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Japanese Garden Design: Home

Rokuon-ji Temple Garden in Kyoto; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Thinboyfatter
Rokuon-ji Temple Garden in Kyoto; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Thinboyfatter

To understand something of the essence of Japanese gardening, it is important to remember the topography of Japan. Japan is a misty island that is covered with mountains. It is also densely populated; space is at a premium.

Japanese gardening looks to nature - the island's majestic natural surroundings - and brings it into a small enclosed space, a private sanctuary. Images from untamed wilderness are taken in and replicated in a controlled manner in the garden.

Scenes are cleverly crafted, with highly sculpted or tightly sheared plants that suggest windswept trees or rolling hillsides. Stones are strategically placed to represent islands and craggy mountaintops. Gravel is carefully raked to simulate the sea.

In Japan, the garden is seen as a place where art and nature combine. The dry garden of Daisen-in was built in the era when Japanese monochrome paintings were in fashion. The garden takes the style from the painting and translates it into a pictorial composition of plants and stones.

Japanese gardens employ several concepts to create garden pictorial visions in small spaces. One is the concept of reductionism or simplification. This is about reducing your working material and uncluttering your space to create the impression of a much larger area.

For example, a few carefully selected plants and a stream can create the sense of a woodland setting. A small slope can be transformed into a mountainside and strategically placed rocks and tightly sheared shrubs can become an archipelago when surrounded by gravel.

The manipulation of space and perspective is critical in Japanese gardens. There are three design planes: the view immediately before the onlooker (foreground), the middle of the garden and the borrowed landscape (background).

These three layers give a sense of perspective and space. Often a branch of a tree extends past the view from the window. This not only gives a sense of intimacy and a close-up, detailed view of the garden from inside, but it also creates an optical illusion. In contrast to the large object in the foreground (e.g. tree branch), the objects in the middle of the garden will look as if they are off in the distance.

Cloud pruning features the trunk and the  shape of the tree as much as the foliage; courtesy of Flickr cc; Brett Chalupa
Cloud pruning features the trunk and the shape of the tree as much as the foliage; courtesy of Flickr cc/ Brett Chalupa

There are many tricks to creating a sense of distance in the garden. Bold textures or dark colors can be placed in the foreground and fine textures or hazy colors in the background to attain the same effect. Having paths and streams taper off into the distance will make them appear much longer than they actually are.

Interrupting a scene is another way of creating space and depth in a garden. Obscuring the middle ground with a rock or low mounding plants breaks up the view from the fore to the background, creating a sense that the space is much larger than its actual size.

Obscuring views adds depth to the garden. Meandering paths that curve and zigzag through the garden creates a sense of mystery and movement. Larger walking stones are places to rest, where the visitor's gaze is directed to certain scenes and smaller walking stones move them forward to the next view. These winding paths add character, turning a stroll into a journey that is only partially revealed.

The curves in Japanese gardens are enhanced and accentuated by gnarled tree trunks. Specimen trees are carefully pruned to emulate aging windswept counterparts found in nature. Often pines are used: the Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii) or alternatively the shore pine (Pinus contorta) and the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris). These pines have naturally interesting, irregular shapes.

Specimens are trained to form s-shaped trunks, cascading branches and rounded, umbrella-shaped tops. Cloud pruning gives an open appearance that features the trunk and the form of the tree as much as the foliage. These specimens give the garden a sense of timelessness. Japanese maples and flowering cherries are also celebrated in the garden. These specimens naturally have interesting shapes, the Japanese maples have sensational fall color and the cherries color the landscape in the spring.

Japanese gardening tends to have more horizontal lines in its composition than vertical. This aesthetic is calm and expansive. Vertical elements add tension and energy to the design, while diagonal lines add movement. These different trajectories are also used effectively in stone formations in gardens. Since Japanese gardens are often uncluttered, the lines of the composition are striking and easy to see.

There are many different styles of Japanese gardens.The well-known styles are the gravel or Zen gardens, hill gardens, tea gardens and stroll gardens. The gravel or dry gardens were developed in monasteries in the 14th century. The design mimicked coastal scenes. Carefully placed stones were embellished with minimalist planting to represent islands and mountains. Artistically raked gravel represented the sea. It was a space for contemplation (to view and not to walk in), a way of looking out into life and the natural world.

Hill gardens are very picturesque. Part of the garden is set on a slope. Often a waterfall or a stream tumbles down the slope. Shrubs and stones are integrated to create the image of a mountainside or a woodland area. Azaleas are planted in clusters. They are often sheared tightly to form undulating masses of green. Plants that are not tightly sheared produce large swaths of colors in the spring. These gardens are more about form and texture than color.

Tea gardens were created in the early 17th century as a response to the notion that Japanese society had become too opulent. These gardens were constructed with simple materials. The visitor follows a winding, stepping-stone path to the tea house. Lanterns light the way and there is a simple stone basin for rinsing hands. The planting is restful, simple and subdued with ferns, grasses and small shrubs. There is a sense of remoteness and a trip down the proverbial garden path is both a philosophical and spiritual journey.

As the name suggests, the stroll garden is a larger space that is used for recreation, with an open and looser style. A pond is often the main feature. The stroll garden retains many of the components of other styles: lanterns, bamboo groves, water features, bridges and winding paths that guide you along your journey.

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