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What is a Japanese Garden?

Posted by inkognito (My Page) on
Fri, Aug 1, 08 at 18:13

Perhaps this is a time for definitions. Perhaps a purist would deny a Japanese influence as a legitimate ambition. Perhaps someone could explain why we westerners are interested in Japanese gardens at all.

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

the image it sets up in the mind when one hears or speaks of a Japanese garden

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Because maybe a western garden sucks.. or maybe I have had to much to drink.. I tried the japanese garden thing in my backyard but it is more of a mixture of all.. you tell me.. I would like it to be more asian or japanese but will settle for just asian looking.. and I am european.. but just happen to have to the dumb luck of parents to settle here in the US

Here is a link that might be useful: my yard, pond and other things

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

I don't get a sense of the passion some feel for Japanese Gardens perhaps by asking you are admitting that you will never know, it being obvious.

Check out the number of forums here on the garden web that have the name of a country in their title, only one, right?


RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by bboy z8 WA USA (My Page) on
    Sat, Sep 6, 08 at 18:24

Like other disciplines that have developed over a long period of time you can get probably best get the effect you want by studying the subject well before trying to create your own example. Once you learn how it works and how to put it together then the frustration will probably be diminished significantly.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

I am just starting mine, and I admit it is not likely to ever satisfy a purist. But for me, the most important characteristic I am trying to achieve is a sense of seclusion and peace. So I'm putting in a lot of evergreens around the edges, and using varied plants to soften a privacy fence and parts of my house and my neighbor's house that tend to define the space as well. There will be some flowers, and also a little more emphasis on Japanese plants, but mostly I am just trying to pay more attention to a sense of space and form and interesting foliage, rather than a big floral display. Somewhere down the road there will be a pond, and a sitting area or two. Maybe some kind of boulder arrangement, a little statuary, who knows?

A sense of peace, and separation from the outside ("profane") world; that's about all I understand about Japanese gardens so far.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Okay I'll bite...

My limited understanding of Japanese Gardens is that they evolved as a form of nature worship. We can read all about the "principles" but I believe the essence is to create forum in which people (the gardener) can admire nature and interact with it. When you get into the really advanced pruning and training techniques, it seems clear to me that these are attempts at mimicking nature on a small, contained scale, in a flattering manner. Further reading brings you into all of the representations in japanese gardens and one can quickly learn that nothing is by accident. Everything is placed where it is for a reason, with a clear intention. The part of the observer, then could be to wonder about, and try to interpret that initial intent. So, it becomes a kind of puzzle. I know that whenever I am in a japanese garden, I wonder about its creator(s) and why they might have designed it in the way they did.

On another level entirely, I think that japanese gardens help people to see things differently. There is always a different vantage point that reveals something new to the viewer. This, I suppose could be said of almost any garden, but I know that when I am working in my garden, depending on where I stand, I can see for example, different maple leaves in different lighting, different branches on the pines, etc... all of this reminds me that there is always another perspective. In this way, it could be said that gardens can teach one about life. I know I am learning about patience...

I don't have the source for this, but it has been remarked that anything said about zen is too much.

Perhaps the same is true of Japanese Gardens?

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by laag z6CapeCod (My Page) on
    Fri, Nov 14, 08 at 19:57

It is the balance and orchaestration of all influences within the garden whether simple or complicated. Because it is extremely hard to communicate balancing multiple variables, it is discussed using metaphors of religion, philosophy, and nature.

I believe there is often a greater obsession with chasing the metaphors than there is in understanding the actual mechanisms in play in the actual garden.

Physical characteristics and how they interplay are totally separate from philosophy. Philosophy may be the inspiration for the result, but it is not the mechanism for the result. We can study philosophy until the cows come home, but at some point we have to understand what the heck we are looking at.

I think that the what is so captivating is the calm. The more complicated the composition the more striking is the calm (if it is done well).

Two twins on either side of a see-saw is perfect balance, but does not inspire calm because it is obvious. Off center that see-saw and balance it out with unrelated items in different numbers and different sizes spaced oddly and it has a very different affect. It is an intricate calm.

You can understand that notion of complicating the balance on that see-saw, but you still need to place all of those things to make it work.


  • Posted by laag z6CapeCod (My Page) on
    Sat, Nov 15, 08 at 9:45

A better analogy might be silence. If you sit in a football stadium by yourself, the silence is unimpressive. If you sat in a stadium with 70,000 people and there was complete silence, it would be dramatic.

That is what I observe to be the magic of a Japanese garden. It is often an elephant on one side of the see-saw and a mouse on the other, yet it is balanced. Many see only the elephant and the mouse and do not look at all of the other subtle things that are done to make that see-saw balance. The farther these gardens venture from obvious geometric balance the more dramatic the sense of rest becomes when they are balanced.

You can look at a Zen gravel & rock garden and see a big cluster of rocks and a small cluster of rocks in a gravel field. The size of the field, the size and positions of the rocks, the distances between them is all about the mouse and the elephant. If you only see the mouse and the elephant you won't get the same result.

The same holds true with stone lanterns, moon gates, japanese maples, or rocks. If you only see those items and don't see what they are doing to the landscape around it, or what that landscape is doing to it, you'll have the ingredients without the recipe.

The next question is whether you can make a japanese garden without using anything japanese.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by yama 7b Ga (My Page) on
    Sun, Dec 14, 08 at 0:48

Hi laag
I think, it is possible. We have rocks, beautiful moss,blue sky( it is gray now^^) here in New England.
Understand what makes Japanese garden so special.
Without stone lantern, without the religion. Perhaps you don't have to call the garden" Japanese garden"
I don't live in GA anymore. I am New Englander with strong Japanese accent. Anyone can be New Englander?
Only WASP ?

