Category Archives: Piet Patings

Your own Japanese Garden, part two

In my previous article I wrote about considerations and decisions to be taken when you are going to build your own Japanese garden. In this article I’ll elaborate on that.

As the Japanese garden evolved over 15 centuries it is difficult to label or “put in a box”. As there are many garden types in Japan, to typify it as (just) “a Japanese garden” is not enough. It is not workable nor does it do justice. The differences between e.g. a Tea-garden and Karesansui-garden are just too big to talk about in general terms when working on a design.

It is important to know what type of Japanese garden you are “planning” so you can name it and focus on the relevant characteristics. There are of course commonalities between all Japanese garden types but these are often not the subject of discussion. It is required to typify it one degree more precise to be able to successfully realize a Japanese garden, either of a single type or a composition of divers elements and compartments.

One of the first thoughts should be: “what type of Japanese garden do I want to realize ?” Then when decided upon, this typification can become the basis for further study, investigation, discussion, architecture design and elaboration.

Use of Archetypes of gardens according to the Tokyo Agricultural University has proved to be a good approach. Then you can talk about your Japanese “Tea garden” or “Zen garden” or perhaps a combination of elements from different garden (arche)types. The Tokyo Agricultural University recognizes eight archetypes. To make this workable and pragmatic we often see this brought back to 4 or 5 archetypes or main garden types, e.g based on themes or application.

Heian Aristocrats gardens for worship and leisure, Palace gardens, Temple gardens and Nobles-men’s gardens, including Tea gardens and dry rock gardens.
Or:
Strolling and pond garden, Natural (Paradise) garden, flat garden, sand and stone or dry rock garden, tea garden.

Nowadays the Japanese typically categorize their gardens into three broad types.

  • Tsukiyama gardens typically feature artificial hills combined with a pond and a stream, plants, shrubs, and trees.
  • Karesansui or dry landscape garden.
  • Chaniwa or tea-garden, attached to the tea-ceremony.

Following the complete list of eight garden archetypes according to Tokyo Agricultural University (in time from 6th Century until modern day):

  • Ceremony Worship ceremonies, including routes for worshiping.
  • Leisure The ancient capital 1300 years ago: Today a legacy from the past.
  • Paradise Representation of Paradise on Earth. Joruri-ji Temple, in the hills near Nara, is the only existing Heian-era Amida Hall with nine images of Amida representing the nine levels of enlightenment.
  • Zen Ryoan-ji is regarded the archetype Zen or karesansui (dry rock) garden.
  • Buke(-zukuri) A style of residential architecture in use among the bushi or warrior class.
  • Tea Garden and house dedicated to the Tea Ceremony, Cha-no-yu. Highly influenced by Buddhism in particular Zen.
  • Theme
    Katsura Imperial Villa is a circuit style garden with small and large islands connected by bridges.
    Kenroku-en is “a strolling-style landscape garden”. “Kenroku-en” literally means “garden that combines six characteristics”. Grouped in their traditional complementary pairs, they are spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas.
    Both gardens take full advantage of seasonal change.
  • Modern Gardens from the last century and a half.
    A “new type of karesansui garden” or “modern karesansui garden” by Shigemori Mirei.
    This type is not (yet) included in the list but gets more and more recognition as a distinct type, perhaps not so much as a new archetype.

An other style-element regards complexity or the degree of elaboration of a garden(compartment). The book Tsukiyama teizoden names three:

  • Shin, very elaborate and formal.
  • Gyo, intermediate and semi-formal.
  • So, the simplest informal.

Is then “So”, the simplest of all, the Zen version ? Not so.
The complexity here relates to the number of elements and objects like: scenes, hills, rocks, stone, tree’s, bushes and other objects and level of detail in a garden. Some Zen gardens have lots of them and hence are not So.

