Mottainai – the end of unnecessary waste

The word Mottainai is another of these Japanese words that is good to know. It gets into the dictionary of more and more people around the world thanks to the global environmental debate and the struggle to stop the negative climate change.

The meaning of the word Mottainai
“Mottainai” is about regret for something that has not been fully utilized.

You can use the word Mottainai when you want to say “Oh, what a waste!”.  When someone throws away food. When someone has a closet full of clothes they can’t even wear and buys more and more. When someone leaves water running for an unnecessarily long time. But also when someone doesn’t use their potential and wastes their time on unimportant things. All this is “Mottainai”.  Anything that could be useful but for some reason you have not used it right, all that is Mottainai.

It is the idea that everything has a purpose and it is important to try to make full use of things. This includes really everything – from meal on your plate up to your effort to do something.

Like almost all of these useful phrases, “Mottainai” refers to a historical Japanese culture and way of thinking that many Japanese retain to this day.

Mottainai is rooted in Japanese Buddhist philosophy, according to which we all should respect and feel great gratitude towards our world, our planet and all the resources it provides us.

According to some, Mottainai also has a connection with the Shinto beliefs – where even objects have their souls, and  should therefore be treated with respect. And the best way to show respect is not to waste them and use them properly.

Still, it cannot be said that the essence of the Mottainai idea is only Japanese. We all remember when we were kids and our parents would urge us at home to eat all the food on our plates and not waste it. Just like when they told us in our teenage years not to waste our time and abilities.

Mottainai and environmental protection

In the context of the environment, Mottainai refers to the three groups of R + 1: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle + Respect ( in relation to Mother Nature as well as in relation to the natural resources it provides for us).

In the context of global environmental protection, the word Mottainai was probably first used by Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

“Even at a personal level, we can all reduce, re-use and recycle, what is embraced as Mottainai in Japan, a concept that also calls us to express gratitude, to respect, and to avoid wastage.” (Wangari Maathai)

At the 2009 UN Climate Change Summit, she mentioned, among other things, that if we wanted to prevent wars arising from disputes over natural resources, we should all make efficient use of limited resources and share them fairly.

Mottainai approached the Japanese for economic reasons

How the spirit of Mottainai came to be through Japanese history? That’s not a very nice story.

Before Japan was first united under the Tokugawa (1603-1868), there was war everywhere. In the four-tiered social hierarchy of Japan, the Samurai naturally stood at the top, followed by farmers, then artisans, and then traders in the lower place.

However, during the Tokugawa regime, Japan enjoyed more than 200 years of peace. As a result, merchants gained increasing economic power and social influence. The Samurai, who remained ignorant of investment, soon became virtually out of power and traders became influencers in the Japanese economy. Traders helped promote the consumption and living standards of people in cities.

Meanwhile, the Samurai were the owners of Japan and the rulers of farmland and farmers. They collected harvested rice from farmers as a tax  and thus made a living (selling rice to make money). The trend of raising living standards was bad news for the Samurai, because if their farmers themselves exchanged their rice for money to buy things, that meant less rice to be paid as part of it for taxes.

The Samurai, who had not learned how to prosper financially in the new peace age, could only come up with the idea of spending less. They restricted or banned any form of luxury among farmers and encouraged a humble and modest lifestyle. To set an example for this lifestyle for others, the Samurai refrained from consuming too much food and hoarding things.

Thanks to propaganda, the humble way of life of the Samurai was recognized as a Japanese virtue and led to an even stronger establishment of the Mottainai spirit among the Japanese.

Mottainai and the present

Although the story of the origin of the Mottainai idea dates back to ancient and distant antiquity, this concept is now being re-awakened. Just for another purpose now. The Mottainai concept teaches us to value all resources. It teaches us to deal responsibly and creatively with what already exists, without the need for new and new production with high consumption of new resources.

We can all contribute a little to mitigating climate change by reducing consumption, refurbishing or renovating old equipment, recycling things that have ceased to serve us for their original purpose and, most importantly, respect for nature.

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Mushin – art of the empty mind / mind without mind


Although cultural differences around the world seem to be gradually diminishing thanks to the media, social networks and massive travel, they are certainly not being completely erased. Fortunately for us – a few decades of the Internet and the subsequent expansion of social networks cannot erase centuries to millennia of ancient different traditions, customs and philosophies. Although we see many young people in Asia comparing themselves to our Western culture, we Westerners still have a lot to inspire and learn from ancient Eastern philosophies.Buddha statue


One of these inspirational concepts is the Japanese term “mushin” – a fascinating form of meditation and mental state that can significantly affect the way a person lives and leads his life.

