Common Designs and ‘Signatures’ of a Japanese garden

Posted on Updated on

The signature characteristic of a Japanese Karesansui or Zen garden is that it is very simple in its design and layout, almost informal.

They always look tidy and pristine, suitably immaculate. Less is more in the world of the Japanese garden, as opposed to more traditional western gardens where people tend to try and fill every available space.

Japanese gardens can be small, medium size or in some cases very large such as strolling gardens.

A Strolling Garden -in Seattle

Designing A Japanese Garden

The blending of elements is the cornerstone of Japanese gardens. These elements are:

  1. Sand
  2. Rocks
  3. Water
  4. Ornaments (lanterns, bamboo fences, bridges, stepping stones etc)
  5. Natural plants and shrubs
  6. Surroundings

Designing a Japanese garden has to take on board 3 basic principles, reduced scale (smaller than regular gardens in every way), Symbolization– perhaps an expression of religion such as Buddhism or Shinto beliefs , and, something called borrowed view or scenery –  (Shakkei) in Japanese.

Small Japanese gardens represent well known scenes and the use of confined spaces. For example mountains and streams can be replicated in miniaturised form using rocks, stones, gravel and sand.

Symbolization is present in nearly every Japanese garden. Raked sand or even gravel can symbolise rivers or ponds- it is not unusual for a Japanese garden to sometimes have no water but uses those elements to create a similar effect. Rocks and stones can be used to symbolize islands.

Borrowed view/ scenery or Shakkei is the art of using natural surroundings and existing scenery and plants to supplement and compliment the garden. Often gardens are designed specifically using surroundings that occur naturally. ‘Borrowed View’ will mimic real life landscapes but on a much smaller scale.

A Japanese garden makes artistic use of sand, ponds, flowing water, rocks and artificial hills. These hills can vary greatly in dry gardens such as Zen gardens (Karesansui).

Japanese Garden History

Japanese gardens all share the same history. They have evolved over the last 1500 years or so originating in China as well as by people visiting Japan from the Korean peninsula.

You will come across gardens with lakes or ponds populated by mini islands, there will be gardens that are totally tree and shrub less that look like mini landscapes. Strolling gardens are very popular around the world and they are designed for what their name suggests with the designer offering completely different views of the garden from specific spots for viewing.

Some have Tea house, fishing pavilions.

Others are small to utilise limited space.(so called ‘Zen Gardens‘ are very common on a small scale)

Shinjuku National Garden

You will also notice Western influence in more modern Japanese gardens with the use of lawned areas and scale spaces. A good example of this is Tokyo’s Shinjuku National garden.

The art of Japanese gardens is truly fascinating and once you understand what is behind them and why you will appreciate them for what they are- unique, tranquil havens of beauty and peace.

Tom learn how you could easily create your own Japanese garden space at home visit

Japanese Gardens Around The World

Posted on Updated on


Thanks for reading my Japanese gardens blog once again. today I am continuing with the list and indeed some suggestions for Japanese gardens to see around the world.  In Canada a very famous garden is located at the Nitobe Memorial Garden in Vancouver in British

In the United Kingdom try the following:

Dartington Hall in Devon

Harewood House in Leeds

Holland Park in London

Tatton Park in Cheshire

Plus there is an interesting one at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

I am about to release full details of ‘Peaceland’ Japanese garden that is located in the central UK, I have extensive photo’s and details thanks to a reader of this Blog, Steve. Please feel free to reccomend Japanese gardens to me from all over the world so I can share it with my readers. Any photo’s you have taken would be much appreciated to share with readers.

In Ireland there is a beautiful Japanese garden at the Irish National Stud in Kildare, Co Kildare.

Scotland has a fine example, that was opened in 2002 , at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh.

Finally, some Japanese garden reccomendations for Austraila.

Australia~ The Cowra Japanese garden in Cowra, New South Wales. It’s a strolling garden with great use of Lanterns, see the Upper lake if you visit it.

