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Japanese Gardens
Much of the text on this page reprinted from Japan-Guide.com (online March 2014)

Examples of gardens: Kenroku-en Garden .....  Oyama Shinto Shrine, Kanazawa .....
Hasedera Buddhist Temple, Kamakura ...... Daitokuji Buddhist Temple, Kyoto ..... Temple of the Golden Pavilion / Kinkaku-ji Buddhist Temple

On this page, below:
Garden Elements

Garden design is an important Japanese art form that has been refined for more than 1000 years.    Japanese gardens utilize elements such as ponds, streams, islands and hills to create miniature reproductions of natural scenery. The following are some of the most commonly employed elements:

Stones, Gravel and Sand
Since ancient times, stones have played an important role in Japanese culture. In Shinto, prominent large stones are worshiped as kami, while gravel was used to designate sacred grounds.

In today's gardens, large stones symbolize mountains and hills, set decorative accents and serve as the building material for bridges and pathways. Smaller rocks and gravel are used to line ponds and streams. Meanwhile, dry gardens are comprised entirely of stones, with larger stones symbolizing mountains, islands and waterfalls, while gravel and sand replace water.

Ponds, Streams and Waterfalls
Ponds are a central element of most gardens and often represent real or mythical lakes or seas. Sometimes they provide a habitat for carps (koi) which introduce additional color and life to the garden. In dry gardens, ponds, streams and waterfalls are symbolized by raked gravel, sand and upright stones.

Islands and Bridges
Islands are another long standing component of Japanese gardens, and range in size from single stone outcroppings to large islands big enough to support buildings. They often represent real islands or have religious symbolism, such as those built to resemble turtles and cranes, symbols of longevity and health, or Horai, a sacred mystical mountain in Taoism.

Bridges are another common feature that is used to connect islands and cross streams or ponds. They are built of stone or wood, and range in complexity from a simple slab of uncut rock laid across a stream to elaborate, covered wooden structures that span more than ten meters.

Trees, shrubs, lawns and flowers of all kinds are used in Japanese gardens. Plants, such as maple and cherry trees, are often chosen for their seasonal appeal and are expertly placed to emphasize these characteristics. Conversely, pine trees, bamboo and plum trees are held in particular esteem for their beauty during the winter months when other plants go dormant. Mosses are also used extensively, with over a hundred species appearing at Kokedera alone.

Plants are carefully arranged around the gardens to imitate nature, and great efforts are taken to maintain their beauty. Trees, shrubs and lawns are meticulously manicured, and delicate mosses are swept clean of debris. During winter, straw, burlap and ropes are used to insulate and protect the trees and shrubs from the freezing snow, while straw wraps protect against bug infestations.

Larger gardens, especially the strolling gardens of the Edo Period, make use of large man made hills. The hills may represent real or mythical mountains, and some can be ascended and have a viewpoint from where visitors are treated to a panoramic view out over the garden.

Lanterns come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have been a common element of Japanese garden design throughout history. They are usually made of stone and placed in carefully selected locations, such as on islands, at the ends of peninsulas or next to significant buildings, where they provide both light and a pleasing aesthetic. Lanterns are often paired with water basins, which together make up a basic component of tea gardens.

Types: Cut stone / Snow / Pedestal / Buried shaft

Water Basins
Many gardens contain stone water basins (tsukubai), which are used for ritual cleansing, especially ahead of tea ceremonies. The basins vary from simple depressions in uncut stone to elaborate carved stone creations, and are usually provided with a bamboo dipper for scooping up water. These days they often appear as a decorative addition more than for a practical purpose. Water basins are an essential element of tea gardens and are often paired with lanterns.

Paths became an integral part of Japanese gardens with the introduction of strolling and tea gardens. Strolling gardens feature circular paths constructed of stepping stones, crushed gravel, sand or packed earth, which are carefully prescribed to lead visitors to the best - albeit controlled - views of the garden. Winding paths also serve to segregate different areas, such as an isolated grove or hidden pond, from each other so that they may be contemplated individually.

Many types of gardens were built to be viewed from inside a building, such as palace, villa or temple. In contrast, gardens meant to be entered and enjoyed from within, use buildings as a part of the garden's composition, including pavilions, tea houses and guest houses.

Borrowed Scenery
Borrowed scenery (shakkei) is the concept of integrating the background landscape outside the garden into the design of the garden. Both, natural objects such as mountains and hills and man made structures such as castles, can be used as borrowed scenery. In modern times, skyscrapers have become a (usually) unintentional borrowed scenery for some gardens in the cities.

Types of Gardens

Tea gardens
Tea gardens are simple and utilitarian.
A stepping stone path leads from the entrance to a tea house. Stone lanterns provide lighting and a decorative element, while a wash basin (tsukubai) is used for ritual cleansing. Many tea gardens can be found in Japan today, although many of them are incorporated into larger garden designs.

Strolling gardens
During the Edo Period ((1603 - 1867), the ruling class rediscovered its likings for extravagance and recreation. The product were large strolling gardens with ponds, islands and artificial hills that could be enjoyed from a variety of viewpoints along a circular trail. Many strolling gardens also included elements of tea gardens.

Tsuboniwa gardens
During the Edo Period, tsuboniwa were small gardens that became popular among the urban population. These mini gardens (tsubo refers to the area of two tatami mats) filled in the small courtyard spaces within or between townhouses and provided a touch of nature as well as light and fresh air. Due to their size, they usually featured just a small amount of decorative elements and were not meant to be entered.

Zen gardens
At the beginning of the Kamakura Period a shift of power from the aristocratic court to the military elite was completed. The military rulers embraced the newly introduced Zen Buddhism, which would exert a strong influence on garden design. Gardens were often built attached to temple buildings to help monks in meditation and religious advancement rather than for recreational purposes.

Gardens also became smaller, simpler and more minimalist, while retaining many of the same elements as before, such as ponds, islands, bridges and waterfalls. The most extreme development towards minimalism was the Karesansui Dry Garden which uses nothing but rocks, gravel and sand to represent all the elements of the garden landscape.

Photos and their arrangement 2013 Chuck LaChiusa
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