Japanese garden styles

Gardens in Japan are of two distinct types: those that are experienced by walking round them and those that are simply viewed from a building or verandah.
Gardens exist in similar places to our own country – attached to houses, both small and large, and as courtyard gardens in hotels, offices, and public buildings. Yet many gardens also exist within the precincts of temples or shrines, something we do not find in the UK.
Many of these gardens are of historic value.

It is perhaps a Western trait to seek categorisation in art of all kinds, although attempts to categorise gardens are inherently restrictive and frequently impossible. However, certain design styles can be identified, whether the garden is an expression of one or several of them.
These general styles have distinct characteristics, defined not only by appearance but also by the size and purpose of the garden.

They are:
• Pond and island gardens
• Dry landscape gardens (karesansui)
• Stroll gardens (kaiyushiki teien)
• Tea Gardens (cha niwa)
• Courtyard gardens (tsubo niwa)
Although ‘gardens’ appears in these titles, it is often the case that only part of a garden may be in that style. Stroll gardens in particular may contain several of the other styles.

Pond & Island

This is the oldest type of garden to be found in Japan. These are gardens that were meant to be seen both from the interior of buildings as well as whilst walking around them. Such gardens can cover several acres and the pond was often made large enough to accommodate boating excursions (a popular activity particularly in the 10th and 11th centuries)

The islands in the pond were considered sacred spaces, representations of heaven, often with bridges to them from the sides of the pond. In evoking the sense of a complete landscape, the garden around the pond would often feature areas of raised ground depicting mountains or hills.

Dry Landscape

These gardens are particularly associated with Zen temples and are so-called because sand or gravel is used to represent water. (Karesansui means literally ‘dry mountain water’.)

Such gardens vary from extreme simplicity to well furnished spaces. Gravel, raked in a variety of ways, is a common ground cover treatment, representing the ocean.

Generally these gardens are not entered but are viewed from a building or verandah. In this way the garden becomes framed by architectural elements. The moods of the gardens vary from the visually dramatic to the contemplative. This garden style has become emblematic of a sense of modernity, despite many such gardens being hundreds of years old.

Tea Gardens

Essentially the tea garden is a path or roji (literally ‘dewy path’), which leads the visitor from the outer ‘everyday’ world to the tea house, often composed with stepping stones. The path winds through naturalistic planting, often with a ground covering of verdant moss, the intention being to recreate the mood of a simple path through a mountain glade.

Colour is eschewed in preference to shades of green.
 Guests will wait in the outer garden in a waiting arbour or machiai, and when called by the host to the tea house will walk through the garden, pausing at a water basin illuminated by a stone lantern.

Here they will scoop a little water over their hands symbolising the cleansing of body and mind before entering the tea house in a state of readiness for the social interchange of the tea ceremony.

Stroll gardens

These are gardens which are intended to be viewed as the visitor walks or strolls around them. Like the ‘pond and island’ model of garden, they are frequently centred round a large pond, often with a convoluted shoreline.

This style is a carefully created overlapping series of views or vistas, revealed as the viewer progresses around the garden. These views may contain features such as buildings, often based on tea house architecture, the same building being seen in several views from different viewpoints. Some will be bounded by heavy planting or even landforms to create a sense of enclosure.
Others will use shakkei, or ‘borrowed landscape’ as part of the view.

In many gardens it was fashionable to recreate well-known beauty spots, both within Japan and from China.

Courtyard gardens

Tsubo niwa are gardens in relatively small spaces found between buildings. They can be among the residences of the aristocracy, in temples, as well as in the more secular settings of traditional merchants’ houses in cities such as Kyoto.

Town house architecture developed a pattern of dwellings long and narrow in their footprint. In order to allow light and fresh air to circulate, the architecture was punctuated with small spaces which could be developed as garden areas (tsubo niwa). These were generally viewed from surrounding rooms or above from the second floor.

The gardens were visually centred on a stone water basin, or well; planting being minimal in the shaded conditions. Lanterns, rocks and planting are laid out in an informal manner. A tall wall, hedge or fence separates the property from the street and provides a sense of enclosure.