Tomorrow I will be posting Japanese Gardens in the United States of America, South America and maybe some hidden gems that you are aware of! Please e mail me with your thoughts and information as well as any questions that you may have.

To learn more that  about JAPANESE GARDENS and to get inspired to create your own CLICK HERE


Talk to you tomorrow.

Famous Japanese Gardens Around The World

Posted on Updated on

I have recieved a couple of e mails requesting information about famous Japanese gardens around the world so in the next few posts I will give you what I hope is some useful information.

japan water gdn

Perhaps it’s only logical that I will start in Japan! so here goes:

Hamarikyu gardens in Tokyo

Kairaku-en in Mito in Ibaraki

Hosokawa Gyobu-tei in Kumamoto

Kinuta park in Tokyo

Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Ishikawa

Kokyo Higashi Gyoen- this is more popularly known as the East Garden of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

Koishikawa Korakuen Garden in Tokyo

Koraku-ei in Okayama, Okayama

Ryoan-ji in Tokyo

Saiho-ji- The Moss Temple in Kyoto

Sankei-ei in Yokohama

Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo

Urakuen Tea Garden in Inuyama, Aichi

Ueno Park in Tokyo

Shugaku- Imperial villa Tokyo

The grounds ans surrounding area of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Tomorrow I will give you information about Japanese gardens in South america, the USA, Canada and Australia.

For more information about everything that you need to know on the subject of Japanese Gardens and how to create your own beautiful calming and serene Japanese garden space at home CLICK HERE

Stones In Japanese Gardens – Groupings, Good Stones & Bad Stones

Posted on

Stones and rocks are essential elements to every kind of Zen Garden and are symbolic representations of real or mythical land forms, while this is not their only role. They can also be used as stepping stones, paths, groupings, central stones, and many other types.

The first Stone Grouping to be introduced into Japanese gardens was the ‘Shumisen’ – a collection of stones representing where the Buddha lives (this is placed in the centre of the garden) along with his disciples which are the smaller stones around the Buddha.

Centralized traditional Stone Groupings can essentially be called:
a. The “Buddha Stone” (Mida Buhtsu)
b. The “Goddess Stone” (Kwannon)
c. The “Child’s Stone” (Seishi)

Yet there are 5 basic types of stone groupings that bear a name, purpose and meaning in Japanese Zen Gardens. These stones and rocks can be used in many combinations.

Positive stones are:

1. The “Soul Stone” (Reishoseki), which is low and vertical.
2. The “Body Stone” (Taidoseki), which is tall and vertical and always represents a God or person.
3. The “Heart Stone” (Shintaiseki) or “Flat Stone” which is flat, as the name implies, and is used as a central stone.
4. The “Branching Stone” (Shigyoseki) or “Arching Stone” which has a wider top than base and connects other stones together.
5. The “Ox Stone” (Kikyakuseki) or “Reclining Stone” which is always used in conjunction with the Branching Stone.

Negative or bad stones are:

1. “Diseased Stones”, which are stones that are withered or have a misshapen top.
2.  A “Dead Stone”, which is a stone that is a vertical stone used as a horizontal one and vice versa.
3. “Pauper Stones”, which are unaffiliated or unconnected to other stones in the garden.

Stones that should NOT be placed in Zen Gardens, as they may affect the Feng Shui element of the garden, are those that are cut, broken or de-formed.

Stones moreover shouldn’t be placed at right angles to buildings along their axial line and should not be placed near verandas, as this also disrupts the Feng Shui.

Japanese philosophy reasons that everything OLD has a value. This applies to when you are making a Japanese Zen garden. Boulders and Stones overgrown with moss, old trees, stone arrangements are all examples of this mantra.

If you would like to learn more about creating a Japanese garden or a Zen style garden for mindfulness and relaxation take a look at our new Japanese garden package specifically to help you imagine and create your garden.

You can see what it consists of by CLICKING HERE

4 Japanese Garden Elements That Make All the Difference

Posted on

In this post you have lots of information on 4 key elements that make up a Japanese garden.

If you are interested in creating a Japanese garden these things will really enhance your design and give your garden a real sense of authenticity as well as a calm and atress free environment!

