a Japanese garden, where the time seems flow slower (eg. a small private Zen garden).
The appearance of a typical Zen garden defies the classic definition of “garden” in almost every aspect. It is not a place with lanes of lush trees, where a bright flood of flowers of all possible colours shines next to a green lawn. It’s not a place you would have a garden picnic or party at with your family or friends.
Yet, Zen gardens are becoming increasingly popular in our world. They offer something else. Something we’re looking for in today’s rush. With their stone strenuousness, we are sure to forget about everyday stress and strengthen the ability to concentrate there. With their purity and minimalism, they do offer peace and comfort to ourselves.
Is Zen garden really Zen?
Right from the beginning, it should be stressed that the term “Zen Garden” is somewhat incorrect. It is only the “western” naming of this kind of gardens. Japanese for this type of gardens use the term “kare sansui”, which in literal translation means “dry mountains and waters” or “dry landscapes”.
The term “Zen Garden” first appeared in English in the book of the American writer Loraine E. Kuck “100 Kyoto Gardens” in 1935. The Japanese term for “Zen Garden”- zen-teki teien, was first published in Japanese literature in the year 1958.
Yet, eighty years of use, right or wrong, gave to the term “Zen garden” a patina of authenticity. And we will stay at the concept of the “Zen garden” here as well.
What is a Zen garden?
This type of garden is the classic type of a meditation garden. In Japan, they have been popular since the 14th century, mainly thanks to the Zen Buddhist monk, teacher and builder of gardens – Soseki Musó. Dry stone gardens were then used by Buddhists only as a tool for meditation. For this reason, most authentic Japanese rock gardens – kare sansui – for us Zen gardens – are located in the area of Buddhist monasteries. Their beauty in a simplicity has survived and it is coming back to life again and again after more than seven centuries.
Plant life is minimal in a typical dry/zen garden, often to zero. Sand, gravel, and stone can even be the only elements to represent the whole landscape, ocean (sand or gravel), islands, rocks and mountains (stones of different sizes).
Zen gardens are intended as a personal project that reflects the own inner self. White sand or gravel is raked in an original pattern by the owner of the garden. Copying the pattern of another Zen Garden is against the spirit of such a garden; although this does not mean that you cannot inspire yourself.
Do you like the idea of a small sanctuary of peace and tranquillity – a small zen space a few steps from your door, right in your garden? Although the art of Japanese gardening is many centuries old, in just one weekend you can create a reasonable replica of the classic temple garden in a corner of your garden. It requires a minimal amount of materials and money, and especially very little maintenance.
What do you need?
The basic ingredients you will need are a small, even a miniature land, some amount of sand (the whiter it is, the better) or tiny gravel to cover the ground (we recommend to lay a garden textile foil under it), some stones of different shapes and sizes. Do not worry too much about the right choice of stones at the beginning. Since they are not fixed, you can later simply replace, move and add some, and gradually tune them to your imagination.
The finishing touch is to place your favourite garden chair so close that whenever you need to rest, you can sit down and watch the result of your own work.
Let time pass
An ideal Zen garden evolves and improves with the passage of time. Like the branches of a tiny, slow-growing coniferous tree that slowly developed into the pattern of balance and harmony of an experienced Bonsai master. Your garden will grow whenever you decide to adjust the position of that or other stone. Maybe you can add some such dry plant or shrub or stone lamp or a small Buddha statue (or another typical element of Japanese gardens). It’s a gradual process, limited only by how much time you want to put it in. And unlike a flower or vegetable garden, your Zen Garden does not need water … just the illusion of water will suffice. And this is a big plus in today’s climate change – a frequent drought period.
Slow down, relax, meditate
Zen gardens are intended as a personal project that reflects the own inner self. White sand or gravel is raked in the original pattern by the owner of the garden. Copying the pattern of another Zen garden is against the spirit of such a garden. However, it does not mean that you cannot be inspired by them. With their minimalism and purity, these gardens soothe us and invite us to a meditation and contemplation. And that’s why, in today’s fast and “over-informed” world, we all need a little zen corner like that.
I am one of those people who love warmth. Which is not always the case in the local climate. I live in a part of the world where, despite global warming, we still have four very different seasons in nature – budding spring, hot summer, misty autumn and cold winter. Even though their transition is sometimes very fast, sometimes we feel as if one reflected in the other.
