3 Distinct Japanese Garden Styles

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What do you picture when you hear the words “Japanese Garden”? Maybe you see a lush courtyard with Buddha statue. Or, do you see a koi pond and arching bridge? Perhaps you’re picturing a simplistic space landscaped with rocks, gravel and sand.

Whatever you envision, if you are planning on designing a Japanese Garden in your backyard, it’s important to note that there are several types of distinct Japanese garden styles.

  1. Karesansui: (see above left image) These dry gardens are also referred to as a Japanese Rock Garden or Zen Garden, and are designed to represent the essence of nature, not its actual appearance. Created to aid in meditation, these symbolic representations of natural landscapes use rock arrangements, gravel, sand, moss and pruned trees in their design. A Karesansui is typically small, surrounded by a wall, and is designed to be viewed from a specific point of reference. Created by using rocks, sand or gravel, the Zen Garden’s goal is to recreate an overhead view of islands in the sea. The large boulders or rocks represent islands, whereas, the intricately raked sand symbolizes ripples in the surrounding water. japenese garden tea garden
  2. Tea Garden: These gardens are characterized as having a covered structure within the landscape design. Typically a pagoda, or other pavilion like structure, such as a gazebo, can be used in a tea garden landscape for meditating or reading. Other elements to include in your backyard would be a winding path leading to the structure’s entrance. The path can be constructed using stone, gravel, wood or other natural material. Include at least one stone lantern, or line your path with several matching ones. Another traditional element is to place a stone water basin near the door. This symbol for purification was traditionally used to wash the hands before entering the tea garden structure.Japanese garden tsubo-niva
  3. Tsubo-niwa: Also referred to as a Courtyard Garden, these small gardens are perfect for urban spaces or for a very small backyard.  ‘Niwa’ meaning ‘garden’, and “tsubo” is defined as an area the size of two tatami mats. (Tatami mats are floor coverings that measure approximately 6 foot by 3 foot.) Not only for courtyards, a tsubo-niwa works in other small spaces as well, and is a perfect way to add life to a side alley or interior foyer. These gardens are meant to be viewed, not entered, as the concept is to introduce nature into the space. Stone, gravel, and sculpture is often used as they require neither light nor water.   

A Little Bit About Japanese Garden Plants   

Above all, Japanese garden plants should be natural and fit into your environment.  If your particular conditions or zones do not work for the typical Japanese plants, seek out alternatives that keep within the same aesthetics. Here are just a few examples of plants that are found in Japanese gardens:

  • Japanese Black Pine: One of the most common conifers found in Japanese gardens, the Black Pine is known for its adaptability and free form growth. 
  • Bamboo: Great for screening, height, texture and color, but be forewarned, bamboo is quite aggressive and can easily take over the garden. It may be best to use bamboo in pots rather than directly into the ground.
  • Wisteria: These climbing beauties add structure and texture with their ropey and twisting vines. Wisteria requires a watchful eye as they have been known to pull down structures and kill trees with their weight.
  • Azalea: These easy to care for mid-level perennials add a pop of color and can be trimmed into beautiful shapes. 
  • Moss: Often used as a groundcover in Japanese gardens, moss adds color and softens rocks and stone. If you space is too sunny to maintain moss, try using low-level, small-leafed plants like thyme or other dwarf herbs.

There is a Japanese garden style for any size or style backyard. Whatever style you chose, your Japanese garden is sure to give you years of peace and happiness.