The symbolism, not to mention superstitious beliefs, as such mean little to many (most ?) of us. However symbolism sometimes has a direct impact on the aesthetics of a garden that can not be neglected. Hence you need to take symbolism into account and bring it into the garden if it in your eyes, enhances the appearance and appreciation.
The same is true for the geomancy, nowadays popularised as Feng Shui, (fusui in Japanese) Yin Yang and the Japanese equivalents and interpretations like Yi and the Five Phases as described in the garden book Sakuteiki and older text like Huainanzi which precedes the Five Phase Encyclopedia by about 600 years.
The essence regarding aesthetics from the opening words in the Sakuteiki can be leading for designers:


” In making the garden, you should first understand the overall principles.”

  1. According to the lay of the land, and depending upon the aspects of the water landscape, you should design each part of the garden tastefully, recalling your memories of how nature presented itself for each feature.
  2. Study the examples of work left by the past masters, and considering the desires of the owner of the garden, you should create a work of your own by exercising your tasteful sense.
  3. Think over the famous places of scenic beauty throughout the land, and by making it your own that which appeals to you most, design your garden with the mood of harmony, modelling after the general air of such places.

In the modern translation of the Sakuteiki the authors see three aspects of Buddhism reflected in the garden. The third relating to the aspect of Buddhism by which the religion is seen as a protector of the individual. Inserting specific Buddhist elements in the garden was done for reasons similar to those for introducing elements that had geomantic influence. Both the Buddhist elements and the geomantic elements were perceived as protecting the household. If you are not a follower of Feng Shui, then you only have to take into account these aspects for the impact on the aesthetics of the garden and under the assumption that it will not enhance the appearance and appreciation when seen or experienced by a spectator without a thorough background of the rules and taboosimi or kinki. If you are a follower of Feng Shui then this is a whole different story.
Whatever the case the garden you create must give you the right “feel”, or better “fuzei”.

The picture: Kanji for fuzei in the Japanese flag. Fuzei: “Aesthetic sense” in Sakuteiki the 11th century treatise on Garden Making, the oldest and most revered Japanese text on garden design.

Piet Patings, Tsubo-en Zen-garden, www.zen-garden.org

Your own Japanese garden


This is an architecture design map or outline garden plan of Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto. It is called choukanzuhou, "a bird's-eye view" or fukanzuhou, "view from abovHow to go about when you are caught by the beauty of a Japanese garden and you have decided that this is what you want?

Japanese gardens are a living work of art in which the plants and trees are ever changing with the seasons. As they grow and mature they are constantly sculpted to maintain and enhance the overall experience. Hence a Japanese garden is never the same and never really finished. While the underlying structure is determined by the architecture, that is the framework of enduring elements, such as buildings, veranda’s and terraces, paths, tsukiyama (artificial hills) and stone compositions, over time it is only as good as the careful maintenance that it receives by those skilled in the art of training and pruning.

If a major reason for having a Japanese garden is the quick and easy construction or the little maintenance that it needs then you have been fooled and probably read the wrong advice, perhaps on one of the many poor quality websites. It is beyond imagination to see how much discussable information is written on the Web on the subject of Japanese gardens and gardening. And that is perhaps the best prove that constructing your own Japanese garden is not as straightforward as some authors want you to believe. There are dozens of brilliant and good books on the subject. There are also plenty of poor books on the subject. I have however never seen a book that comes even distantly close and is as bad as some publications on the Web. There are also a few quality sites but you need a candle-light to find them.

Often the terms Japanese garden and Zen garden are used as synonyms and interchangeable. Well they are not. The designs of medieval gardens in Japan was ultimately derived from Chinese landscape art. The influence of Zen-Buddhism on garden design was (probably) first described as such in 1935 by Kuck (Kuck, Loraine (1968, 1984) in ‘The World of the Japanese Garden – From Chinese Origins to Modern Landscape Art’ (John Weatherhill, Inc. of New York and Tokyo. ISBN 0-8348-0029-2.) in the early 20th century and disputed by Kuitert (Kuitert, Wybe (1988). ‘Scenes and Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art’ ( J.C.Gieben, Publisher, Amsterdam. ISBN 0-5063-021-9) by the end of that century. It took until the nineteen fifties that the concepts of a garden as an expression of Zen was first described in the Japanese language by Shinichi Hisamatsu in ‘seven characteristics’. And for sure these latter are very useful for us Westerners to better understand and realize a Japanese garden of any type. Mind you this is not to say that Japanese gardens are not influenced by Buddhism or Zen-Buddhism but that nowadays we see just too much esoteric explanations and interpretations brought into the Japanese garden mainly by Westerners.