I’m amazed by the spring nature every year again and again. I love long summer evenings in the garden. I admire the incredible colourful beauty of autumn. But since the beginning of winter, I count how many months and weeks remain until my springtime amazement.
It does not help that, unlike most of the Czech nation, I do not really enjoy winter sports either. Besides winter walks. And it is just helping me to see the winter months a little more positive. In a warm coat and wool cap, I admire the beautiful pictures of snowy or just frozen landscapes, the “artistic” creations as if sleeping nature, and the abstract paintings in the ice.
At home, when I look (in warmth next to the fireplace, and best with a cup of hot chocolate or mulled wine in my hand) what the lens of my camera or just my mobile has captured, I’m surprised to see how many colourful beauties you can find outside in this seemingly monochromatic season of the year. Special beauty with a great deal of melancholy. Nevertheless, especially the ice abstract creations of nature are at least comparable with many works by famous artists, are they not?
What makes the Japanese gardens so different? What are the main aspects of Japanese gardens that characterize them and at the same time distinguish them from Western garden architecture?
The gardens were always associated with spiritual life in Japan. Using its own symbolism and poetic narrature, they formed an ideal landscape for calming the mind. Among other things, they are characterized by harmony and balance, space, specific lines, the feeling of Wabi and Sabi, enclosed by the privacy of the garden and own beauty in every season.
One of the most important aspects highlighted in all Japanese gardens is a balance. Everything fits together. Everything in the garden should be balanced, but not necessarily even. This balance is more focused on space and how individual elements of the garden together form a whole, less emphasis on symmetry. Space should be used as an element in its own way, just like any other element in the garden. The individual components of the garden should be carefully selected and included in odd numbers, such as one or three or five stones, trees or other elements. There should be no even number of items.
Space is another element used differently in the Japanese garden than in our gardens. Our gardens are often full of greenery and colourful flower plants. Japanese gardens use space and balance to create a complete look. In this style of gardens, it is true that less is more. With fewer components, each component means more and each has greater weight and greater impact on overall appearance. One thing that all Western people notice when looking at Japanese gardens is that gardens often seem empty. But in a Japanese-style garden space is a part that helps define the elements that surround it. This again relates to the idea of balance. Space defines the elements inside and is defined by the things inside it.
Line of the garden
In the Japanese garden, the linearity is an important part of the garden design. Squares or lines that are too straight and rough angles are very artificial. The lines and angles are therefore rather rounded and organic. Garden components should work together as well as in nature. This is the reason why things should come in odd numbers because it contributes to a natural asymmetry.
One component of Japanese gardening philosophy, which is sometimes difficult to understand, is the Wabi and Sabi. These two terms cannot be easily translated. Wabi is literally translated to “lonely” (more on the meaning of the word Wabi here), but in the case of Japanese gardens, it rather expresses “unique” or “special”. If an item in your garden is Wabi, it will act as a contrast component while still containing the spirit of your space. Many Japanese gardens used to form the sense of Wabi, for example, stone lanterns.
Sabi, on the other hand, translates to something like “patina” (more about the meaning of the word Sabi here). When creating a Japanese garden, it is used more as a way of expressing that something has an ideal idea; or in the case of balancing Wabi and Sabi, it means that your distinctive piece should reflect the idea/appearance of your space. Often it also involves some wear and age because old and worn pieces have a natural and narrative appearance. The new stone lantern can be Wabi, but there is no Sabi, and the stone wrapped in moss can create Sabi while missing Wabi. There are many ways to balance this. A special tree, a lantern, or a particularly interesting stone, all of this with a patina and a reflective spirit of the garden, is a great example of a well-balanced wabi-sabi.
In a simplified manner, wabi-sabi element in the garden can be described as acceptance and perhaps as a celebration of an impermanence of life around.
Garden behind walls
Japanese gardens are mostly closed, private. Having a garden open to the rest of the world is very rare in Japanese gardens. On the contrary, it is quite common that a Japanese garden is surrounded by a wall as if enclosed in its own microcosm. It protects from an outside world disturbing the carefully designed balance.
The beauty of the garden all year round
Japanese gardens are designed and maintained so that the owner or visitor can enjoy such gardens at all seasons. Each season brings a slightly different scene, a slightly different beauty.
