THE TRADITIONAL JAPANESE GARDEN
AN INTRODUCTION by Dr. Koichi Kawana
(Sumi-E Ink Painting by Haruko)
Japanese Garden combines characteristics
which have been developed over many
centuries and which reflect the differing
influences prevailing during particular
periods of history. Some persons who
have visited many such gardens deny
the existence of a "typical traditional
Japanese garden" claiming that
the gardens they have seen differ
greatly one from another. However,
this is comparable to stating that
an"'average Japanese" does
not exist because each Japanese is
so different. Just as most Japanese
share characteristics which can be
identified, so it is possible in most
cases to identify a traditional Japanese
garden by analyzing its general appearance
and savoring its atmosphere.
should be noted that, until this century,
such gardens were seldom, if ever
opened to the public. They were built
by the ruling elite to meet their
personal requirements or as temples
to create in their surroundings a
mood appropriate to worship and contemplation.
Shugaku-in, one of the largest gardens
in Kyoto, was built for a retired
emperor so that he might spend his
remaining years in tranquility. The
garden of the Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji
was created for the Shogun Ashihaga
Yashimasa in order that he might escape
the maddening conflicts and violence
taking place in the capital nearby.
Japan's greatest general hoped to
earn merit by initiating the building
of the famous garden on the Ratsuna
Detached Palace for the son of the
Gardens or niwa provided
a means of achieving the peace of
mind for which rulers so desperately
sought during the periods of strife
and conflict which marked much of
Japan's history. In its origin the
garden was representative of utopia
or, more often, a paradise of Buddha.
Both were Chinese concepts. The first,
brought to Japan in the sixth century,
was the product of China's ancient
mythology. The other gained credence
as Buddhism came to influence all
sectors of Japanese life. Indigenous
factors, such as Japan's insularity,
also had an impact on the development
The character of most of today's famous
gardens owe much of their development
to the influence of Zen Buddhism which
was brought from China in the thirteenth
century and became a major influence
in Japan in the two following centuries.
A real appreciation and understanding
of the traditional Japanese garden
is complex and difficult. The visual
entities which may appear as a design
in the Western sense of forms, textures,
and colors are less important than
the invisible philosophical, religious,
and symbolic elements. This is shown
clearly when we examine the derivation
and importance of the key elements
present, in some form, in almost every
Japanese garden. These elements include
water, islands of stones, plants,
and garden accessories.
Japan is a group of islands surrounded
by oceans and seas. From ancient times,
the Japanese people had an affinity
for the sea. Water as a design element
in the garden is crucial. One of the
most popular styles of garden is called
chisen, in which a pond or lake occupies
the most significant portion of the
garden. Water's importance is not
as a substance but as a symbol and
expression of the sea. Even the quantity
of water present is unimportant. If
space is a problem, one is supposed
to be able to enjoy the tranquility
of the sea in contemplation of a bucketful
of water contained in a stone water
The presence of water itself is not
required. In the dry garden of karesansui
style, the sea is symbolized by grey
gravel or sand and the state of the
sea is expressed by sand patterns
or samon created by raking the sand
to form certain designs.
A sea without islands is unthinkable
and in the creation of such islands
the Japanese owe much to the concepts
imported from China mentioned previously.
One of the earliest developments was
the shumisen-shiyo, a utopia or sacred
place remote from ordinary human society.
In this tradition an island of immortal
and everlasting happiness called Horaisan
or Horaijima became an important element
in the garden. Later, as a result
of the growth of Buddhism, the sacred
island was replaced by shumisen, the
legendary mountain on which Buddha
was believed to have lived. Often
the names were used interchangeably.
Crane and tortoise islands belong
in this category. According to Chinese
mythology, the crane lives a thousand
years and the tortoise ten thousand
years. Symbols of auspiciousness and
longevity, the actual beings are often
simulated by the shape of the islands.
Another auspicious symbol is the kibune
or treasure ship which sails the seas
and is represented often by a rock
or group of rocks.
Such islands, due to their sacred
character, are inaccessible to human
beings and no bridges are constructed
to reach them. In contrast, ordinary
islands called nakajima are accessible
to the mainland by bridges and it
is on these latter islands that one
may find teahouses and arbors.
In dry gardens, islands are symbolized
by rocks of interesting shapes set
in gravel or sand. Groups of stones
representing a rocky seashore may
be arranged near the edge of a lake
or its gravel or sand depiction. The
“three Buddha” arrangement
called sanson is one of the most orthodox
styles in the art of stone arrangement.