The word “mushin” consists of two kanji characters: 無 (mu), which means “emptiness,” and 心 (shin), which means “heart,” “spirit,” or in this case, “mind.” Mushin can be roughly translated to “nothing on the mind” or “no mind.” It comes from a longer phrase used in Zen Buddhism, “無心 の 心” (mushin no shin), or “mind without thinking.”

What is mushin?

Mushin is a state of mind where your mind is empty of all thoughts, desires, ideas and assumptions. When your mind is clear, you are free from your ego and you are able to act spontaneously and fluently without emotion or hesitation. That way, your mind is opened to everything.

It is a concept that is important in many traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana flower arranging, a beautiful style of shodo calligraphy or sumi-e ink painting, but especially for Asian martial arts such as aikido.

The discipline and awareness of the present moment are very important for these arts. Through mushin, artists or fighters achieve great concentration and sensitivity. When their mind is clear, their work is intuitive and flows from the subconscious.


The first mention of mushin comes from the famous Zen Buddhist monk of the 17th century (but also a prominent Japanese poet, painter, calligrapher, expert in the tea ceremony) and, among other things, the excellent swordsman Takuan Soho (1573-1645) in The Unleashed Mind. In this work he combines aspects of Zen Buddhism with martial arts. The following paragraph provides an excellent explanation of what happens in the mind when in the mushin state:

“When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man`s subconscious that strikes.”

Such a pure state of mind, pure mental clarity, means that the mind is not firm, busy with thoughts or emotions, and therefore open to everything. Present, conscious and free.

This state is attained when the mind is freed from anger, fear, distracting thoughts, ego, and judgments. One is absolutely free to act and respond to situations without fear and without being disturbed by external factors. At this point, he doesn’t rely on what he thinks the next move should be, but what his naturally trained reactions are, or what he feels intuitive. However, it is not a state of relaxation close to sleep. We can say that the mind works very fast, but without intention, plan or direction.

Mushin in the western world

Mushin is a Japanese concept rooted in Zen Buddhism. But a certain version of mushin can be found in many different arts and disciplines around the world. For example, an athlete on the track also experiences some form of mushin. He must free himself from conscious thinking in order to “only” run. Although, for example, their extreme sharpness of concentration is called something else. The same can be said about actors whenever they improvise or get lost in a character. They must absolutely clear their minds of their ego so that they can respond quickly and appropriately to situations.

Why could it be useful for us?

Mushin is a very useful concept that we can be inspired by in many different life situations. Whatever your field, if you try to free your mind from the inner hustle and bustle of premature judgments and assumptions, you will stop evaluating possible failures in advance, but you will perceive only the present moment and immerse yourself only in the task, then maybe you can also experience mushin. It could even help you with your efforts, whether you’re an athlete, a creative person, or just need to focus better. It’s something worth thinking about.

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Kaizen – small regular steps to self-improvement

Kaizen - small regular steps to self-improvementAlmost every one of us, regardless of age, would “sometimes” need or simply want to learn something new or “just” to improve in something. And not only in the professional life level, but also in the private one. Whether it is to learn a foreign language properly, improve your physical condition, or even fulfill your secret desire to learn to dance or paint pictures.

Having time is just awareness and layout of your priorities

But we often postpone it because we don’t feel we have enough time for it yet. Sometimes, for example, after the New Year’s resolutions, we are really going to do it with great determination. And very intensely. But soon we will loose strength, time, taste. The results are not what we expected. Our original enthusiasm disappears and we perceive it all as our failure. And this, together with a lot of our everyday responsibilities, will often drive us to a new / further postponement of “… when there is more time”.

Technology has significantly accelerated our pace of life, but has not given us any more time.time-lapse photography of highway road at night

Despite the new and ever-accelerating technologies that are supposed to make our working and private lives easier, we almost all have a constant feeling of “lack of time and need for rush”. That is why we would like to do everything quickly and, if possible, immediately in perfect form. We would like to speak a foreign language quickly, preferably immediately as a native speaker; lose weight quickly and have a perfect figure from the magazine, handle all dance steps perfectly as a professional dancer, or paint a picture like a gallery right away.