The idea of a Japanese Garden makes many people think of a very demanding garden full of miniature shrubs and bonsai or a dry stone garden. The styles of Japanese gardens are, however, quite diverse.
The creation of traditional Japanese gardens has been and still is one of the most important parts of traditional Japanese art. Over the centuries it has been influenced by various religious and philosophical themes. Some of the most significant influences on the creation of Japanese gardens has been and is Zen Buddhism.
Nevertheless, we can say that they are all formed into a certain concept of an ideal landscape. And that is through a certain symbolism and poetics. Even a way of looking at the expression of this ideal landscape, it divides traditional Japanese gardens into different styles. These styles blend and mix in various gardens.
The most famous types of traditional Japanese gardens include Kare sansui, or a dry / rock garden, better known as Zen Garden, Tsukiyama (Garden of ponds and hills), Roji, Chaniwa (Tea Garden) and Paradise garden.
Otherwise known as dry rock or stone landscape gardens. In the world, they are known and popular under another name –
This type of gardens is the classic type of meditation gardens. In Japan, they have been popular since the 14th century, mainly thanks to a Zen Buddhist monk, teacher and builder of gardens – Soseki Musó.
Plant life is minimal in a typical dry/zen garden, often to zero. Sand, gravel, and stone can even be the only elements to represent the whole landscape, ocean (sand or gravel), islands, rocks and mountains (stones of different sizes).
Zen gardens are intended as a personal project that reflects the own inner reflection. White sand or gravel is raked in an original pattern by the owner of the garden. Copying the pattern of another Zen Garden is against the spirit of such a garden; although this does not mean that they cannot be inspired.
This Japanese garden presents a miniature of natural sceneries, including ponds and streams with fish, hills and stones, bridges and paths, trees and mosses, flowers and small plants. The word Tsukiyama refers to the creation of artificial or artificially created hills.
This is the classic style of the Japanese garden, which you can enjoy while strolling along garden paths and temple verandas. Usually, this garden is larger than the Zen Garden. This kind of garden is mainly sought after by visitors during the spring for the beauty of blooming sakura. In autumn, it is just the Tsukiyama gardens that make up those wonderful colour combinations of red maples and yellowish ginkgo trees.
Roji, Chaniwa (Tea Garden)
As the name implies, this type of gardens has always been closely associated with the tea ceremony. The garden was formed in such way that a walk through it would tune in its visitor to a tea ceremony in a tearoom built next to or inside the garden.
This type of garden has a very complicated structure and strict rules. Usually, there are many trees and shrubs but little to no flowers. It is divided into the inner and outer part of the garden. They are divided by covered gates. Both parts are often connected by a path of stones. Before entering the inner garden, it is necessary to ritually wash your hands in the stone sink “Tsukubai”.
In the tea garden, you will surely find some wabi-sabi elements. Whether it is an old stone lantern or use of weathered materials and moss.
The Paradise Garden is a garden that is built to represent a paradise or “Pure land” – Jōdo. This kind of garden has a very lush plant life balanced with water and stones. Water areas and islands are interconnected with bridges. You can find statues and stone lanterns (see the elements of Japanese gardens).
These gardens were originally designed for Buddhist monks to meditate and reflect in the beauty of the garden.
An oasis of calm and harmony
As mentioned earlier, today you can find combinations of many types of traditional Japanese gardens in almost all major Japanese and Japanese-inspired gardens. In each of them, you will also find a combination of a non-random elements and details, and where each part has its own symbolism. All this if properly used creates an oasis of peace and harmony.
The beauty of our gardens is based on a flood of plants, trees and flowers. In Japanese gardens, this is not the case. For most types of Japanese gardens, plants are also very important, but not their most important element.
Japanese gardens are characterized, among other things, by harmony, space, specific lines, a sense of Wabi and Sabi, enclosed privacy. To achieve this, elements and accessories are used. They are mixed with each other in such way they together achieve the balance, the line and the meditation feeling in the garden space. Each element has different meanings and can symbolize many things. It can be said that in a Japanese garden, nothing is accidental.
Water is one of the fundamental elements of all styles of Japanese gardens excluding the so-called dry Zen gardens. Water levels in Zen gardens are shown by other elements: sand, gravel, stone. Both large and small lakes represent an ocean or a sea.
Streams and waterfalls
Streams and waterfalls bring movement and sound to space. Sound can be an integral part of Japanese gardens as well as visual elements.