It consists of three rather vertical
stones. The largest stone, which is
always placed in the center, represents
the Buddha while the two smaller stones
placed nearby represent two Bodhisattvas.
This arrangement is used commonly
to express horaisan, shumisen, or
Trees and plants used in the garden
are closely interwoven with the spiritual
and physical life of the Japanese
people. The pine is a major basic
structural tree. Traditionally it
is called tokiwa and, as an evergreen,
it expresses both longevity and happiness.
The black and red pines symbolize
the positive and negative forces in
the universe. The Japanese black or
male pine called omatsu represents
the former force and the red or female
pine called mematsu represents the
is usually found in such gardens and
plum trees are often grown there.
Combinations of pine, bamboo, and
plum are used in decorations to mark
the New Year and the most auspicious
occasions. Bamboo is an evergreen
also and is credited with auspicious
characteristics similar to those of
the pine while the plum is thought
to embody the qualities of vigor and
patience since it is the first to
bloom after a severe winter.
ThMany unique Japanese concepts and
esthetics involved in traditional
Japanese gardens stem from Zen Buddhism.
Whereas the previous importation of
Buddhism had come from Tang China,
Zen concepts came from Sung China.
Its influence on the art and architecture
of the country has been impressive
Esthetic values which are believed
to both Japanese and Westerners to
be uniquely Japanese in origin such
as simplicity, naturalness, refined
elegance, subtlety and the use of
the suggestive rather than the descriptive
mode of communication are either products
of Zen thought or were reinforced
by it. It is said to be impossible
to describe Zen in words since the
doctrine denies this possibility.
The doctrine rejects intellectually
devised images in favor of direct
Shortly after the doctrine's introduction
into Japan, its monks began the construction
of gardens. The essential design elements
included in these gardens came to
be the main elements of what is know
today as a traditional Japanese garden.
Naturally the employment of these
elements provided the monks with an
opportunity to express the “Way
of Zen”. In them, Zen principles
were translated into very special
In describing these Zen concepts English
is used where there is a commonly
definable equivalency. Where the concept
is unique to Japanese thought, the
Japanese term is used alone. Among
the concepts important to garden building
are; Asymmetry involving a preference
for the imperfect over the perfect
form and shape and a preference for
odd rather than even numbers.
Simplicity which looks to the achievement
of “nothingness” or mu.
Koko refers to aging accompanied by
maturation and mellowness stressing
the importance of aged quality and
time.Naturalness or shizen requires
avoidance of the artificial or forced.
Yugen is the achievement of profundity
with mystery, the use of darkness
to create stillness and tranquility
and the utilization of the technique
of Miegakure or avoidance of full
expression which requires the hiding
of a part of the whole.Wabi, sabi,
and shibui translated as austerity,
elegant simplicity, and tastefulness.
Seijaku or the attainment of stillness,
quiet, and tranquility.
Japanese monks returning from China
brought back Zen teachings and many
art objects common in Sung China.
The latter were products of Zen philosophy
and were prized highly by are connoisseurs
among the aristocrats, monks and warriors
of the time. Most important, however,
in influencing the development of
gardens were the black monochrome
landscape paintings called suiboku
order to reach-the essence of things,
all non-essential elements must be
eliminated. Color is avoided whenever
possible. Black sumi ink is the one
true color and in it one can see endless
varieties of all colors. Translating
this to a garden calls for the predominant
utilization of monochromatic green.
Flowers in natural colors should be
used only to enhance the value of
the monochromatic color.
Under Zen influence the dry garden
became one of the dominant types of
gardens and stone came to be most
important as a part of garden design.
What the suiboku painting had expressed
with bold brush strokes was achieved
by the proper placement of a few rocks
and trimmed shrubs to symbolize the
grandeur of mountains and nature compressed
into a small cosmos. Void or negative
space expressed by gravel covers the
majority of the ground and is as important
to the garden as is the stone arrangement.
Irregular shaped, dark colored stones
are selected to carry out the concepts
of yugen and shibui.
The tea garden was created by Zen
teamasters. Tea was introduced to
Japan by Eisai, a Zen monk, who brought
it from China about 1200 A.D. Later,
during the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, the art of the tea ceremony
or another “way” (do or
michi) of Zen Buddhism was developed.
To emphasize Zen principles, a unique
tea house and tea garden was developed.