Sometimes we strive for too radical personal changes, our ideas and demands on ourselves are too exaggerated. Instead of doing something little by little, we are wasting our time finding ways to achieve “success” as quickly as possible. But if you think about all the people we admire for what they really do, no one has achieved their success overnight.

Kaizen – change for the better

But sometimes small, but regular steps are enough. Instead of trying to make radical changes in a short time, try every day a little improvement that gradually leads to the change you want. It will not exhaust you after a short time and you will not feel that you have to neglect your normal duties and habits.

And this is also the main idea of the Japanese Kaizen philosophy, applicable both in business and in our private life.

kaizenThe word “kaizen” is a combination of two Japanese words “kai” and “zen”. “Kai” is literally a change, so in a rough Japanese translation, kaizen means “change for the better”, which simply expresses its essence – continuous gradual improvement.

The principle of Kaizen in 10 main points

  1. Strive for continuous improvement. Things can always be better no matter how good or bad they are now.
  2. Always question stereotypes. If necessary, get rid of the old to make way for the new.
  3. Get wisdom from many people rather than rely on one expert.
  4. Don’t waste your time talking about excuses, but focus on finding solutions.
  5. Make sure your decisions are based on facts rather than opinions.
  6. Get to the root cause of the situation or problem by asking “Why?” At least five times.
  7. Before you spend money to solve a problem, look for simple and inexpensive solutions.
  8. Always question the status quo.
  9. Start upgrading now, even if you don’t have all the answers yet.
  10. Don’t underestimate yourself. Do not be discouraged in your journey by occasional setbacks.

Be a little better every daygray rock formation

So the real key to understanding and applying Kaizen is to focus on the idea of continuous improvement.

Every day, just focus on getting a little better than last day. Feel free to think about the smallest step you can take every day, which can gradually move you to your destination. Only about 1%.

It may not seem much, but even such 1% per day will add up. In the beginning, your improvement will be so small that it will seem almost non-existent. But gradually you begin to notice the improvement. It may take months or even years to feel that you have achieved what you wanted. But the result will come. And it will be more durable than when you start with a determined and very intense action and after a while you run out of breath.

And that sometimes you feel that you are not improving or that you are not doing it? Life is not a marathon. Stopping running for a while should not disqualify you. Sometimes just more, sometimes less. But we should also accept and not be subjected to occasional failures or negative emotions of defeat…


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Get inspired by Japanese gardens

Get inspired by Japanese gardens

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
Claude Monet, Le Pont Japonais à Giverny/ JThe Japanese Footbridge in Giverny, 1896
Claude Monet, Le Pont Japonais à Giverny/ The Japanese Footbridge in Giverny, 1896

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.

Japanese garden inspirationIf 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).


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Zen gardens

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.

zen gardensWhat 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 gardensIn Zen gardens, the typical purity and balance of space are most obvious aspects (see the aspects of Japanese gardens). You can find really large Zen gardens, but also ones built on a very small land. Many people around the world have been inspired by Kare Sansui/Zen gardens to create a small meditation piece of the world in their garden.

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.

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Your own Zen Garden in one weekend? Why not?

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.


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Hanami – Holiday of cherry blossoms

Every year at the end of March or the beginning of April, when most of us are preparing for or already celebrating Easter holidays,  the Japanese celebrate a great holiday of cherry blossoms -Hanami.

What is hanami

Hanami, roughly translated as flower viewing, is a very old Japanese custom how to celebrate the end of the winter and the beginning of spring and how to enjoy the tranquil beauty of spring tree flowers.

“Hana” means flowers in general, but in this case, it is a spring flood of Japanese cherry sakura blossoms. These are blooming mostly from the end of March throughout whole Japan. Except for the island of Okinawa, where hanami starts already at the beginning of February.

This flower festival is really very popular in Japan. Since the end of February, everyone has been watching the meteorological forecasts so that everyone could plan and enjoy the hanami as well as possible. Usually, the beginning is determined by the first sakura flowers in Tokyo. However, the media regularly report on the shift of blooms by region.

