Japanese gardening is an art that brings peace and tranquility both to the artist and to the beholder. It has developed in Japan since olden times and, during the centuries, it has gone through a lot of changes, yet never lost its original spirit and intent.
When you visit Japan, be sure not to miss these amazing places. They are unique in every aspect: the sensation they will give you, the way they are built and decorated. They are an oasis of tranquility in a world that seems unable to slow down.
Read our brief article and learn something more about gardens in Japan.
- The long history of Japanese gardens began in the 7th century and still goes on today.
- Every element of the Japanese gardens is carefully chosen to create a harmonic atmosphere.
- Gardens come in different styles, each one characterized by its own structure and decorative elements.
- The different styles were born during different periods, reflecting the main philosophical and religious schools.
- If you want to fully appreciate the complexity of the gardens, hiring a guide is fundamental.
The design of Japanese gardens is carefully thought out, so as best to represent the religious and philosophical ideas of its creator. Every decorative object, from the sand to the rock, from the bridges to the lanterns, is chosen to be part of a greater plan, with harmony being the most important element.
The gardens originated during the 7th century, and since then many different styles have been developed. Each style focuses on something different, but it can be said that all of them try to suggest an isolated and ancient landscape, to express transiency of beauty and fragility of life.
Rocks, ponds, sand, and water are arranged so as to hide the hand of the artist and give the viewer a sense of naturalness. Buddhism has always been the main inspiration for designers, and many of the elements found in a garden convey a strong symbolical meaning. With the introduction of Zen Buddhism, gardens have become simpler and more tranquil.
Elements of a Japanese garden
Japanese gardens aim to capture the essence of nature, and gardeners have to do this by working with a limited space. Every element becomes important: structure, harmony, and serenity.
Water, being a strong symbol in Buddhism, cannot be missing. Along with stones, it represents yin and yang. Ponds and rivers will be placed wisely, and different styles can be followed when placing streams of water: An “ocean style”, with rock eroded by water; or “marsh pond style”, a large pond with aquatic plants. Miniature waterfalls are important as well.
Different rocks represent different things. A flat rock might symbolize the earth; a vertical rock will stand for the house of the Eight Immortals. Volcanic rocks are used as stepping stones, while sedimentary rocks are normally used around the lakes.
Placing the rocks in the right spots greatly contributes to the general aesthetics of the garden, and they must naturally blend in with the surrounding environment.
As the many small islands inside the gardens represent heavenly places, bridges symbolize a way to reach paradise, immortality. They can be made of wood, of stone, or of logs covered with earth and moss. They can be flat or arched.
Touristic tours of gardens became popular during the Edo period, and thus many bridges and paths were constructed.
Stone lanterns originated during the Nara period, and were introduced to the gardens during the Momoyama period. Each one of their forming elements corresponds to an element of the Buddhist cosmology: earth, water, fire, air, and spirit (or void).
Trees and Plants
Trees and plants are chosen and not casual. They are used to hide unwanted sights, to provide a background to the garden, to add more elements to a scene. When gardeners choose the trees, they will consider their garden colors, and flowers are chosen by their season of flowering. Lotus, sacred to Buddhists, conveys a strong religious meaning.
Niwaki is the technique used to control the growth of the trees: they are trimmed and sometimes bent in order to provide a better landscape.
Styles of Japanese gardens
Different garden styles originated during different periods and served different purposes. Each one of them is structured in its own way, using peculiar decorative elements.
Chisen-shoyū-teien – Pond Garden
This kind of garden, imported from China, is characterized by a main building with two wings, ending in a pavilion used by guest to enjoy the view of the pond. Musicians used to play on the islands in the center of the lake.
Created by members of a Buddhist sect, this kind of garden symbolizes the Pure Land where Buddha uses to contemplate lotus. A Buddha hall is located on the island. The most famous paradise garden can be found in the garden of the Phoenix Hall of the Byōdō-in Temple.
Roji – Tea Garden
Roji (the path to the teahouse) was created during the 14th century as an inspiration for visitors to meditate and get ready for the ceremony. There are an outer and an inner garden, and visitors can rinse their hands and mouth with water. The path is made to look like an isolated mountain trail.
Kaiyū-shiki-teien – Stroll Garden
Stroll gardens date back to the Edo period. They are surrounded by a path that goes around the lake. The scenery outside the garden is as important as the one inside; and the best view is hidden until the last moment by fences and winding paths.
Popular Gardens to Visit in Japan
Gardens can be found all over the country, but there is an incredible concentration in Tokyo and, especially, in Kyoto.
The former capital city has more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, many Shinto shrines, and dozens of amazing gardens. Due to this incredible concentration of sacred places, Zen gardens can be found everywhere. They are minimalistic, and their main components are sand and rock. As said above, gardens vary in style and size, and each one is unique in its own way.