Zen elements were added to the tea
garden when Sen-no-Ri Ryu (1522-1591)
developed the “cottage”
or soan style of tea ceremony. The
tea garden was called roji which was
supposed to bring to mind a forest
path to a remote village or mountain.
Naturalistic planting was preferred
and artificially trimmed or colorful
plants rejected. Since it was a pathway,
stepping stones were a main feature
of this garden. But in such gardens,
smaller and unobtrusive stones were
used for this purpose.
Ornaments common to these gardens
such as water basins and special stone
lanterns had a direct relation to
the ceremony itself. Usually the objects
used were old, weathered and covered
with moss to reflect the Zen esthetics.
It is interesting to note that even
though both the dry garden and the
tea garden express Zen esthetics,
the tea garden was designed to be
walked in while the dry garden was
to be viewed in contemplation.
In order to provide an atmosphere
of other-worldliness and isolation
for participants in the tea ceremony,
the more formal tea gardens are composed
of an outer garden, a middle garden,
and an inner garden in which the teahouse
is located. After slowly traversing
these spaces and arriving at the teahouse,
the participants are supposed to be
in a mood of tranquility which will
help them to concentrate on the meaning
of the ceremony. For this reason utmost
care must be taken in the design of
the garden and architectural entities,
to achieve simplicity and naturalness
and to evoke the qualities of secluded
quietness, stillness, and tranquility.
In this sense, with the exception
of the dry gardens belonging to Zen
temples the tea garden, compared to
any other part of the Japanese garden,
is the best place to discover Zen
In order to evoke the criteria of
Zen esthetics mentioned before, the
suggestive mode of expression became
a main approach to garden design.
Specifically, the designer must adhere
to the concept of miegakure since
Japanese believe that in expressing
the whole the interest of the viewer
is lost. The designer must motivate
the viewer to achieve empathy with
the garden and use suggestive means
to arouse the viewer's imagination,
making possible the expansion of the
garden beyond its physical bounds.
The teahouse or arbors in the garden
are partially hidden behind trees
or fences and beautiful garden accessories
such as stone lanterns are set beside
trees and shrubs in a manner to avoid
total exposure. The main body of a
rock is set deep in the ground. The
human desire to expose every inch
of a costly object is suppressed.
Colorful objects are eliminated as
building materials. Natural and subdued
colors are praised. Symmetry in shapes
or forms are avoided whenever possible.
The shape and counter of the lake
and the form are irregular. The grouping
of stones and trees are odd-in number.
An important concept in the garden
is "simplicity" or kanso.
In this concept, beauty is attained
through omission and elimination.
Simplicity must not be confused with
plainness which is, in many cases,
monotonous or a lack of refinement.Simplicity
means the achievement of maximum effect
with minimum means. Buildings, bridges,
fences, and pavement all utilize natural
material constructed in a most imaginative
and refined manner.
The esthetic concept of naturalness
or shizen prohibits the use of elaborate
designs and over refinement. The garden
designer must conceal his creative
innovations under the guise of nature.
A close examination of many garden
walks and pavement reveal the most
intricate and creative patterns but
they are tendered inconspicuous by
the utilization of natural and subdued
colors and textures. Meticulously
trained and trimmed over sized bonsai
style pines appear to be century old
trees which have developed naturally
in the garden..
The actual physiological phenomena
conceived in the Zen esthetics of
wabi, tabi, shibui, koko, yugen and
seijaku is the state of things seen
by the eye of an ordinary person such
as weathering or fuka, erosion or
shinbaku, and wear or mematsu. However,
such natural phenomena were regarded
highly as esthetic values as a result
of their impact on the Japanese intellectual/emotional
response. For this reason the “element
of time” became an important
ingredient in the development of the
Time allows Zen qualities to be present.
Koko implies that things improve or
mature with time. The Western concept
of “an instant garden”
is denied in Japan. With time and
proper care the true beauty of the
property designed garden will manifest
The seven criteria of Zen esthetics
which have been introduced are not
to be viewed separately because they
co-exist one with another in all Zen-influenced
Japanese gardens. The analysis of
the dry garden and the tea garden
who that, in spite of their differences
in style and design, they both follow
the criteria mentioned. The same can
be said for the other fields of art
which have been influenced by Zen
such as painting, calligraphy, flower
arrangement, tea ceremony, ceramics,
and Noh drama.
-Dr. Koichi Kawana