Features of a Japanese Water Garden

Japanese gardens are in-tune with nature. These gardens implement many features in order to create an appealing, natural setting for people to enjoy. Follow these elements in the right amounts and style and a Japanese garden can be recreated anywhere in the world.

Traditionally there are two main themes that Japanese gardens have revolved around; those gardens that were once the preferred choice of the Japanese aristocracy and those that were created and maintained by the Buddhist religious order in Japan. The former of these groups brought the focus of their gardens towards aesthetics and having a space for recreation, for example strolling. The Buddhist traditions looked more towards a place of escapism, reflection and meditation.

Today, Japanese gardens could be seen as a mix of these two traditions although certainly upon viewing a garden you can sometimes see towards which end of the Japanese tradition the garden designer was leaning. These days most Japanese gardens that you find use a set of key traditional elements to create places for people to enjoy, and these elements are usually a mix of both traditions and represent some core aspects of Japanese culture including myths, spiritual belief and geographical places within Japan.

Due to the aim of Japanese gardens to bring natural landscapes into a, smaller-scale, garden setting Japanese gardens have become extremely popular in both private gardens and in small spaces such as courtyards.  It’s of no surprise that Asian-style gardens that feature water elements heavily, such as Japanese gardens, have seen particular popularity with hobbyists looking after Koi, which are intertwined with the region and its traditional gardens.

Of the many elements that make up a Japanese water garden, here’s a little bit about the two essentials, water and stone – the Yin Yang.

Water

What would a Japanese water garden be without a little water? Actually, don’t answer that.

The Japanese are only too aware of the natural significance of water. It’s of course a revered element and one that is, at its very essence, natural. Water sustains life, and so to have water running in a Japanese garden is to have life flowing through it too. In Japanese gardens, water has a close relationship with stone as they are quite opposite forms, one being hard and one being soft. That said, they are seen to complement each other, which is the idea behind Yin Yang.

Almost all types of water bodies have been recreated at some point in traditional water gardens, including lakes, rivers and even the ocean. Other aquatic elements are almost always incorporated too, such as cascades and waterfalls, as these have cultural significance in representing the Japanese mountainous regions. Direction of flow can be seen as an important aspect of a water feature, with East to West or North to South being favoured for potential good tidings.

By Urashimataro (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Urashimataro (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Other water features you will likely find in an authentic Japanese water garden include water basins (in Japenese Tsukubai). These are a familiar sight and would have been washbasins in a traditional Japanese tea or Buddhist garden. These again bring together water and stone, water flows through a pipe (called a kakei) into the basin which is made from stone. Some basins are are natural in appearance and others more stylised or featuring inscriptions.

Stone

As mentioned, stone is an important aspect in the composition of a Japanese garden. It can be found in many features including as the bed of flowing water, in a waterfall or cascade for example. Stone is also used in the surrounds of bodies of water and is frequently used as stepping stones.

Different arrangements of stone and stone of different texture or type also have their own significance in a traditional garden. Both metamorphic rock and sedimentary rock are used for different aspects and so are shapes. Different classifications of rock exist depending on shape and style and on occasion are used to represent islands and mountains. In a similar way to the direction of water flow, rocks with veins are also carefully placed in specific orientation.

You will usually find rocks in a Japanese garden grouped together in set of twos, threes, fives and sevens and arranged by height, representing the heavens, earth and mankind.

By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
One other common sight in a Japanese garden and one that has been enthusiastically adopted by amateurs is the stone lantern. These were originally a feature of Buddhist gardens and led along paths for navigation, usually to and from the temple. It is said that a traditional lantern represents five cosmological elements. Today, Stone lanterns have become a very common feature in Japanese-style gardens all over the world.

For more in-depth information on Japanese Gardens and their development visit wikipedia.

Header image By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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