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by laag z6CapeCod (My Page) on
    Sun, Dec 14, 08 at 8:57

Welcome to New England! My parents had strong accents, too (One WASP).

What should be called a Japanese Garden? I'm not sure.

I see lots of "japanese gardens" by many containing all of the items associated with Japanese Gardens yet do not evoke the feeling that is the magic of a Japanese Garden in my opinion. It is like boiled sushi.

I have seen other gardens that do evoke that feeling that do not incorporate those items. Maybe this is the same as a California Roll? I don't know.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Well, I think the problem is to talk about "Japanese Garden" in this way. The differences between e.g. a tea garden, a Zen garden (karesansui ?) or stroll garden (just to name a few) is too big to talk about in these general term. I know it is often done but I do not share that. There are some commonalities but these are often not the subject of a discussion. I think it would be better to be one degree more precise. I know that in a temple-complex there are mostly compositions of different types but that is seldom the case outside Japan.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Tsubo-en karesansui garden

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Piet: I welcome your input and really the intent of my enigmatic post was to draw out thoughts such as yours. From what I understand of what you are saying 'Japanese Garden' is way too general to describe anything at all.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Well mr/mrs inkognito,
As the Japanese garden evolved over 15 centuries it is difficult to label or "put in a box".
To my humble opinion (and over 25 year "hands on" experience with the subject) I think that the Archetypes (thanks Edzard!) of gardens according to the Tokyo Agricultural University are just what is needed.

On my website I try to be of help to those that want to realize their own "Japanese garden", in my caes with a high focus on the Zen or Karesansui garden. As one of the first thoughs should be: "what type of Japanese garden do I want to realize ?" it is a must to be able to typify it. Then this is a basis for further study, investigation, discussion and what have you.

In the case of my own garden, Tsubo-en, in general terms and based on these Archetypes I call it a "Zen garden" (aka karesansui garden) with "Tea garden" elements.

For this very reason, that is in support of design discussions, I have put a page on my website with a listing of these Archetypes and more. See the "useful" link below.

Here is a link that might be useful: How to typify, architect and compose a Japanese garden ?

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by yama 7b Ga (My Page) on
    Thu, Dec 25, 08 at 0:36

I talked with Dan.Resubmit the membership if you want to.
You have been saving my aXX in the past and nice to me,
So I am doing same now.^^

What is Tusbo mean? 3.3 Sq meter? two tatami mat size? or smallest unit of devided area/section?
What is zen mean to you ? What is your definition of zen?
Do you think that Tibetan or Thai Buddhism have Zen too ?
Pure land Buddhism has Zen in it or not?

Question, question ^^
How do you think, since you started this posting.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Hello Yama,

The name we gave our garden is 'Tsubo-en'. This name was initially given to our first Japanese style garden back in 1987. At that time the info about tsubo could not be found on the Internet ! The idea came from a book by Loraine Kuck. Although I explain about the tsubo on my website a good definition can be found on this URL:

Regarding a definition of Zen I refrain from trying to give any as it would be far too presumptuous. With regard to Zen and the garden I can only say that I concentrate purely on the aesthetic impact of Zen on the 'garden experience' by trying to understand the backgrounds and by studying existing gardens, old and young. On my website you can find links to definitions that are not and will not be mine. For that I can only cite that 'every word said to explain Zen is one too many' (or something). FYI I am a Zazen practitioner for over 10 years now but only for the peace of mind that it brings me.

Wel yes I think so as Zen is only the Japanese word and interpretation originating from the Chinese Chn that was derived from the Sanskrit Dhyāna. Not sure why you ask as you probably know the answer better than I do ?!

Here is a link that might be useful: - The Tsubo-en home

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

Good question - I have no idea!

My wife knows nothing about gardening, less about Japanese gardens. At the San Francisco Japanese garden, we were standing, overlooking a small pond. She said "it is sooo peaceful".

Many japanese gardens have this quality (based mostly on a lot of reading and pictures). But some do not. For example I find some far too cluttered with rocks. I don't see or feel the balance. Maybe I am not trained to understand the subtle balance that exists in the same way that I can't appreciate good music.

Rock and Sand gardens. Very interesting - yes. Unusual - yes. Peaceful - not really - not for me. I find them lacking of ?? something.

I have spent some time in the far north - the Arctic - where no tree grows. Where no people live. It is at least as peaceful as a Japanese Garden. I get a similar feeling on a quiet day in a North American deciduous forest. Both of these places have a Zen like quality.

So a Zen like feeling may be important, but it does not define a Japanese Garden.

Westerners, add a pond, a bridge, a stone lantern, and some bamboo and they have a Japanese Garden. Are these icons required? Required may be too strong a word, but I think that without them, a Japanese Garden is much less recognizable. Can you have a tea garden without a building?

Some people say a garden has an 'oriental flare or influence'. That usually means none of the icons are there. There might be some racked gravel or a clipped pine - but not much else.

Just as important are the missing things - the negative icons. For example - tall grasses, and flowering perennials.

So maybe a Japanese garden has three things; a Zen like feeling, certain expected icons, and the lack of unexpected icons.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by yama 7b Ga (My Page) on
    Fri, Jan 2, 09 at 18:29

Happy New Year to Inky and others.

RE: What is a Japanese Garden?

  • Posted by botann z8 SEof Seattle (My Page) on
    Sun, Jan 4, 09 at 23:12

"Perhaps someone could explain why we westerners are interested in Japanese gardens at all."

Japanese gardens have a sense of scale, proportion and good lines. Attributes most western gardens lack.

Happy New Year Ink, Yama, and the rest of the posters here.
Best regards,
Foggy morning by the pond

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