Transience of a delicate beauty

After the first few blossoms, all sakuras are quickly covered in the gentle beauty of mostly pale pink or white dresses of millions of flowers Some species of sakura have flowers in dark pink, yellow and some are almost green. But the flowers will only last on the trees for a week or two until they start falling down. Sakura flowers are considered to be the symbol of the transience of life. So, it can be said,  that the hanami is also kind of wabi-sabi holiday – a celebration of the transience of time. Therefore, everyone wants to enjoy the temporary beauty. And so whole families or groups of friends and colleagues venture into the parks. Usually for a picnic or a garden party under the “pink sky”, which can stretch through the night. At that time, parks are really full or rather overcrowded with people not only in large cities.

How to celebrate hanami


Some celebrate only with food, others add singing with a help of karaoke kits or even small theatre performances. The traditional drink to celebrate the hanami in Japan is saké. But many people prefer to replace it by drinking a tea. Tea utensils decorated with flower ornaments will help to exalt the beauty of the tea ritual. Ideally, green tea or black tea is boiled in a specially decorated kyusu (tea kettle), mixed with fresh organic sakura flowers. So tea gets a pleasant floral flavour of Sakura. Some people are enjoying the organic matcha tea from cups in chawan style, which emphasizes the wabi-sabi character of the hanami festival. Seasonal snacks are served with tea, such as wagashi – classic Japanese sweets often served at the tea ceremony.

History of hanami

Hanami is a very old tradition that has been celebrated since the eighth century. According to some historical chronicles, a certain form of hanami was held in the third century AD. And this is a long time full of historical political and social upheavals and changes. Just as with tea ceremonies, the celebration of hanami was mainly a matter of wealthy elite. It took several centuries for ordinary people to be able to join the celebrations, and centuries before the hanami became a massive affair. Naturally, nationwide popularity is also used by companies for commercial purposes.

Among the elderly people, there is a popular a quieter and older form of hanami – called umemi – which celebrates the flowering of plums – “ume”. Umeme is related more to the original Chinese culture – the Chinese especially loved the smell and beauty of plum blossoms.

Hanami in the world

Hanami as a celebration of cherry blossoms is gradually expanding throughout Europe and the United States of America. But it will probably never and nowhere be as massive as in its country of origin.

Yet, when sakuras or even ordinary cherry trees will get in bloom, find a moment and make your own little hanami with your family or friends under the delicate little flowers.

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Aspects of Japanese gardens

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.

Wabi and Sabi in the garden

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.

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Types of Japanese Gardens

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.

Kare Sansui

Otherwise known as dry rock or stone landscape gardens. In the world, they are known and popular under another name –

Zen gardens

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).

In Zen gardens, the typical purity and balance of space are most obvious aspects (see the aspects of Japanese gardens). You can find really large zen gardens, but also ones built on a very small land. Many people around the world have been inspired by Karesansui gardens to create a small meditation piece of the world in their garden.

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.

Paradise Garden

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.

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Elements of Japanese gardens

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 in Japanese gardens, source: Pinterest,
Streams and waterfalls in Japanese gardens, source: Pinterest,

Streams and waterfalls bring movement and sound to space. Sound can be an integral part of Japanese gardens as well as visual elements.

Islands in Japanese gardens, source:,
Islands in Japanese gardens, source:,

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.

Bridges in the Japanese gardens, source:,
Bridges in the Japanese gardens, source:,

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.

Bridges in the Japanese gardens, source:,
Bridges in the Japanese gardens, source:,
Bamboo fountains sōzu
Bamboo fountains, source:,
Bamboo fountains, source:,

Bamboo fountains, known as sōzu bring to the garden, among other things, the element of sound (just like waterfalls).

Fountains, source:,
Fountains, source:,
Fish, koi carp

Japanese koi carp and other fish bring into the water space wonderful colours and life.


Sand, gravel, and stone in Japanese gardens, source:,
Sand, gravel, and stone in Japanese gardens, source:,

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).

Stepping stones
Stepping stones, source:,
Stepping stones, source:,

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.

Stone lanterns
Stone lanterns, source:,
Stone lanterns, source:,

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.

Stone statues
Statues in Japanese gardens, source:,,
Statues in Japanese gardens, source:,,

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

Fences in Japanese gardens:,
Fences in Japanese gardens:,

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.

Gates to gardens, source:,
Gates to gardens, source:,

Teahouses and pavilions

Teahouses and pavilions in Japanese gardens, source:,
Teahouses and pavilions in Japanese gardens, source:,

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.

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Japanese gardens


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.

Types of Japanese Gardens

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.