The islands are another traditional element of Japanese gardens. They may be indicated only with a big stone or so large that a pavilion can be built on them. Some can be created to resemble a turtle or a crane, symbols of longevity and health, or the sacred mystical mountain Horai.
A bridge in the Japanese garden often symbolizes the path to paradise and immortality. However it also often connects the mainland with an island and allows you to view the beauty of the garden. Bridges can be stone, wooden, arched, flat, depending on garden style. Some wooden bridges are painted red, but it is more linked to the Chinese tradition.
Bamboo fountains sōzu
Bamboo fountains, known as sōzu bring to the garden, among other things, the element of sound (just like waterfalls).
Fish, koi carp
Japanese koi carp and other fish bring into the water space wonderful colours and life.
Stone is another essential element of Japanese gardens. Mostly in gardens in the style karesansui – dry gardens, commonly known under name Zen gardens. Sand, gravel, and stone can even be the only elements that represent the image of the whole landscape, ocean (sand or gravel), islands, rocks and mountains (stones of different sizes).
Routes and paths in the grass, through the sand or gravel “ocean”, but also through a real water space. Stepping stones – ie. flat stones – are another element that can be found in every Japanese garden. Unsymmetrical fitting will allow you to experience a feeling of much greater distances.
Although the stone lanterns didn’t use to be an essential element of Japanese gardens, in the western world they have become the symbol of them. And really there are not many Japanese-style gardens, where would not be at least one of the many variations of stone lanterns. They are also often used to create a Wabi feeling.
In Japanese gardens, there is the omnipresent idea of Buddhism. It is no wonder, therefore, that you can also find a Buddha statue there. Mostly inconspicuously placed and often covered with moss, which again brings to the garden the wabi-sabi feeling. In addition to the classic Buddha, there could also be found a statue of one of the most popular figures of Japanese Buddhism – Jizō Bosatsu (Bodhisattva). He is especially known as the protector of deceased children.
Fences and gates
Having a garden open to the rest of the world is very rare in Japanese gardens. The Japanese garden is often surrounded by walls or bamboo fences that prevent a carefully designed balance from the outside world. And the fence includes a gate, which is as a symbolic as an actual interface of the inner and outer world.
Teahouses and pavilions
In the past, many types of gardens have been designed to be seen from within a building such as a palace or a temple. Nowadays small buildings such as pavilions and teahouses are one of the elements of the garden.
Trees and plants
Trees and plants are not the most important element in Japanese gardens. Still, with most styles, the selection and composition of individual trees, shrubs, plants and mosses are very important. But that’s already a topic for another separate article.
Japanese gardens have been inspiring more and more garden architects as well as gardeners themselves in the last century all over the world. Purity, simplicity, symbolism, harmony. All of us can evoke a pleasant feeling of peace. And above all, tranquillity and a slowdown in the flow of time is what in today’s increasingly hectic times we all, at least sometimes, want, look for, need.
In Japanese culture, the creation of gardens is considered a high and prestigious art that has evolved over centuries. It was influenced by philosophies, such as Shintoism, Buddhism and Taoism. And, of course, the art of the tea ceremony. Japanese gardens have their laws, traditions, philosophies, specific elements. Understanding all the aspects and the symbolism of Japanese gardens requires a lot of knowledge.
Under the term of Japanese Garden, many people still imagine a garden full of bonsais and a very high demand for maintenance.
The styles of Japanese gardens are, however, quite diverse. Nevertheless, we can say that they are all made up to a certain conception of representing an ideal landscape. And that is through a certain symbolism and poetic narration. Even a way of looking at the expression of this ideal landscape divides traditional Japanese gardens into different styles. These styles are often combined and intertwined.
The most famous types of traditional Japanese gardens include:
Karesansui, or a dry / rock garden, better known as Zen Garden – a classic type of meditation garden with minimal plant life.
Tsukiyama (Garden of ponds and hills) – features a miniature of natural sceneries that include ponds and streams with fish, hills and stones, bridges and paths, trees and mosses, flowers and small plants.
Roji, Chaniwa (Tea Garden) – Garden with quite a complicated structure and strict rules. It is designed to tune in its visititors to a tea ceremony in a tearoom built next to or inside the garden.
