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How are Japanese gardens different from other gardens you’ll see traveling?

Idyllic landscape of Japanese garden with wooden house at summer day.

I’m still dreaming of future trips and remembering past travels, and one of my favorites was my trip to Japan a couple years ago. Japan is a fabulous destination, and today I share one of the many aspects that make it so inviting…

How are Japanese gardens different from other gardens you’ll see traveling?

I was fortunate to visit Japan in August 2019, as I sailed a two-week cruise with my son around the islands. I found Japan totally fascinating, and it is one of the trips I think back on with growing amazement and appreciation. Their culture is so different from ours, yet one that we are familiar with as many aspects have translated into American culture. I could literally write about some aspect of Japan each week for half a year; I found it that intriguing. One favorite part that my son and I both enjoyed was exploring Japanese gardens throughout our trip.

Gardens are a common yet often underappreciated aspect of Japanese culture. There is a high level of detail and significance in every aspect of the design of the garden. As a crucial part of Japanese history, they have contributed to today’s Japanese culture. There is a long and extensive history of gardens in Japan and the evolution of various styles, culminating in a few key styles and common elements. However, while many gardens utilize the same features, they are always constructed uniquely, making every garden visited new and exciting.

History and Key Features

Historically, gardens in Japan have been designed for a few key purposes. They were usually constructed for the use of the Emperor, imperial family, upper-class society, or monks and religious leaders. This means a considerable number of gardens are connected to castles, temples, and shrines. The purpose of many Japanese gardens is to impart a sense of peace and encourage reflection. Japanese gardens are quiet, calm and allow the viewer to take in all that is around him. Japanese gardens are very carefully designed with the viewer in mind and are generally created to be beautiful in all seasons. By taking advantage of the various natural phenomenon of different seasons – the various flowering periods of different plants, the autumn foliage, and the stark landscape of winter – the garden can be visited and appreciated year-round. It is very uncommon to see a garden in Japan that does not make use of water through ponds and lakes, bridges to emphasize the water, and small waterfalls. Stone is also a key feature with the placement of both natural stones and carved stone lanterns to contrast with the plants and flowers being used.

With the focus on stone, water, and plants in the design of Japanese gardens, one thing that strikes me is that the gardens don’t seem to be highly focused on the flowers like in most gardens. While the flowering aspect of the plants is considered in the planning, the Japanese gardens seem to concentrate on the overall arrangement and cohesive nature of all the elements, with flowers actually having a tiny part in the enjoyment of the garden.

Garden Styles

Landscape Gardens

There are a few main garden styles found in Japan. The most common of these is the landscape garden. Most of the top gardens in Japan fit this style. A landscape garden is designed to be a series of ‘sets’ or scenic landscapes seen one after another while following a winding path through the garden. The path will often follow the edge of a lake or pond while also deviating into more plant-heavy areas. A map of a landscape garden is usually labeled with areas such as “plum grove,” “cherry blossom path,” and “lake island” to indicate the key feature of that part of the landscape. Landscape gardens are often very large, and this size, along with the variety of scenery in the garden, has led to them becoming some of the most famous gardens in Japan. Named as one of the top three gardens in Japan is Kenrokuen Garden, located in Kanazawa. It is connected to the outer part of Kanazawa Castle but stands alone in its beauty. Kenrokuen has an abundance of different ponds, waterfalls, flowers, trees, and paths to entertain visitors for hours. Its spot among the best gardens in Japan is well-earned, and it is often cited as the highlight of Kanazawa. My favorite was Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, where my son and I took a boat ride on the lake and then spent a leisurely time wandering the meandering paths (see picture at the bottom).

Rock Gardens

Japanese rock gardens, or karesansui, are easily recognizable to foreign visitors as the full-size version of the small, tabletop, Zen sand gardens that can be raked into different designs, commonly sold as house interior decoration. However, unlike the small recreation, the full version has been carefully raked into a design with clear symbolism and representation. Rather than having a lake or pond, rock gardens use the lines in the rocks to represent the movement of water. Rock gardens were first created by Buddhist monks and are intended to be a place of meditation and thoughtfulness. Rather than strolling through the garden, they are intended to be viewed from the temple. One of the best examples of a Japanese rock garden is the dry garden at Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion in Kyoto. This garden features a large sand cone, designed in a mirror image of Mt. Fuji. It is supposed to be the ideal point for moon-gazing and night meditation.

Teahouse Gardens

The smallest of the three main garden types is the teahouse garden. This Japanese garden is designed to be passed through when going to a traditional teahouse to conduct a tea ceremony. It is intended to be quiet, relaxing, and not overly eye-catching so as not to take attention away from the ceremony. The beautiful backdrop calms the soul before taking part in the ceremony. Teahouse gardens are usually very green, with a lot of use of ferns and moss. However, it is common to integrate cherry blossoms, plum trees, or maple trees to stay true to the ‘beauty in all seasons’ aspect of Japanese gardens. There are often stepping stones and stone lanterns or statues to contrast with the greenery and small pond. Teahouse gardens are sometimes included as a feature of landscape gardens, but they should be enjoyed exclusively from the outside world. They can be a little more difficult to visit because they are intrinsically entwined in the tea ceremony. However, the teahouse garden at Nijo Castle in Kyoto can be enjoyed for visitors willing to pay for a simple cup of green tea and cake at the castle. This doesn’t involve the intricate art of the tea ceremony and is accessible for all visitors.

Gardens are a beautiful part of Japanese culture. They integrate many aspects of Japanese thinking and culture while still being easy to enjoy for all visitors. The attention to detail, appreciation of seasons and changing nature, and clear intent with all things is evident when viewing a Japanese garden. As an integral part of Japanese history and culture, visiting Japanese gardens is a must-do while exploring Japan.