The essence of Japanese gardens

There is no simple definition of what constitutes a Japanese garden, nor is there a single style. To western eyes, two of the most striking elements are stone lanterns and beds of raked gravel, but neither on its own is enough to make a garden Japanese.

Compositional beauty

Composition is important in any garden, but what distinguishes a Japanese garden is the beauty achieved through a blend of natural plants, sand, water and rock. The aim is not simply to achieve an aesthetic effect, but draws its inspiration from the two main religions in Japan - Shinto and Buddhism.

Spiritual inspiration

From the earliest times, Japanese have regarded places surrounded by natural rocks as dwelling places of the gods. So, too, with dense clusters of trees; and water has traditionally encircled sacred ground. It is in these ancient Shinto beliefs that the creative origin of Japanese gardening lies.

Ornamental rockWhen Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th century, it brought new intellectual conventions that also found their way into garden design. The earliest of these was the use of gardens to represent the Buddhist vision of paradise. Then, from about the 14th century, Zen Buddhist doctrine gave rise to one of the most important concepts of Japanese gardening - the symbolic expression of a whole universe in a limited space. Various ingenious devices were used to achieve such effects - raked sand or gravel to represent a river or the ocean, rocks to represent islands or mountains, and miniature trees to represent a whole forest.

Gardens acquired an almost pictorial delicacy of composition that could endure long and studied observation - a very different concept from western gardening, which often seeks to delight with a profusion of colours.

A parting of the ways

Stone lantern covered in mossWhen peace returned to Japan in the late 16th century after many years of internal strife, successful samurai expressed their confidence through bold garden design, grouping boulders in unique shapes and striking colours, and surrounding them with exotic plants. Such ostentatious design was shunned by the great master of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, who sought inspiration for his tea garden (roji niwa) in the desolate tranquility of a mountain trail. This was symbolized through such elements as stepping stones, stone lanterns, stone wash basins and groves of trees. Although the more restrained design seems to be regarded by many as the "true spirit" of Japanese gardens, recent examples of the more brash style are still easy to find in Japan today, particularly in the suburban belt around Tokyo.

A synthesis of styles

The long period of prosperity the Tokugawa shoguns brought to Japan from the beginning of the 17th century gave birth to yet another style of Japanese gardening - a synthesis of all that had gone before. This came to be known as kaiyu (many pleasures), in which various gardens - often round a central pond - were constructed, displaying striking changes of scene to visitors as they wandered around the garden. It also gave birth to what is now regarded as one of the most important elements of a Japanese garden - shakkei (borrowed views).

Shakkei - using nature as a natural backdrop

The concept of reproducing nature in miniature has run throughout the centuries of garden design, and it was only natural that nature itself should be co-opted. Distant hills in the background and other topographical features were "borrowed" and integrated into the perspective of the garden. The garden and nature seemed to become one, but it's a subtle combination of the two - and one that all but the most skillful of garden designers can so easily get wrong.