Natural Plants

In some Japanese gardens, the form of plantings is considered much more important than bright colours. In Kyoto the Shoden-Ji Garden has replaced rocks with mounds of pruned and clipped Azaleas, which rarely flower because of their constant shaping within the garden.

This is in itself an art form but you should be aware that if you choose to include plants,trees or shrubs there will be an element of regular care.

Azalea’s come in many colours to add lovely colour to a Japanese garden

The flowers and plants chosen to accompany a Zen Garden should be suitable for the climate that the garden is subject to.

The available landscape within the garden space should also be estimated and taken into consideration. Additionally, planting soil will also have to match the plants requirements.

A small amount of gravel or sand at the bottom of the planting hole will assist with the correct drainage.

One thing that you may have noticed about Zen or ‘Dry’ gardens is the topiary involved.

This is not as daunting as it may first seem. For example, carefully clipped Azaleas placed together with surrounding gravel or sand would make an attractive “distant view” of a range of hills if placed correctly.

Smaller plants will take a much longer time to grow so a good idea to achieve swifter results is to buy slightly larger plants .Different sizes and shapes mean visual variation and add to the natural appearance of the garden.


Ornaments are often used to decorate Zen Gardens usually in the form of lanterns and statues (mainly Buddha representations).

Lanterns essentially offer Yang to reduce the dominance of Yin. These two polarities united serve as the perfect state of harmony. Yang balances Yin and vice versa. Yang, in this case the lantern element, becomes the white circle in the black; the fire to shield from the cold; the life to enlighten and vitalise from the dark. It offers the perfect essence of a Yang in a Yin environment.

The lantern represents the gardens realisation of time, night and day, year after year.

It transcends time and its physical structure and design perfectly attune to the climate of Japan by offering a hood for the snow and ice and a roof and walls to protect a candles flame.

The lantern can sit beside a pond, in the pond, within a corner of the garden, alongside a pathway. It’s best not located where the “sha” (detrimental) energy can extinguish it e.g., exposed on a hill in a gully or swamp, where the constant damp will extinguish the flame, or if used in a low place lifted above it on a pedestal to become a beacon similar to a lighthouse on a seashore guiding ships at sea.


Buddha’s in Zen gardens are popular elements, as Japanese gardening has a close association with Buddhism.

In a Japanese garden the soil represents the fertile mind of Buddha and our own internal Karma.

Planting is interpreted as blossoming ideas from fertility.

Paths signify the way to enlightenment. Zen Buddhism teaches that making a garden encourages contentment and enlightenment. This is the reason that in more recent times within the context of Japanese garden history, gardening is considered a spiritual and religious activity.

The general rules of thumb for placing Buddha statues in a Zen garden (or a Japanese garden) is facing north. South facing is not recommended as it is related to Yama a Hindu god and select in the dead. The Buddah statue is usually placed in a Lotus pool.


Moss may not always be included in a Zen Garden, yet quite a few seem to embrace its use.

Grasses, perennial plants, bamboo and ivy will usually accompany moss, forming a stunning motif of contrasting earthy colours.

The Silver Temple in Kyoto is a stunning example of a mossy Zen Garden.

The western part of Kyoto is also filled with moss-adorned gardens, the most striking of all being the Saiboji Temple or “Moss Temple”. Ninety different types of mosses are incorporated in the garden!

Moss, however, is generally difficult to cultivate and comes in various forms and sizes. It requires far less maintenance than grasses but is very particular on where it likes to grow; areas populated with weeds and general debris like decaying leaves are simply out of the question, as they interfere with its growth.

Shaded and semi-shaded areas of a garden space on the other hand are best because they retain moisture for most varieties of moss.

Moss is resilient to both cold and damp weather, as it exploits any nutrients that may surround it. These nutrients are usually absorbed through its leaves, which simultaneously absorb moisture – this is the reason they cannot be covered for growth.

Types of Moss:

Rock Cap Moss (Dicranum): This type of moss loves deeply shaded areas and is perfect for stones and rocks in a Zen Garden.

