Inspirational Japanese Zen Garden Ideas – Forbes Advisor

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Japanese gardens are popular garden styles due to their simplicity and timeless sophistication. These gardens combine the essential elements of water, rocks and plants to inspire peaceful contemplation. If you are looking to enhance your landscaping or garden, consider a Japanese garden. Creating a Japanese garden in your backyard is not difficult as long as you understand the basics and the types of gardens that go into this style. Here are some Japanese garden ideas to bring some zen to your landscape.

What is a Japanese garden?

The main aesthetic of a Japanese garden is a simple, minimalist natural setting designed to inspire reflection and meditation. “There are several styles of Japanese gardens, depending on the period of Japanese history and culture they represent,” said Megumi Kato, marketing director of the Portland Japanese Garden. Garden styles are inspired by Buddhist, Shinto and Taoist philosophies, as well as Chinese influences.

Types of Japanese gardens

Japanese gardens are classified according to the nature of their terrain and some may share more than one element of each style.

1. Dry landscape (Karesansui)

“When people think of a common Japanese garden, they can imagine a raked gravel garden, which we often see referred to as a Zen garden,” Kato said. These gardens are characterized by the use of large stones to suggest mountains and other terrain. There are no real water features in this garden and very few plants. Water is symbolized by the arrangement of rocky shapes to create a dry waterfall and by patterns raked in the gravel to create a dry stream.

2. Hill (Tsukiyama)

Tsukiyama refers to the creation of artificial hills. These gardens are miniature reproductions of natural landscapes or landscapes found in China or Japan. Tsukiyama can contain ponds, streams, hills, stones, trees, flowers, bridges, and paths. Tsukiyama is one of the oldest and most popular types of gardens in Japan.

3. Tea garden (Chaniwa)

The Japanese tea garden is an integral part of the tea ceremony. Tea gardens usually have a shelter (tea room), naturally shaped stepping stones, a water basin, and evergreen plants. These gardens consist of indoor and outdoor gardens, connected by a path (roji) that leads to the tea house. The path is intended to help the guest mentally prepare in order to achieve the right frame of mind for the upcoming ceremony.

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4. Promenade garden (Kayushiki Teien)

Promenade or promenade gardens were often found in the villas of nobles or warlords in 17th century Japan. These gardens are almost always laid out around a central pond or lake, and bridges are an essential part of the design. These gardens often mimic scenes and settings from Japanese and Chinese history and myths. Historically, the design of promenade gardens reflected the wealth and intelligence of the owner of the garden.

5. Court (Tsuboniwa)

The courtyard garden is a small garden set in an enclosed space. The word tsubo itself translates to an area equal to two tatami mats (approximately 3.3 square meters). This type of garden can feature many styles similar to other Japanese gardens and can be over three square meters in size. However, the courtyard gardens are almost always surrounded by walls.

6. Apartment (Hiraniwa)

These gardens are designed to be seen from a single point of view. The flat gardens imitate the landscape of a mountain valley or a moor. Some flat gardens incorporate elements of Karesansui (Zen gardens).

Japanese garden elements

Although each type of Japanese garden has its own distinctive style, there are some common design elements represented in each one. “There are three main elements in every Japanese garden design: stone, or the ‘bones’ of the landscape, water, life-giving force; and plants, the tapestry of the four seasons, ”Kato explained. However, not all of these elements need to be represented literally.

The water

Water symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity. It can be represented in many ways in a Japanese garden such as in ponds or lakes, or in a fountain. In a Zen garden, the water element is represented figuratively as a pattern raked in the gravel, imitating the ripples observed in moving water.


The stones anchor the garden. These elements are arranged in a specific pattern, depending on their shapes and sizes. The stones create relief in the Japanese garden. They are used to produce hills and valleys, creating miniature versions of waterfalls, streams and ponds.


Plants in a Japanese garden add color, texture and shape. The most famous plant form in a Japanese garden is bonsai. The color in the garden is delivered by the flowers and leaves throughout the season. The texture is achieved by various plants, from the softness of the moss to the coarseness of the pine foliage.

Other elements

Japanese gardens also use man-made elements, such as garden architecture and ornaments. These elements are visible in the bridges crossing the bodies of water, the fences and gates and the statuary. Many of these man-made items are made from natural materials, such as bamboo or stone. Wildlife is also a common theme seen in Japanese gardens. Of course, Koi are the most popular choice because they add movement and color to large bodies of water.

How to add Japanese garden elements

It’s easy to add Japanese garden elements to your garden. “It depends on the style you are looking for,” Kato said, “But one way to do it is to incorporate the three main elements of stone, water and plants.” When adding these elements to your space, it’s important to keep in mind the broad principles of Japanese garden design: miniaturization, concealment, borrowed decor, and asymmetry.


The primary purpose of a Japanese garden is to present a miniature and idealized view of nature. Stones represent mountains, ponds represent seas, and bonsai represent weathered trees growing on the side of a cliff or an entire forest.


Most of the elements of a Japanese garden are not meant to be seen at the same time. Hide some features behind hills, trees, or structures. This allows them to be discovered as the visitor follows the path through the garden.

Borrowed landscape

Using the surrounding landscape to enhance your garden is a “borrowed landscape”. Small gardens can incorporate elements outside the garden, such as hills, trees, or structures, to make the garden appear larger. Use elements beyond your garden, like a mountain or trees that offer beautiful fall foliage in the distance, and incorporate them as part of your garden design for added interest.


Japanese gardens mimic nature with the use of an asymmetrical balance. This is accomplished by using odd groups and sizes of plants and other objects to create a natural-looking landscape that brings balance and harmony. Place items irregularly to create an unexpected backdrop. It helps to break the pattern of perfection, making your garden more natural.

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