Japanese Garden Design Principles

The Japanese garden is laid out following rigid design principles. That does not, however, mean that they are all mechanical creations following mathematically precise concepts. The Japanese word for landscape is “san-sui” which means mountains and water. These and other elements of the natural world such as meadows, islands, ponds, and so forth are incorporated in the design and it is the use of nature that is the foundation of Japanese garden design. The idea is that nature is the objective to the design. The depictions can be symbolic or idealistic but the garden designer must never create something that does not exist in nature.

The Use of Space and Time

A Japanese garden will have one or more “empty” areas. This is not to provide open space but because the emptiness defines is what defines the features that surround it. The western mind will understands it as part of the concept of “yin and yang”. This is not just opposing forces, as generally understood, but the idea of something and nothing. Unless there is nothing, something can have no value. The balance of empty spaces and foliage to symbolize the balance of life is the basis of a Japanese garden.

Time is a factor because unlike his western counterpart, the Japanese gardener does not tend to his garden only when the season is right. A Japanese garden is maintained all year round, irrespective of climatic conditions. Having created the balance of something and nothing, to allow the garden to fall into disuse at times of the year is equivalent to negating its whole value.

In his book ‘Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens: Design Principles, Aesthetic’ author David A. Slawson says that “a garden should conform to certain natural principles as well as meet the emotional needs of those who view it.”

You can locate Japanese garden consultants and landscapers in your area via the Internet. If you live in a small town then you may have trouble finding one of these knowledgeable people but there are online tutorials and information you see and read about online. Perhaps you can take a trip and set up a meeting with one of these people.

The 5 Main Japanese Garden Designs

1. The “Karesansui” or rock and sand garden with no water is well known. These gardens have little plant life, mostly moss, and groups of stones and rocks. The raked gravel that connects these elements is symbolic of water that flows everywhere.

2. The idea that Tea Gardens “Cha Niwa” are where tea is drunk is a misconception. These are usually small enclosed gardens and form the passage to a tea house where the formal Japanese tea ceremony is conducted. It symbolizes the passage from the outside world to the inner spiritual one. The 4 main design elements of this type of garden are the use of Japanese lanterns, a water basin or pond, stepping stones and a waiting place to halt and prepare onesself before entering the tea house.

3. The “Tsubo Niwa” is a courtyard garden. A tsubo is a Japanese measurement of 3.3 square feet which, although not to be taken literally, shows the small size of these gardens. The design features are similar to that of the Tea garden, but because they usually have limited access to sunlight, plants that thrive in the shade are used. These gardens came into existence in the 15th century to connect the home of rich merchants with their warehouses which were built next to their homes. They serve to separate the home and work.

4. “Tsukiyama” are big landscape gardens where scenes of natural beauty are created on a smaller scale. Alternatively, an imaginary landscape that represents what could exist but does not, can be created.

5. “Kaiyu-Shikien” are very large parks that are used for walking in. The concept behind these is to provide an atmosphere of tranquility where both exercise and contemplation are possible. The design concepts that are used are similar to those of the “Tsukiyama”

A Valid and Harmonious Objective

Although beauty that promotes peace of mind is the foundation of Japanese garden design, each type of garden has a purpose for which it has been created.

Benjamin Roussey is a home improvement and maintenance expert at Redbeacon. He has two master’s degrees and served time in the U.S. Navy.