– Cushion Moss (Leukobryum Glacum): This variety has a slight sun tolerance but requires a predominantly sandy soil. It is usually light green in colour with silvery flecks.

Hair Cap Moss (Polythirchum Commune): This kind grows in a medium-shaded area and can be placed in partial sunlight. It loves sandy and acidic soil.

Hair Cap Moss – there are over 70 different varieties!

Moss can be transplanted to your garden and encouraged to grow, but be solicitous in choosing the appropriate type to suit your garden.

Moss is estimated to be hundreds of millions of years old as a species and knows what it wants and can stop growing when conditions are not favourable. Simply restart its growth when things take a turn for the better.

A little tip for fresh, relatively quick-growing moss is to coat your stones with “clean” natural yoghurt and watch them over a relatively short space of time turn green.

Moss tends to grow abundantly in the right habitat and all that is required on your behalf is to provide moisture and patience.


There you are four elements to consider for making a Japanese garden – there are more options but most Japanese gardens feature one or more of these ingredients.

If you are looking for more detailed knowledge and help about Japanese gardens and Zen gardens then the good news is that we have put together a package that wil;l tell you everything you need to know to get started.

It includes books, audio interviews, plans and some great Japanese garden ideas and you can find out about it by CLICKING HERE


The Meaning Of Japanese ‘Zen’ Gardens Made Simple

Posted on

The Meaning of Zen Gardens

I’m often asked ‘What Is A Zen Garden and What Does It Mean?’

There are Zen gardens that are ‘true’ to Japanese history and culture and there are Westernised versions that maintian a lot of the design principles – this garden is an example of such a garden.

Yes! you can do something similar to this! More on that later…

Well,the beauty of Zen Gardens has transcended through a consequence of eras and is still part of, not only Japanese, but our universal culture today.

It has adapted to multiple styles and interpretations, evolving throughout the ages. But what is the core meaning of Zen Gardens? What do they symbolize and represent? And what are those elements that distinguish a Zen Garden from an average garden?

Zen Garden Principles

Simplicity is the word that captures all the essence of a Zen Garden’s design.

While average Western gardens tend to be packed with adornments until no further space is available, a Zen Garden evokes a constant tribute to minimalism. Less is, after all, more in the Japanese culture.

Tidiness,precision and an informal, natural character are also what make a Zen Garden true to its cause.

The rules of Zen gardens state that the top two requirements are purity and minimalism (restraint); no single feature should dominate the garden, it is though a personal decision as to whether you wish to have a Zen garden or stretch this mantra and have a garden of Zen influence.

Early Japanese gardens imitated natural landscapes and took inspiration from Japanese landscape painters who had a very strong influence over garden design in the late 14th and early 15th century.

The Seven Aspects of Zen

As far back as the 13th century the seven aspects of Zen were determined and defined as follows:

1) Nature and naturalness
2) Simplicity
3) Asymmetry
4) Minimalist sublimity
5) Tranquillity
6) Subtle profoundness
7) Freedom from attachment

Extravagantly decorated Western gardens can appear cluttered to look at but with a minimal Zen Garden the actual art-form aims to not over-stimulate the mind; essentially, the Zen Garden is there to output peace and serenity while evoking tranquil contemplation.

A Zen Garden should be planned with the “spirit” of Zen in mind. The setting should be quiet and peaceful, bright colours should be avoided and landscaping and planting should be kept to a minimum.


Zen Garden Design

Three basic principles apply to a Zen Garden’s design and you should take inspiration and bear these in mind when creating one:

1. Reduced Scale
2. Symbolization
3. Shakkei(“Borrowed Scenery”)

Reduced Scale is one of the key principles of making a Zen Garden.

The size of a regular garden would be reduced to basically a miniature, as Zen Gardens aim to represent and symbolize nature minimally, not over-accentuate it.

This is the very reason that you may have seen table top Zen gardens right the way through to gardens that occupy a large outdoor space. Even a large garden can be an accurate miniaturisation of a real landscape.