Below you will find a quick survey of the most popular and most beautiful gardens of Japan.
Imperial Palace East Garden in Tokyo
This garden is part of the complex where the Emperor lives. You will find most of the administrative building there, along, of course, an impressive, beautiful garden.
Visitors mostly head to the Ninomaru Grove, an area covered with trees. In the past, the main keep was located here; nowadays, there is a pond and a tea house, Suwa-no-chaya. During the Edo period, the Togukawa shogun used to dwell there, but today none of the main buildings remain. Only the moats, the walls, and the entrance gates can still be admired.
Nijo’s Garden in the Nijo Castle in Kyoto
The gardens are part of the Nijo Castle built in 1603, the residence of the first shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu. After the end of the shogunate, the castle was briefly used as imperial palace.
The castle is divided into three areas: the Honmary (outer defense circle), the Ninomaru (inner circle), and the gardens between the first two areas.
The garden, designed by tea master Kobori Enshū, is the newest part of the complex. It was built in 1965 to receive official guests and to host cultural events. Its structure is quite traditional: it has a large pond, more than 10,000 decorative stones, and numerous pine trees. There are lots of groves of cherry trees and Japanese plum trees.
Ryoanji Zen Garden in Kyoto
In Kyoto, you will find plenty of beautiful minimalistic gardens to visit. They are all finely designed, using mostly rock and sand; the perfect place to meditate and stroll.
The design of the Ryoanji Zen Garden wants you to think about the space around you and interact with it by strolling around. There are 15 rocks in a sea of sand, and it’s impossible to see all of them at the same time. We don’t know why the rocks are arranged that way, or who built the garden.
Joruri-ji Garden in Nara
Located in the countryside, this garden is peaceful and isolated. It was built in 1047, and it is a marvelous example of the “paradise garden”. The pond in the middle symbolizes the ocean between birth and death; and the nine Buddha statues represent the nine stages of nirvana.
Nowadays, there are not many “paradise gardens” left, and Joruri-ji is totally worth a visit.
Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa
Kenroku-en Garden is ranked among the top three gardens of Japan. Its name means “The Garden of Six Sublimities”: broad views, abundant water, spaciousness, antiquity, seclusion, and artificiality. These six qualities make the perfect garden.
A green pond with one of the oldest Japanese fountains will welcome you as you enter through the wooden gate. After walking up a small hill, the garden will reveal itself: In front of you, you will see the peaceful pond with a tea house on the corner; behind you, the majestic Ryōhaku Mountains just waiting to be photographed. Following the paths of the garden, you will be naturally led to a particular viewpoint.
A guided garden visiting experience
Visiting a garden by yourself is still a nice experience. You can take your time and meditate. But if you want to understand the complex symbolism behind every stream of water, stretch of sand, pond, lantern and rock, you need to hire a guide.
The guide will calmly explain everything you need to know about the garden, letting you appreciate many details you would otherwise overlook. You will be able to get a deeper understanding of why a garden is set that way, and it will be easier for the garden itself to fully release itself and to achieve its goal.
Useful tips for visiting gardens
As said above, to greatly enhance your experience, it is recommended to hire a guide.
When you are visiting a garden, just follow one rule: Respect everything around you. Respect other people’s space, don’t be loud, don’t stand in the way. Be as discreet as possible. When strolling around, take your time to appreciate both the small details and the grand design. Remember that everything is placed in a certain way with a certain goal in mind.
It is absolutely forbidden to touch anything.
A brief history of Japanese gardens
Japanese gardens first appeared during the 7th century, when merchants saw Chinese gardens and wished to duplicate them. The first gardens were built on Honshu, drawing inspiration by the island landscape and Shinto philosophy.
During their history, Japanese gardens were strongly influenced by the spirit of the period and the main philosophical and religious schools.
Heian period (794-1185)
Architecture of residences and gardens kept following the Chinese example, especially Feng Shui. During this period, many stroll gardens were built, and the social life inside the gardens was vibrant. Near the end of the Heian period, Paradise Gardens began to appear, thanks to noblemen who wanted to assert their declining power.
Kamakura and Muromachi period (1185 – 1573)
A civil war destroyed most of the gardens in Kyoto; but many new gardens were built under the influence of the form of Zen Buddhism. The first Zen Garden was built in 1251. Japan enjoyed a garden renaissance.
The new gardens followed the Zen principles of spontaneity and simplicity: Ryōanji in Kyoto is one of the best examples.
The Sukyazukuri style dominated during the Edo period. Buildings were undecorated, and gardens were mostly stroll ones. They were built to integrate the mountainous landscape and were composed of a series of famous views, like imitations of Mount Fuji. They were intended to portray nature as it appeared.
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