Japanese gardens are famous all over the world for their serenity and beauty. One of the main concepts in these gardens is to instill a feeling of beauty in the person viewing the garden. Another is to recreate nature in miniature. Historically, Japan adopted their formal gardening style from China and then embellished it with their own sensibilities.
There are a few elements to consider when viewing a Japanese garden. First, there are empty spaces in the garden. This is important in maintaining balance. The empty space defines the other elements surrounding it, just as the surrounding elements define the empty space. It is similar to yin and yang (or in and yo, in Japanese). The Japanese garden can be appreciated in all four seasons, unlike many Western gardens that is abandoned in the fall until spring rolls around. Japanese gardens also often use “borrowed scenery” or shakkei. This is when distant mountains, for instance, are taken into the overall view of the garden as part of the entire effect.
There are a few basic designs you will see in Japanese gardens.
The Hill and Pond, or Chisen-Kaiyu-skiki, is the style that was originally borrowed from China. A pond is situated in front of a hill or two. This can be a real pond, or be symbolically represented using raked gravel. This style represents a mountain area and only used plants that are indigenous to the mountains. Gardens designed for strolling are always done in this style.
The Flat Garden, or Hiraniwa, uses flat open spaces, usually in front of ceremonial buildings like temples and palaces. These may be done in the dry garden, or karesansui style. You will see this style of garden typically in courtyards. Dry gardens, or karesansui, are made with a few large stones surrounded by sand or gravel. The sand is raked in patterns around the large stones. A very well-known dry garden is at Ryoan-ji, a temple in Kyoto. It was created in 1513.
The Tea Garden, or Rojiniwa, lets function take precedence. The Roji (dewy path) is the main focus in the garden. Besides the path, other focal points include the gates and the water basin, or chozubachi. Planting is usually minimal and rustic in a tea garden.
Japanese gardens are often enclosed away from the rest of the world. This makes the garden into a miniature of nature, or a microcosm. In Japan, the fences and gates are symbolic. The fence is the insulation from the outside world. The gate is the threshold over which we pass from one world to another, leaving behind our worldly concerns upon entering the garden, and where we shoulder them once again upon leaving. Fences also hide part of what we can see, encouraging us to travel a bit further in the garden to discover the next surprise. It is not uncommon to have only a partial fence, or one with a window in it that reveals part of what lies ahead.
Stones form the backbone of the garden. Large stones may represent mountains in some gardens. There are some basics applied to stones in the Japanese garden. There should be a tall vertical stone, an arched stone, a reclining stone and a horizontal stone. Stones are normally set out in groupings of 3, 5 or 7, but not always. Sometimes two similar stones are set together to represent male and female. In this grouping, one is usually slightly larger than the other.
Like the stones, a small pool or stream can represent a lake or river. Water also represents the passage of time. There may be a bridge spanning the water. A bridge, or hashi, usually represents a journey. Bridges often symbolize the act of moving from one world to another.
The plantings, or shokobutsu, in the Japanese garden are the canvas upon which the seasons play. The Japanese garden actually uses a very limited list of plants. Native plants are preferred, with many evergreens, flowering trees and shrubs to show the seasonal changes.
Ornaments, or tenkebutsu, include the very familiar stone lanterns we often associate with Japanese gardens. Other ornamental items may include water basins, a statue or other decorative item.
The Japanese gardens are a treat for all of the senses. Full of beauty and serenity, you won’t be the same when you leave.