Symbolization is another focal element of Zen Garden design and is what makes these gardens so unique.

Zen Gardens, though once symbolizing imaginary realms, now basically represent natural scenery in confined spaces.

Mountains and islands are replicated with the use of rocks and streams and rivers are imitated with the use of raked sand, when water is not present. Representing nature and depicting its elements via basic, minimal structures is what all Zen Gardens symbolize.

Shakkei or “Borrowed Scenery” is a term first presented in the Sakuteiki during the Heian Era and is the art of incorporating natural existing backgrounds to supplement and compliment the garden.

“Borrowed Scenery”, giving justice to its name, uses the surrounding plants and scenery to mimic real-life landscapes but on a much smaller, confined scale.

And that for many is the attraction of a Japanese Zen garden also known in Japanese as ‘Karesansui’ or dry water – the sand, gravel and rocks symbolise an expanse of water with land masses.

As I’m sure that you know the raking of sand or gravel symbolises the movement of a body of water. Japanese garden practitioners develop this skill with a lot of practise and of course training but the results are often as stunning as meaningful.

Creating a Japanese garden will give you a real project with spectacular results. Don’t rush it, plan out your garden, find a suitable space and then start creating and adding the elements.

Imagine a peaceful haven at home in a stressful and some would say crazy world – your answer is a Japanese garden!

For more help on getting started and lots of tips and ideas for creating a Japanese garden see our latest help available by CLICKING HERE


Japanese Garden History – Zen Gardens

Posted on

Whether you’re aware of what a Zen Garden is or not, you have most likely seen one – a tranquil harmonious place with rocks, sand or gravel and manicured plants and shrubs is probably the most renowned imagery of a Zen Garden.

These picturesque gardens, ideal for meditating or simply viewing, are seen enwreathing most religious edifices in Japan, like the famous Buddhist temples in Kyoto.

Zen Gardens are characterized as such because of the calmness they invoke, which is what makes them ideal for meditation, reflection and relaxation. Inspired initially by Buddhism and Chinese culture, the word ZEN would be written on soil and sand, which is the root and inspiration of Zen Gardens.

But a Zen Garden should have more than one meaning for the viewer.

As the Japanese say, “the mind is flexible if we practice flexibility”, thus each garden bears its own interpretation.

But before we elaborate on what a Zen Garden is, means and what comprises it, let’s first take a journey to the past and unearth the roots and derivation of these beautiful gardens.

Each period marks its own significant point in the rise, enhancement and adaptation of Zen Gardens in the Japanese culture. These periods are:
The Han Dynasty
The Asuka Era
The Nara Era
The Heian Era
The Kamakura Era

The Han Dynasty

Although the aspect of Zen Gardens is associated with Japan, it is historically accepted as being a tradition imported from China during what is known as the Han Dynasty (206 – 220 BCE).

This recreation, which was more of a philosophy, was adopted by the Japanese and enhanced to their culture. This is why Japanese gardens exemplify a “lighter” version of Chinese ones and generally follow fewer aesthetic rules and design guidelines in the creation process.

The first Zen Garden was created by Chinese Emperor Wu Di, who lived from 140-87 BCE.

This garden depicted three small islands and it eventually became a custom to use rocks and greenery in order to form island-like motifs and mimic nature. These particular islands were meant to represent the Isles of the Immortals or Taoist gods, a trend that would be replicated throughout the years.

However, the aspects represented in the gardens of the Han Dynasty period were based on imaginary places, godly realms and mythological landscapes.

This imitation of imaginary places went on until the early 600s AD, when the first nature-inspired hill and pond garden was created in Japan by Chinese Emperor Yang Di, who enjoyed good relations with the country.

The Emperor’s overtures were enticing enough for the Japanese to send their own envoy to China – a man called Ono no Imoko. Imoko who immersed himself in Chinese culture and upon his return to Japan brought all that he had learnt with him, including the art of gardening and Buddhism.


The Asuka Era

During the Asuka period (estimated at 538-710 AD) a new philosophy and religion began to emerge, known as Shinto.