Aspects of Japanese gardens

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.
  • Wabi and Sabi in the garden – uniqueness and patine, acceptance and perhaps a celebration of an impermanence of life generally (what is wabi-sabi here).
  • Garden behind walls – Japanese gardens are often surrounded by walls as if enclosed in its own microcosm. It protects from an outside world disturbing the carefully designed balance.
  • The beauty of garden throughout the year – the gardens are designed and maintained to bring beauty and a meditative feeling in all seasons.

Elements and Symbolism of Japanese Gardens

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.

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The success of wabi-sabi in the Western world

At the beginning of the 17th century, Japan, in an effort to stem the flow of Christianity, closed itself off to the world. And it was like that until the early 20th century. During this period, Japan – voluntarily isolated from the rest of the world – developed and perfected the typical local culture, such as the tea ceremony, haiku, ikebana, calligraphy and painting on parchment. But also martial arts and medicine.

When finally in the middle of the last century, Japanese culture became known to Western civilization, so its individual aspects, along with elements of other eastern teachings such as yoga, Tai Chi, Judo, shiatsu or meditation, and later also wabi-sabi, became very popular. In fact, it is said that today there are more people practising it in Western countries than in Japan itself.


When a thin little book named Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, from the American designer, artist and writer Leonard Korena came out in 1994 in the Berkeley Publishing House, it gained immediate attention, especially among artists. Shortly after its first edition, it has been translated into many world languages, including Japanese.

wabi sabi in world

Since then, countless books have been published in the Western world – especially in English – dealing with some angle of wabi-sabi. Yet Koren’s book is still considered as a fundamental and basic study on the topic of wabi-sabi.

wabi sabi in world

It has inspired many designers, architects and artists. The wabi-sabi style has become very popular in the Western world since the end of the last century, mainly in interior and garden architecture.

The success of wabi-sabi in the Western world is also achieved by the fact that it is a counterpart to the consumer hectic and impersonal lifestyle, to the massive production, to the world of exaggerated perfection and exaggerated ornamentation. Actually, it is very similar to the success of wabi-sabi in 15th-16th century when it was a reaction to the aesthetics of exaggerated opulence and ornamentalism.


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Wabi-sabi history

When you search for information about wabi-sabi history or where it actually came from, you will almost always come across a link to 16th-century Japan and the legend of the tea master Sen no Rikyū. Rikyū is indeed honoured by the Japanese and considered to be maybe the first person to understand the core of this culturally-philosophical direction. And certainly, his approach to the aesthetics of natural simplicity greatly developed new forms of Japanese architecture, garden design, fine and applied arts. But he is definitely not someone who one day decided to create wabi-sabi from the ground up.



The complete beginning of the wabi-sabi nascency, of course, cannot be precisely dated. Wabi-sabi is based on Zen Buddhism, it is its specific expression. That is why it is sometimes stated that the primordial beginning dates back to 563 BC when Prince Siddhartha Gautama – later known to us as Buddha – found compassion for human suffering and gave up on the material world. Now, the history of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism should follow. But we’re going to abridge it and skip a few centuries later:

Tea ceremony

Tea ceremonyFrom the end of the 12th century, Zen Buddhism has begun to spread from China to Japan. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the art of the tea ceremony also developed in Japan, mainly thanks to Buddhist priests.

Over the following two centuries, the tea ceremony developed in the most typical way for practising Zen philosophy. But at the same time also in a social form that combines the skills needed in architecture, interior design, garden design, floral arrangements, painting, food preparation and acting. Plus the tea master had to handle incorporating the present guests into a peaceful art event.

The tea room in the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century was used for Japanese traders similar as recently in our world the golf courses. There were business contracts negotiated there. Consolidation and disruption of political alliances. Expensive materials, Chinese richly decorated ceramics, were used there. Overall, it was the aesthetics of opulence and exaggerated ornamentalism, mostly originating in China. Tea was actually taken as a sort of entertainment for the elite.

Murata Jukō

Murata JukōAlready at the end of the 15th century, the Zen monk Murata Jukō began to rebel against the existing rules of the tea ceremony. By, for example, opening access to the tea ceremony even for ordinary people. He ended this period of tea ceremony as a certain extravagance for the chosen ones. He also began to use ordinary unruly ceramics made by local people. This is also why is Jukō mentioned as the first known tea master of wabi-sabi.

