Japanese Garden Ideas: Finding Your Zen

By   | Last Updated :   February 13, 2021 | Filed In :   Garden Style Ideas

In 2019, I went to Japan for the first time… and also for the second time. I was so absolutely blown away by Japanese culture, architecture and scenery that, after visiting during the stunning cherry blossom season, I went back in late summer, just as the leaves were starting to turn red for autumn.

Honestly, this could easily turn into a whole love letter to Japan, but we’re all about the gardens here, so I’m going to focus on that last element: Japanese scenery. In this post, we’ll look at the principles behind Japanese garden design, and how you can incorporate some Japanese garden ideas into your outdoor space – even if it’s just a balcony or small courtyard. We’ll go through plants, colours, materials and traditional elements that can all evoke the calm serenity of nature in Japan.

mossy gardens at the Daigo-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan

Photo by David Emrich

Why is Japanese Scenery So Beautiful?

The Japanese landscape is seriously stunning for several reasons. Firstly: it just is. From the beautiful lakes to the iconic peak of Mount Fuji, nature is really doing some of its best work in Japan.

Secondly: it’s so different from the scenery in the UK that it can’t help but have an impact. The colours, and the shapes – and the way they interact with the buildings and people to set a mood – are fascinating because they’re unlike anything at home.

Finally: the scenery is beautiful in Japan because the Japanese are experts in subtly curating nature to help it really reach another level. The plants and trees in gardens, parks and even along forest walkways have been very deliberately chosen for their seasonal colours, so that visitors have a stunning view whenever they walk through.

If you want your own garden to be an escape from normality, and to be a place where you can find peace, you will really find a lot of inspiration in Japanese garden ideas.

Japanese Garden Ideas: Planning Your Layout

In Japan, growing a traditional garden is considered one of the highest forms of art. The main objective is to emphasise the beauty of nature, even in small gardens, through careful landscaping choices and precise arrangements.

So, as you plan your garden layout, keep in mind that you’re creating a piece of art. Even when you’re not actually in your garden, the view from garden-facing doorways and windows should be beautifully framed.

To emulate Japanese garden design in your own home, it’s helpful to understand at least some of the guiding philosophies followed in Japan. There is also a lot of symbolism used in Japanese gardens, so we’ll look at some examples of that too.

Negative Space – Ma (間)

“Ma” negative space that’s been deliberately left empty. You’ll find ma in Japanese paintings, ikebana (flower arranging) and, of course, gardens. Ma creates harmony and balance, and emphasises the specific things that have been included. In your garden, make sure to leave open space around each feature so that it can be properly appreciated.

A Japanese building with a mossy garden and pebble "stream"

Photo by Pepe Nero

Hide and Reveal – Miegakure (見え隠れ)

As you walk through a Japanese garden, every corner you turn opens up a new scene. This is miegakure – deliberately hiding garden features and then revealing them once the previous scene has been appreciated. Try using trees, bamboo, fences and winding paths to conceal parts of your scenery until guests pass through. This can work particularly well in long gardens, and for creating a romantic atmosphere.

Scaling and Miniaturization

One of the reasons that Japanese garden ideas work so well in small spaces is because traditional designs use scaled-down symbolism. For example, rocks representing mountains, and ponds or water features portraying oceans.

Asymmetry and Irregularity – Fukinsei (不均斉)

In contrast to French and Italian garden design, you won’t find symmetry in Japanese gardens. There is never a singular focal point and, instead, the elements are harmoniously brought together in a way that contrasts their features. For example, vertical-standing fences or rocks might be positioned alongside low hedges or stepping stones.

Borrowed Scenery – Shakkei (借景)

Borrowing scenery means making use of features that are actually outside of your garden – like nearby fields, or a neighbour’s tree. If you can blur the barrier between your garden and the scenery you’re borrowing, your space will immediately seem bigger.

Gateways – Mon (門)

This isn’t a philosophy – “mon” is simply the Japanese word for gate! Gates and thresholds play a big part in Japanese design, both for buildings and gardens. They’re used to emphasise the passage from one space into the next, and are rarely used as a barrier to keep people out. Actually, lots of gates are entirely symbolic and don’t close – or aren’t attached to fences at either side.

