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JAPANESE GARDEN DESIGN PRINCIPLES
On the path toward a successful garden

Design Principles
There are certain intrinsic principles that one needs to grasp to successfully capture the spirit of the Japanese garden. Most importantly, nature is the ideal that you must strive for. You can idealize it, even symbolize it, but you must never create something that nature itself cannot.

For example, you would never find a square pond in the wild, so do not put one in your garden. You may certainly use a waterfall, but not a fountain. Another key point to remember is balance, or sumi. You are always trying to create a “large” landscape even in the smallest of spaces. While that nine-ton boulder looks right at home in the six-acre stroll garden, what effect does it have on a ten by ten courtyard? It would have all the grace and subtlety of a horse in a closet. Choose your components carefully.

Rocks can represent whole mountains, pools become lakes. A small stretch of raked sand can become an entire ocean. The phrase “ Less is more” was surely first spoken by a garden master.

The elements of time and space
One of the first things that occur to western eyes viewing a Japanese garden is the “emptiness” of portions of the garden. This is unsettling to gardeners accustomed to filling every space in the garden for a riot of color, but it is a key element in the design of Japanese gardens. This space, or ma, defines the elements around it, and is also defined by the elements surrounding it. It is the true spirit of in and yo, that which many of us know by the Chinese words yin and yang. Without nothing, you cannot have something. This is a difficult point to grasp, but it is a central tenet of Japanese gardening.

Another key point to ponder is the concept of wabi and sabi. Like so many Japanese words, there is no single translation. Wabi can denote something one-of-a-kind, or the spirit of something; the closest we can come to a literal translation is “solitary”. Sabi defines time or the ideal image of something; the closest definition might be “patina”. While a cement lantern may be one of a kind, it lacks that ideal image. A rock can be old and covered with lichens, but if it is just a round boulder it has no wabi. We must strive to find that balance.

Both the concepts of ma and wabi/sabi deal with time and space. Where the garden is our space, time is ably presented by the changing seasons. Unlike the western gardener (who deserts the garden in fall, not to be seen again in spring) the Japanese garden devotee visits and appreciates the garden in all the seasons.

In spring one revels in the bright green of new buds and the blossoms of the azaleas. In summer you appreciate the contrasts of the lush foliage painted against the cool shadows and the splash of koi in the pond. Fall wrests the brilliant colors from dying leaves as they slip into the deathly hush of winter, the garden buried under a shroud of snow.

Winters is as much a garden season in Japan as spring. The Japanese refer to snow piled on the branches of trees as sekku, or snow blossoms, and there is a lantern known as yukimi that is named the snow viewing lantern. Even this season that represents the death of the garden is a vital one for our Japanese gardener, while our western gardener sulks until spring. Perhaps it is the eastern acceptance of death as a necessary component of the life cycle (or is it the western fear of dying?) that separates the two gardeners.

Garden Enclosures
Another concept inherent in every Japanese garden is enclosure. As we noted, the garden is to become a microcosm of nature. For the garden to be a true retreat, we must first seal it away from the outside world. Once it is enclosed, we must create a method (and a mindset) to enter and leave our microcosm. Fences and gates are as important to the Japanese garden as lanterns and maples.

As with most things associated with the garden the fence and gates have deep symbolic meaning as well as specific function. We are encouraged to view the garden as a separate world in which we have no worries or concerns. The fence insulates us from the outside world and the gate is the threshold where we both discard our worldly cares and then prepare ourselves to once again face the world.

The fence is also a tool to enhance yet another concept, miegakure, or hide and reveal. Many of the fence styles offer only the merest of visual screens, and will be supplemented with a screen planting, offering just the ghostly hints of the garden behind. Sometimes a designer will cut a small window in a solid wall to present the passerby with a tantalizing glimpse of what lies beyond. You can be certain that you will only see a sliver of what lies beyond. Even if we enter the house to view the garden we may well encounter sode-gaki, or sleeve fences. This is a fence that attaches to an architectural structure, be it a house or another fence, to screen a specific view. To view the garden as a whole one must enter it and become one with the garden. This is the final step in the true appreciation of the garden, to lose oneself in it until time and self have no meaning.

The Basic Designs
The Japanese garden is not truly a singular type despite the fact that certain rules apply to every garden. The gardens differ by setting and by use. There are three basic styles.

Hill and Pond (Chisen-Kaiyu-skiki)
The hill and pond garden is the basic style brought over from China. A pond fronts a hill (or hills). The pond can be an actual pond or represented by raked gravel. This style always denotes a mountain area and usually uses plants indigenous to the mountains. Stroll gardens are always hill and pond.

Flat Garden (Hiraniwa)
The flat style stems from the use of open, flat spaces in front of temples and palaces for ceremonies. These are often done in the karesansui style. This is a very Zen style (good for contemplation) and is representative of a seashore area (using the appropriate plants) Courtyards are always flat style gardens.

Tea Gardens (Rojiniwa)
The design of the tea garden is the only time that function overrides form. The Roji (dewy path) is the focus of the garden along with the water basin and the gates. This is the exception to the rule. Plantings should be simple to the point of sparse. Always strive for a rustic feeling.

Formality is also a design consideration
Another consideration is the formality of the garden. Hill and pond and flat styles can be shin (formal), gyo (intermediate) or so (informal). Formal styles were most often found at temples or palaces, the intermediate styles were appropriate for most residences, and the informal style was relegated to peasant huts and mountain retreats. The tea garden is always in the informal style.

Garden Components
Rock (Ishi)
Rocks are the bones of the Japanese garden. If you have properly placed your stones in the garden, the rest of the garden will lay itself out for you. The Sakuteiki laid out hundreds of specific stone groupings, each with a specific meaning. These hold little importance today. It is more important for our purposes to know the basic stones and some of the general rules for stone setting.