Sen no Rikyū

Sen no RikyūA hundred years later – in the 16th century – we are already getting to the most famous figure of wabi-sabi – the tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), under which the wabi-sabi reached its peak. Frequently mentioned is the legend of Sen no Rikyū, which in its own simplicity describes the principle of wabi-sabi.

The legend of Sen no Rikyū

Sen no Rikyū was a young man who wanted to learn the art of the tea ceremony. So he went to the famous tea master Takeno Jōō, who instructed him to clean up and rake up a garden full of leaves as an entrance exam. After its thorough work, Rikyū checked the flawless and perfect appearance of the garden, but before he showed it to his master, he shook a tree – probably the Japanese Red Maple tree – and several beautifully coloured leaves fell on the ground.

According to another variant of the story, it was a blooming Sakura and Rikyū shook a tree to drop a couple of flowers. I don’t know, but we have a Japanese cherry tree in our garden. When it blooms, it’s really beautiful, but the flowers are falling in a big way by themselves without shaking the tree. However, this story to a certain extent essentially characterizes wabi-sabi – in the beauty of imperfection, transience and incompleteness.

There‘s a similar story about how Rikyū many years later rebuked his son – the future student of the art of the tea ceremony – for cleaning up a garden too perfectly.

Well, it’s a legend, and it sounds slightly made up. But this was in the 16th century. A century that wasn‘t very pretty. Neither in Asia nor in Europe. It was a time of constant war and cruelty, but also a period of the flowering of arts. Even the art of Japanese tea ceremonies.

Rikyū, the greatest of the tea masters

Rikyū became a tea master and one of the greatest at that. His approach to the aesthetics of simplicity has developed new forms of Japanese architecture, garden design, fine and applied arts.

But back to reality, Japan, 16th century. Rikyū became famous and respected in his lifetime. It worried his superior and patron, Hideyoshi, so much so that he ordered the seventy-year-old tea master Rikyū to commit ritual suicide (Harakiri).

wabi-sabi history Sen no Rikyū

Harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity are still the bases not only of the tea ceremony. Indeed, the Rikyū himself is even in these days revered by the Japanese and considered to be the first to understand the core of the cultural and philosophical direction of wabi-sabi – the art of finding beauty in imperfection, weighing every moment in its transience, honouring the authenticity. Wabi-sabi is interpreted as “the wisdom of natural simplicity“.

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What is wabi-sabi?

Wabi-sabi is an ancient Japanese philosophy influenced by Zen Buddhism (a bit of history here). It is one of the basic concepts of Japanese culture. Still, if you asked the Japanese public for an explanation of wabi-sabi, if you were even able to get an answer, every person would answer differently. Wabi-sabi really has no clear definition. That actually broadens the possibilities for different perceptions for each individual.

What is wabi sabi?In a simplified way, wabi-sabi can be described as thinking of celebrating the natural imperfection of the world and seeing a certain beauty in that imperfection. It is finding some evaluation and grace that brings the influence of time, for the things around us as well as for ourselves. It also perceives eventual defects as a certain uniqueness, awareness of the impermanence time.

Wabi-sabi was originally used to create the ideal environment for meditation in tea ceremonies.
These were guided by tea masters, all of which had to manage a huge range of knowledge, among others in architecture, interior design, garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation and acting. But they were also often philosophers and they used to express their thoughtsWhat is wabi sabi? with the writing and citation of very short poems (unlike the very large books of Western philosophers).


This is probably why short poetic expressions are the best for your own understanding of this way of looking at the world. And it’s up to us how we want to perceive them.

So, what is wabi-sabi?

What is wabi sabi?

It is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of the acceptance of the natural cycle of growth, death and decay.

It is a celebration of the beauty of normality and the natural evolution of life on earth.

It is the wisdom of a natural simplicity, honouring authenticity above all, as well as liberation from any biases or prejudices.

It is the beauty of modest and simple things, as well as the beauty of the unusual.

What is wabi sabi?

It is a celebration of cracks and crevices, and any other marks that time, weather, and even loving use leave behind.

It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet. 

The ideas of wabi-sabi can be described only as follows:

What is wabi sabi?



Acceptance of imperfection

Transient beauty




Peace of mind                              

Life in the moment


Humility, modesty, moderation and austerity

Emptiness (consciousness of openness)

Everything is constantly changing

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