Building arches or gates to divide your garden into separate areas can make it feel bigger and more purposeful. Combine them with winding paths to build a sense of anticipation and journey through your landscaping.

Japanese Garden Ideas: Plants and Greenery

When you’re trying to embrace Japanese garden ideas, you have to let go of the western tendency to layer heaps of flowers together into overflowing planters and busy borders. In Japanese gardens, plants are carefully chosen, positioned and pruned to contribute to the overall garden aesthetic.

Green is the dominant colour – although you’ll find lots of subtle variation in colour and texture – and is used to create a sense of calm, tranquility and connection to nature. Trees and flowers are deliberately picked to mark the passing of seasons in a visually spectacular way, or to highlight or hide other garden features.

Ground coverage

One reason there’s so much green in traditional Japanese gardens is because the ground is usually completely covered with foliage (except for the path or stepping stones). Hakone grass (also called Japanese forest grass) is commonly used, but you can grow any ground-covering plant that works for your local climate.

Moss & moss lawns

Although moss lawns fall into the category of “ground coverage”, moss gardens are held in a special kind of regard in Japan that deserves its own section. Another value of Japanese aesthetics that we haven’t yet mentioned is koko (考古), which, among other things, relates to the beauty of weathered things. As a sign that something has been left, untampered with, for a long time, moss is celebrated and encouraged in Japanese gardens. So put down the power washer and leave the lichen alone!

moss covering the archway above a Japanese stick gate

Photo by David Emrich

Flowers and blossom

One of the most striking aspects of the public parks, city foliage and temple gardens in Japan is that, when something is in bloom, it’s all you can see, everywhere. Each flower is given its own time to shine, without competition.

In late February, the stunning ume (Japanese plum) trees are in bloom. Once they start growing leaves, it’s wisteria season. Then, as the wisteria falls, the famous cherry blossoms (sakura) open up, all across the country. Because of this, Japanese gardens are always absolutely gorgeous, and yet there’s still anticipation for the beauty of the next season.

So, when choosing your own flowering plants, pay close attention to when they bloom, and give each flower its own stage, so to speak. Azaleas (spring), iris (summer) and camellia (autumn) are all good choices.

a stone bench beneath a cherry blossom tree

Photo by Joel Neff

Trees

In exactly the same way that flowering plants are chosen for their spring colours, non-flowering, deciduous trees are picked for their autumn displays. If you only have space for one tree in your garden, choose something that turns magnificent shades of yellow, orange and red. Oak, maple, ginkgo, cedar, elm and willow are common in Japan.

Evergreens are popular in Japan too, especially for miegakure – hiding and revealing specific views. Try planting bamboo, conifers, pine trees or Japanese cypress, and prune them to maintain their natural (but defined) structure.

A small, Japanese-inspired garden with decking, box shrubs, pebbles and lanterns

Pruning: Ōkarikomi Style

Ōkarikomi is the art of pruning shrubs and hedges into flowing shapes that imitate liquid. It’s kind of the Japanese equivalent to topiary, except where topiary is about exacting control over nature by forcing it into geometric shapes, ōkarikomi emphasises and exaggerates organic flow.

Japanese Garden Ideas: Structural Materials & Features

As we’ve already seen, Japanese gardens tend to avoid unnecessary ornamentation, and really focus on the natural landscape. When you’re choosing materials for structural elements of your garden design, lean towards rock, stone and wood.

Sourcing aged, reclaimed materials helps you achieve the desirable, ancient patina that is celebrated in Japan, but you’ll also just have to be patient!

Colours in Japanese Gardens

Nature takes the spotlight in the colour schemes of Japanese gardens, so any man-made elements (like decking, paths, gates or furniture) should be in pared-back, neutral tones.

Natural, unfinished wood is incredibly common in Japan, and is a very appropriate material for gates, fences, flooring and walls. You might also see bamboo, rice straw mats (tatami) and paper screens (shōji). All of these materials are usually left in their natural colours (cream, white, off-white, grey) to create a minimalist garden aesthetic. These fabrics would also be left to age and discolour naturally.

Heavier materials, like stone or brick, are rarely used off the ground due to their instability during earthquakes.

