Japanese style gardens

Overview of a japanese garden that has trees around the pond
ARTICLE Patricia Moore 

The modern Japanese garden embodies nature in a way that can act as a kind of balm - a restorative for the mind, says Shunmyo Masuno, Zen priest and leading Japanese garden designer.

“It is a space that provides the means for the mind to become acutely sensitive to the simple, small matters that are often blanketed by daily life.”

Originally designed to soothe the minds of Japan’s ruling class, versions of these centuries old gardens are now found far from the temples and palaces where they began - the Japanese Garden Journal lists ‘more than 300 fine Japanese Gardens outside Japan’. In the UK, gardens such as Tatton Park in Cheshire and the Kyoto Garden in London’s Holland Park draw visitors from around the world, and in Australia, Cowra Japanese Garden and the Melbourne Zoo Japanese Garden are among those highlighted by the Journal.

Japanese Garden with pink cherry tree flowers by a pond in Kyoto, Japan

Popular Japanese-style gardens worth looking at in New Zealand include the: Japanese Garden of Contemplation at the Hamilton Gardens and the private garden Ngamamaku.

Many significant Japanese gardens are located in botanic gardens, universities and museums, but the same elements that form their design are being used by today’s home-owners to create gardens in the Japanese style that offer a serene escape from their busy lives.

The traditional Japanese garden incorporates three basic principles: reduced scale, whereby landscapes are miniaturised; symbolisation with stones and rocks grouped to represent features such as mountains and islands; and raked sand and gravel symbolising rivers, and borrowed view, using existing scenery and plants.

There are no even numbers or straight lines and creating a balance between the essential elements of rocks, water and plants is important. There are also several different styles including tea gardens, waterless rock gardens, moss, courtyard, and strolling gardens. 

The elements of the traditional Japanese garden can be used in a number of ways in today’s gardens, says Zones landscaping designer Nichola Vague, who worked with the Japanese designers on the installation of the Japanese garden in Waitakere City – a gift from the City’s sister city of Kakogawa.

Aesthetic arrangement of a small Japanese style garden with stone details

“Zen gardens, such as Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji Zen temple, are enjoyed not only for their spiritual meaning but for their beauty and craftsmanship. These elements can easily be translated into a contemporary courtyard. Create places that invite calm and contemplation using water and planting to exclude external noise. Place a seat where it overlooks the view and perhaps use the borrowed landscape of  neighbouring properties to create a backdrop. Create a journey within the garden that invites exploration and, where water use is an issue, consider a gravel garden”.

Although flowers in a Japanese garden are traditionally chosen to highlight the green in the space, for Zones landscape architect Rachael Farthing thinking Japanese gardens immediately conjures up images of draping maples and cherry blossoms. “Japanese-style brings a different plant palette to traditional Kiwi gardens. In many modern Japanese gardens planting is used to enhance the lines of the design; canopies of maples under-planted with dainty groundcovers. Simple but effective aesthetically, and easy to maintain – always a major plus!”

Indeed, when the aim of creating a Japanese-style garden is to create a space of Zen, the less complicated the planting, the more soothing the space will be.

Japanese garden with bamboos and a stone lantern

Creating a Japanese style garden 

Avoid straight lines and symmetry; Japanese-style gardens are organic and uncluttered. Aim for a simple, natural structure. Plan the garden by looking from inside the house out. This can dictate where the focal points should be.

Ensure the paths meander and lead to a particular point in the garden such as a seat.

Select plants for their foliage rather than their flowers; explore the possibilities of topiary and cloud pruning.

If a water feature is part of the design, include stepping stones. If space is limited water feeding into a stone basin creates a soothing ambience. Highlight with planting and a traditional toro lamp.

Be sparing when incorporating structures and pieces of art in the space. While they add interest they can detract from the simplicity of the design.

You might be interested in other garden styles. Have a look at French style gardens. 

This article by Patricia Moore featured on page 94 of Issue 021 of Renovate Magazine. New Zealand's first and only magazine solely dedicated to home renovations.

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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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