The basic stones are the tall vertical stone, the low vertical stone, the arched stone, the reclining stone, and the horizontal stone. These stones are usually set in triads but this not always the case. Two similar stones (e.g., two tall verticals or two reclining stones), one just slightly smaller than the other, can be set together as male and female, but we usually use threes, fives, and sevens.

We must avoid the Three Bad Stones. These are the Diseased stone (withered or misshapen top), the Dead stone (a stone that is obviously a vertical used as a horizontal, or vice versa, like propping up a dead body), and the Pauper Stone (one which has no relation to the other stones in the garden). Use only one stone of each of the basic types in any group (the remainder to be smaller, insignificant stones known as throwaway stones). Stones can be used as sculpture, set against a background in a two-dimensional manner, or given a function, such as a stepping stone or a bridge.

When setting stepping stones they should be between one and three inches above the soil, yet solid underfoot, as if rooted into the ground. They can be set in straight lines, offset for left foot, right foot (known as chidori or plover, after the tracks the shore bird leaves), or set in groups of twos, threes, fours, or fives (and any combination thereof).

The pathway is symbolic of the journey through life, and even specific stones in the path may have meaning. A much wider stone set across the path tells us to put two feet here, stopping to take in the view. There are many other stones for specific places too numerous to mention. If we simply observe the basic design principles, we can capture the true spirit of the Japanese garden, and the garden will reveal itself to us.

Water (Mizu):
Japan is an island nation blessed with abundant rainfall. It is therefore not suprising that water is an intrinsic part of every garden. Even in the karesansui garden, the raked gravel represents water. Flat river stones, laid tightly together, symbolize a rushing stream. In the tea garden, void of stream or pond, water plays the most important role as one stops to perform the ritual cleansing at the chozubachi, or water basin. As the water fills and empties from the shishi-odoki, or deer scare, the clack of bamboo on rock helps mark the passage of time.

This is the deeper meaning of water in the Japanese garden. The sight and sound of its inexorable flow are there to remind us of the relentless passage of time. A bridge often crosses the water. Like the pathway, bridges denote a journey. The word for bridge, hashi, is also the word for edge. Bridges are symbolic of moving from one world into another, a theme found throughout Japanese art.

Plantings (Shokobutsu)
While plants play a secondary role to the stones in the garden, they are still a primary concern in the design. While the stones represent unchanging permanence, the trees, shrubs, and perennials help to display the passing of each season. The earlier garden styles actually used plants to conjure up poetic connotations or to correct geomantic inadequacies, but these have little meaning today.

As the Zen influence obscured the Heian style, perennials and grass fell out of use. Tradition has limited the palette to a short list of plants, but in modern Japan, designers are again broadening the spectrum of materials used. It is important to note that native plants are used in the garden; it is in bad taste to use showy exotic plants. While certain trees and shrubs immediately conjure up the Japanese garden for us (pines, bamboo, cherries, maples, etc.), we should allow ourselves the latitude to use plants that we find pleasing. If we lean towards the evergreens as the main plant theme and accent it with deciduous material that provides seasonal blooms or foliage color we can gain the look of the Japanese garden.

Ornaments (Tenkebutsu)
When the average westerner thinks of the Japanese garden, the first thing to spring to mind is a stone lantern. While this can be a wonderful sculptural element it is not truly a necessary garden element. It is very important to remember that the ornament is subservient to the garden and not the other way around. Lanterns, stupas, and basins should be used as architectural accents and then only when a point of visual interest is necessary to the overall design.

That said, there is no better way to announce your design as a Japanese garden then a well-placed lantern. There are three basic styles (with many variations). The Kasuga style lantern is a very formal upright lantern with a stone base. The base is the feature that distinguishes it from the Oribe style, where the pedestal is sunk in the ground. The final style of lantern is the Yukimi or Snow-Viewing lantern that is set on short legs instead of a pedestal. Consider the formality of your garden setting. The less formal the garden, the less formal the lanterns or ornaments should be.

Borrowed Scenery (Shakkei)
It is not always possible, but outside elements can sometimes be included in the garden. It was considered very tasteful to work a distant mountain into your design, framing it with the stones and plants in the garden proper. There are four types of borrowed scenery.

  • Far - the distant mountain
  • Near - a tree just outside the fence
  • High - above the fence
  • Low - seen below a fence or through a window in the fence

While this may seem to contradict our sense of enclosure, it is yet another reminder of the interconnectedness of all things.

The feel of your garden
The Japanese garden is a place of subtlety, a place of contradictions and imperatives. Rules are laid down as absolutes and then broken with another rule. If viewed in a Zen manner this makes perfect sense; the koan “If you meet the Buddha on the road, you must kill him” tells us that we must not cling blindly to rules.

If we have done our best to present the spirit of the Japanese garden, then adherence to thousand year old traditions will have little meaning one way or another. It would be foolish as modern westerners to try and create a Buddhist saints garden. We may memorize the proper stone placements, but this style is no longer practiced in Japan, let alone in the United States, because it lacks meaning for us in the modern world.

Let us instead select a few garden features that do hold meaning for us and incorporate them into a garden. If we follow the Three Laws of Garden we will not go far wrong.

First Principle
The design must suit the site, not vice versa.

Second Principle
Correctly place the stones, then the trees, then the shrubs.

Third Principle
Be aquainted with the rules of shin, gyo, and so. This helps set the correct mood.

If the garden is in Japan it is a Japanese garden. All we can do is make an American garden in the Japanese style. When Rikyu was asked what constituted the perfect Roji, he replied, “Thick green moss, all pure and sunny warm”. In other words it is not the nuts and bolts but the feel that is the important feature

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