Rocks

Rock, gravel and sand are staples of Japanese garden design, and are used in highly symbolic ways. Rocks can represent specific spiritual mountains or land masses, and should be used in contrast with bodies of water.

If you’re using rocks as sculpture, they should vary in size or colour, but not both. Any veins or markings should all flow in the same direction, and the rocks themselves should be firmly embedded in the ground. Arrange them in groups of three, five or seven, and in a way that isn’t too contrived.

Gravel & sand

Gravel and sand can be used for pathways, but also to represent water in dry gardens. Whether you use it to lead guests through the garden or in a specific area, rake it into clean, winding patterns. Japanese gardeners tend to use crushed granite gravel, which is known to hold raked designs well.

Zen gardens

Japanese rock gardens, also called zen gardens, are iconic for their enigmatic yet tranquil nature. They consist of several large rocks, placed in specific ways across the zen garden area. These are surrounded by fine gravel or sand that’s raked in water-like patterns daily to keep it clean and pleasant to look at.

There is a lot of cultural nuance to zen gardens that I can’t get into here, but if you’re interested in creating a rock garden that is as authentic as possible, there’s a lot to read up on!

Tōrō stone lanterns

Japanese stone lanterns are beautiful decorative garden features that also have a connection to spirituality. From the ground up, each section represents earth, water, fire, air and spirit respectively. As with other parts of your garden, stone lanterns should be left to develop moss and lichen.

If you need Japanese garden lighting ideas, having a stone tōrō in the corner of your garden complements the light from chōchin, or paper lanterns, very nicely. You could also use metal lanterns, hanging from an archway or porch, or freestanding wooden lanterns.

Garden bridges

Having a small bridge to cross a pond (or sand-river) is very in-keeping with Japanese garden ideas. It could be made out of stone or wood, usually left untreated and allowed to become weathered. However, in some Japanese gardens, bridges are painted in the bright, cinnabar red that’s associated with spiritual gateways.

Japanese Garden Ideas: Water Features

You will always find water – or something representing water – in a Japanese garden. It’s considered the opposite of rock, so is used to create harmony and balance. There are several ways to incorporate water into your garden design, even if you only have a small space, or a balcony!

Garden ponds

In traditional Japanese gardens, you can expect to find a pond – or even two ponds, connected by a cascade – if the gardens are big enough. Ponds often have koi carp (nishiki-goi), but you could also house goldfish if your pond is quite small!

If you don’t want to keep fish, you can still find ways to attract local wildlife like birds and frogs. Their song and sounds really add to a tranquil, natural ambience – perfect for a Japanese-style garden.

a koi pond in a Japanese style garden

Water bowls

In ceremonial tea gardens, you might spot a water bowl with a wooden ladle. It’s a smaller version of the large stone fountains you’ll find at every shrine or temple in Japan. The idea is that guests wash their hands and take a drink to purify themselves.

To be honest, this… probably won’t work very well in the UK. However, as a kind of homage to this feature – and as a way to incorporate water in a smaller courtyard – you could add a simple water bowl peeking out of your flowerbeds. You could even grow aquatic or amphibious plants inside.

Bamboo fountains

When you’re really short on space, try installing a simple bamboo fountain. In Japan, these are called shishi-odoshi, and are intended to scare away deer or birds (it’s also quite a fun word to say). You can buy various styles of bamboo fountain inexpensively online – Japanese-style ones will have a section of bamboo that fills with water and clatters against stones as it empties, before being refilled.

Rain chains

Rain chains are a decorative alternative to drainpipes, and channel water down from the roof into a drain or container on the ground. We saw lots of them in Kyoto, but didn’t know what they were for until we were caught in a typhoon!

Rain chains come in lots of styles, often made from copper and usually combining lengths of chain with pretty metal cups that have holes in the bottom. If you want a unique rain chain, it’s actually a fairly straightforward DIY project – try it out for yourself!

Enjoying your Japanese Style Garden

As you have probably gathered, your Japanese garden should help you connect with nature and be a place for quiet reflection. After carefully choosing each element that you want to include, and thoughtfully arranging them together, your Japanese inspired garden design should bring you tranquility.

Enjoy a cup of tea, try some gentle yoga or tai chi, and relax in the ambience of your outdoor space.

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