Elements of Japanese garden design

There are four essential elements (rocks, water, plants, and ornament) and five garden design principles (asymmetry, enclosure, borrowed scenery, balance, and symbolism) in a Japanese garden. Here’s how these elements and garden design principles work together.

Asymmetry – All Japanese gardens have asymmetrical garden design. Why? Because there are no straight lines or geometric shapes in natural landscapes, only curves. Balance - These principles will work together to create the proper balance in your Japanese garden.

Borrowed scenery – Japanese gardens like to “borrow scenery” from either nature or the neighbours. The side of a mountain, an old tree, or a temple are examples of “borrowed scenery” that can form a great backdrop to the garden’s landscaping. The garden enhances the background scenery; it doesn’t try to hide or mask it.

Contemplation – Grounded in Taoist, Buddhist, and Shinto philosophies, all Japanese gardens are meant for contemplation. They are meant to be admired, but not entered.

Enclosure – Many Japanese gardens are meant to be viewed from the inside of a building or a house. A large window acts as a picture frame, framing the view. Many residential gardens are placed in a central courtyard, to be viewed and contemplated from a number of different angles.

Nature – The more a Japanese garden emulates nature, the more conducive it is to contemplation. A natural look does not mean low maintenance. All Japanese gardens are actually the opposite: gravel must be raked daily with no leaf debris, trees and shrubs must be meticulously pruned, and even moss is swept daily. Japanese garden designers are considered more as artists than gardeners.

Paths – In strolling gardens, paths of gravel, sand, or stepping stones take the visitor on a journey of planned vistas to enjoy.

Plants – When it comes to plants, Japanese garden design favours mostly the green palette in different shapes, sizes, and textures: trees, flowering shrubs (azaleas are popular and take well to lots or pruning), lawns, ferns, and mosses are preferred. Flowering trees, like plums and cherries, are prized for their open branch work in winter as well as stunning spring flower displays. Pine trees are greatly valued and typically cloud-pruned. Bamboo, a symbol of good fortune, is also a favourite.

Ornament - Stone water basins, accompanied with a bamboo dipper, are part of ritual cleansing in the garden, especially before a tea ceremony. Water basins are frequently paired with carefully positioned Japanese lanterns.

Rocks – Large rocks are valued and worshiped as kami, or sacred spirits, according to Shinto philosophy.

Symbolism – Large rocks are stand-ins for hills, mountains, and islands. Striations are valued in large rocks and become stand-ins for waterfalls when positioned upright. Dry gardens are made entirely of stones, with gravel or sand being raked to simulate ocean waves or rough seas. The black pine, Japanese maples, and plum trees are all symbols of strength and endurance in Japanese garden design.

Water – Ponds, representing real or mythical lakes or seas, are a central element of many Japanese gardens. Small ponds are homes for koi fish, while large ponds can serve for boating and star-gazing at night. More at Japan Guide.

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