Shinto, meaning “Way of the Gods” in Chinese, was a religion that looked upon nature as a god(s), which is what led to the open worship of certain types of rocks and trees.

When a certain “deity” rock was used, sealed by a rice straw rope, in order to indicate an area as being sacred, then that was basically a Zen Garden of the Asuka Era.

The Japanese word niwa was a term often used to determine the holy piece of land around a stone or tree, a dominant aspect of Shinto Zen gardening, particularly between 552-646 AD.

The Nara Era

The Nara Era (710-794 AD) accentuates the blend of Chinese and Japanese culture, Chinese-influenced garden architecture being one of many examples.

A strong characteristic of gardens during this period were the Shinden, which revolved around the element of walkways; paths that connected buildings to each other, with stones and shrubs complimenting the buildings themselves.

Shinden gardens would usually adorn royal edifices or temples and shrines.

With teachings like Buddhism and Shinto broadly introduced to the Japanese culture, the gardens fashioned in this period would be looked upon as depictions of the cosmos.

A large stone would be placed in the centre of them in order to indicate the home of the Buddha and the centre of the universe.

Encircling that stone, smaller ones would be placed in representation of the Buddha’s disciples.

The Heian Era

From 794 to 1185AD, otherwise known as the Heian Era, the Japanese culture was defined by elegance and luxury.

This period of opulence in Japan was in which gardens too developed a more luxurious feel to them and were thus usually the domains of wealthier people.

Zen Gardens suddenly became status symbols indicating wealth and reputation. These rich land-owners were expected to be connoisseurs of Zen Gardens according to the newly developed rules.

It is in the Heian period that we see boats floating upon garden ponds, another advantage that applied to the owners of these lavish gardens. These gardens were specifically known as Chisen Shuyu Teien, translating as “Pond-spring boating gardens” in English.


Ponds would essentially be the epicentre of such a garden as well as the spot from which one would view the garden as a whole.

Taking a tranquil boat-ride through the pond was the traditional way of viewing the garden and a method of entertaining guests.

What we refer to today as Modern Japanese Gardening actually stems from the Heian Era.

‘Sakuteiki’, the first book ever written on Japanese gardening and that dates back to the 11th century, was written by Tachibana Toshitsuna, whose father Fujiwara Yorimichi ruled Japan for nearly half a century and was also the renowned builder of the Byōdō-in in Kyoto.

The Sakuteiki, or “Book of Gardens”, indicated the starting point of Japanese gardening and was also the book that freed designers from the constraints of Chinese-influenced gardening in Japan, which was strictly based on Feng Shui principles and geometric rules.

What the Sakuteiki recommended was a breakthrough in this rule, suggesting that the garden designer should use the placement of stones as their number one priority.

The Kamakura Era

The Kamakura Era ran between 1185-1392 and was a period of great change in Japanese garden design due to the Zen influence.

The new Shogun and his Samurai had embraced the Zen religion, thus influencing the role and purpose of Japanese gardens, which evolved into meditational grounds.

This is where the label “Zen Gardens” firstly and officially applies.

Now that the gardens were enhanced for religious purposes, the designers behind them would largely be priests and sometimes even designers with religious affiliations.

The priests were known as Ishitateso (rock setting priests) and were younger, lesser-ranked priests; elders would consider such work as beneath them.

One of the leading garden designers during the Kamakura Era was Muso Soseki (1275-1351), also known as the forefather of “Borrowed Scenery”.

Soseki designed the gardens in such a way, that the visitor would actually walk around the garden to view it as opposed to sitting in a boat or looking from a building.

The idea was that the visitor would think about the changing views of the garden as they moved around it. Soseki’s design principle, also called “Hide and Reveal” in Japanese, is evident in some Japanese garden designs to this day.

The history of Japanese gardens is as ancient as it is fascinating and this of course is a big attraction for people who respect their simplicity and beauty.

If you are thinking about Or would like to know more about how to create a Japanese garden of your own then we have plenty of help for you take a look by CLICKING HERE