Paradise garden – representing paradise or “pure land” – Jōdo. Originally designed for Buddhist monks to meditate and reflect in the beauty of the garden.
Japanese gardens, regardless of the particular style, certainly have aspects, common features that characterize them. These include:
Balance and harmony – everything fits together, everything is balanced, but not necessarily even.
Space in the Japanese garden is used differently than in our gardens. Space is a component that helps define the elements that surround it. This again relates to the idea of balance. Space defines the elements inside and is defined by the things inside it. Here you can definitely say that less is more. With fewer components, each component has more meaning and has a greater weight and greater impact on overall appearance.
The line of the garden – the lines and angles are rather rounded and organic to act as natural as possible – as in a real and natural landscape.
To achieve harmony, linearity, a sense of Wabi and Sabi and the meditative feeling in the garden space, a combination of elements and accessories typical of Japanese gardens are also used. Such elements include water (lakes, streams, waterfalls), stones, gravel, sand, islands and bridges, brick or bamboo fences and gates, teahouses and pavilions. With Japanese garden are connected also stepping stones, stone lanterns and statues, bamboo fountains and other (see more elements) are connected with the Japanese garden. Each element has different meanings and can symbolize many things.
In the Japanese garden, there is nothing accidental, everything has its substantiation.
It is said that the garden reflects the nature of its owner and their view (and possible changes to their view) of the world. I agree with that completely. When you‘re out on a walk, look into other peoples‘ gardens, you‘ll see gardens growing wild and untrimmed, gardens that look like they were designed and kept up by a professional gardener, yet still feel somewhat bland and uninteresting. Perhaps that‘s the owner‘s fault or even the fault of the current garden trends. Nevertheless, sometimes you will see gardens that don‘t have a particularly perfect structure but you often see the owner in them, relaxing, trimming, making adjustments. Gardens in which there is life.
Our family definitely belongs to the last group. Our garden is a place where we spend a lot of our time „at home“, our family dinners, weekend meals, birthday parties, coffee drinking or an evening glass of wine rarely take place inside the house between April and September.
Our garden definitely shows the changes in our family life. When the children were younger, it was a place of fun, games and constant exploration. It was a place that had to be safe for them, but at the same time diverse enough to still be interesting.
I always liked a certain wildness in my garden. I never minded the flowers that the wind blew in, especially if they blossomed in a nice way, overgrown oregano plants that attract a huge amount of butterflies as well as big, spread out lavender plants that are surrounded by bumblebees during their blossom, during which they release a strong scent that covers the whole garden in a wonderful aroma. I don‘t mind the flowers that were planted accidentally by birds during their flight over our land. Actually, I think that in a part of our garden the birds were the best gardeners, as years ago they planted three trees with an almost perfect spacing – a cherry tree, a walnut tree and a Salix lucida willow, all of which currently have over three meters in height and are towering over the northern border of our land above flowers that grow underneath them. However, it remains true that the wildness was also part of the reason why we couldn‘t spend more time on perfecting the garden.
Nowadays, when our children are almost grown up and are exploring the world in different places and without our assistance, the garden continues to change. It‘s ceasing to be a place for games and beginning to be more of a place for relaxing, an island of tranquillity to return to after a day in the noisy and hectic city of Prague. That‘s when I like to take a moment to sit down in the garden to listen and watch the slow and quiet workings of the nature around me. It enables me to find a feeling of calmness and happiness within me without an obvious reason, to forget the everyday errands, that often catch us into the chronical feeling that we “do not have time”.
Partly consciously, partly unconsciously, our garden is beginning to approach my idea of a wabi-sabi garden. Slightly tamed, slightly subdued but nevertheless gracefully calm. A garden that still looks barely touched by humanity in some parts, even though we spend a lot of time enthusiastically working on it. The daybeds in a covered part of the garden with an excellent view of the grown trees and constantly growing flowers are my favourite spot, and not just for a summer laziness. The old hammock located under a full-grown walnut tree is a great spot for some quality time spent reading a book. A previously not-so-used corner of our garden has become, after the construction of a pond with fish, a sought out a place for contemplation, and not just by myself.
Hopefully, one day all of the individual parts of our garden come together to form a path, after which if any of us go through, will remain connected with nature through sounds, smells, sight, touch and taste. Though short, a journey through a variety of sensorial experiences.
And yes, I do believe a garden reflects the nature of its owner and their view of the world.