The subject is a complex one and perhaps that is the reason for over-simplification by many writers. Building a Japanese, and actually any, garden does not start with selecting “Japanese” plants and trowing them on a plot together with a pile of ‘Oriental (looking) ornaments’ either made out of stone or plastic. This sounds a bit disrespectful. But then, is it not also disrespectful to call such a composition a Japanese or Zen garden ? If you like oriental ornaments and flowering sub-tropical plants you can design and build a very nice garden based on that theme. Just then do not call it a Japanese garden or confuse that with what you have. Instead call it an Oriental garden. Nothing wrong with that and no confusion caused.

The point is that although a garden can be Japanese, there is no definition of such a thing as the Japanese garden, because there are a number of very different Japanese garden types and styles. The term ‘Japanese garden’ is a common classification that applies to all Japanese garden types, regardless of style, located in Japan originally. The character of a garden is determined by its type and style. In addition many, of not most gardens in Japan, combine multiple types and styles. This is done by compartmentalization of a garden. Looking at a Zen-Buddhist temple-complex this is mostly composed of different garden types. It is important to observe that these different types are often combined but not mixed or amalgamated. Each garden compartment as such is kept pure and in accordance with its utilization and hence garden-type.

For you, assuming that we talk about a home-garden, it all starts with the question what is it that I like about it and what is a Japanese garden anyway ? If you want it to be a Japanese garden, and perhaps more specifically a Zen garden or Tea garden than stick to this concept. If you want a pond in your garden, with or without Koi-carp than you need yet a different type or combination.

Take as a model the creations left to us by the famous men of old and, considering the suggestions of the owner of the house (where the garden is to be made), one must create, exercising one’s own aesthetic senses.

From Sakuteiki, a Japanese garden book with rules and notes on garden making that dates back to the late seventeenth century. Its oldest title is Senzai Hishõ, “Secret Extracts on Gardens”, and was written nearly 1000 years ago. The oldest treatise known that addresses gardening as an aesthetic art.

To answer the former questions you should follow the above centuries old advice.
Look at and study genuine Japanese gardens. Although there are some great Japanese gardens outside Japan these are relatively scarce and one should be reluctant and selective to use these as a point of reference, at least initially. For this purpose it is best to first stick with gardens located in Japan. Until ten years back one had to either travel to Japan or get a few good books. Nowadays there is an abundance of good photo’s available on the Web and many authentic gardens located in Japan even have their own Website some of them even offer you a virtual interactive tour.

Then decide what you like most, be it a garden type, ornaments or objects and elements and scenes from different gardens, and what you would like to have as your own Japanese garden. This will become the source of inspiration to design your own garden, not to copy it. Then the next step has everything to do with feasibility. Many questions should be asked and answered to satisfaction. Obviously this has to do everything with the available budget or at least what you are willing to spend on your garden, now or perhaps in stages. Perhaps the next factor is location and surroundings. What garden architecture does best fit and take advantage of the surrounding while satisfying your needs ? And do not forget the practical side of your garden, the different purposes for which you want to use it. And so on. Your own Japanese garden should start as lines and text on paper, no more but definitely no less. Planning it over one weekend ? You must be joking.

Description of image above:

This is an architecture design map or outline garden plan of Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto. It is called choukanzuhou, “a bird’s-eye view” or fukanzuhou, “view from above”.


Piet Patings, Tsubo-en Zen-garden, www.zen-garden.org