Japanese Garden Design Guides – Architectural and Organic Elements

Various Chinese philosophical and religious beliefs, including Buddhism and Taoism have heavily influenced the early gardens of Japan since the early days of the Asuka (593-710), Nara (710-784) and Heian periods. During the Kamakura era (1185-1333), the arrival of Zen Buddhism from China transformed the spiritual life style of the cultured Japanese. This Zen influence soon extended to gardens. They became refuges for contemplation and meditation, frequently adopting the Karesansui (Dry Landscape) style of using stones and sands, instead of water to suggest landscapes marked by flowing rivers and mountains.

The Japanese continued to shape and define this unique gardening style to express their cultural and spiritual way of life. Ultimately the garden mirrors the interrelationship between humans and nature as expressed in the garden.

At its spiritual center the Japanese garden reflects a reverence and quiet restraint. A respect and recognition of the unique and powerful spirit of all its elements. Conflicting elements; an energy of line and material worked with great restraint and the driving force of a waterfall or in pebbles swept into patterns around a boulder, combine to create an atmosphere of tranquil harmony. Often salvaged materials are recycled and given a new form and purpose. A fallen tree may be reinvented as a bench or bridge.

Architectual Elements

Natural objects, such as rock, stone, lanterns, stepping stones, bamboo fences and gates, reinforce the garden’s expression of the natural world and natural relationships. There are a number of architectural elements and plants to choose from, with plenty of room to sow your own artistic inspiration alongside traditional Japanese design!

Stepping Stones

Stepping stones add function as well as beauty. They prevent upsets on slippery moss or the soiling of footwear and kimono (or long dresses), and offer a firm surface for leisure strolls.

Use cut stones or uncut, flat-topped stones buried deep in the soil. The long axis of each stone should be perpendicular to the path; where the path turns, the pivot stone’s axle should bend in the same direction. Follow concave shapes with convex ones, and flat edges with flat edges to give the path a continuous flow. Mixing and matching the stones until the path is right is often a matter of trial and error, but the work will proceed quickly once your eye is trained. The farther apart the stones, the quicker one tends to walk, and the closer together, the slower. Always think of what the walker will see before them on the path and work to create points of interest and places to pause.

Stone Pavements

Pavements of regularly shaped cut stones were a later development in Japanese gardens now common today. They are particularly pleasing in wide, open stretches where they will not interfere with the naturalism and asymmetry of typical garden elements.

In general, the larger the stones the more space left between them. About 10mm, is sufficient spacing for bricks and small stones. If the stones are thick the joints should be deep and not filled in with soil. You may pack in mortar with thin stones to prevent slippage. Slate is readily available, but any material can be used: natural or man-made stone, bricks, even concrete. Add variety by using a large, flat, natural stone as a pivot.

Tsukubai: Water Basin

Another important element of Japanese garden design, the tsukubai, or water basin, has no fixed rules for placement. Its location depends on the overall garden layout and on whether it frequently serves as a water source. It generally looks best in a low or wide flat area before a stone wall, bamboo fence, or hedge toward the back. As a rule, separate the tsukubai from waterfall and wells otherwise, the two strong water elements will compete for visual attention. Set a stone lantern nearby for vertical balance and nighttime illumination.

Bamboo Fences

Traditionally, the internal walls of the Japanese home are set with large, sliding panels. These are opened to create spacious areas indoors through which the family members can circulate freely. The home’s outer walls have similar panels that, when opened, allow an unrestricted view of the garden from inside. The distant wall or fence beyond the garden is thus the only genuine barrier on the property. Echoing the architectural lines of the home and the materials of the garden, it encloses a total living area shared by house, family, and nature. It is built high enough – between 1 and 2 meters – to prevent distracting external elements from intruding.

Fences shield, border, partition, or help unify the spaces they enclose. Therefore, it’s wise to select the fence first, as its height, color, and style will affect the design of the entire garden.


Conventional placements are at the turn in a path, on the edge of a pond or stream, near a bridge, or near the tsukubai.

Lanterns come in many different styles:

TACHI-GATA (personal lanterns): Used mainly in large gardens, Tachi-gata commonly stand about 1 1/2 meters high, though sometimes run up to 3 meters. Lanterns of this size have quite an overpowering effect and naturally become the focus of the entire garden.

IKEKOMI-GATA (buried lanterns): These lack a pedestal because the shaft is inserted directly into the ground. They are often used near the tsukubai but complement any spot in the garden.

OKI-GATA (small, set lanterns): Most often, placed at a pond’s edge, the side of a path, or in very small courtyard gardens, these lanterns are tiny and relatively unobtrusive.

YUKIMI-GATA (snow-viewing lanterns): The most popular form, these are used near water elements. Low postures and open-leg designs give them a breezy intimacy that is well appreciated in a small area.

When using these lanterns at night, you also should consider illuminating only a few points in the garden rather than bathing the entire area with a flood lamp. Turn the face of the flame box toward the viewing area or the tsukubai, or position it to throw light on a rock formation or along a path.

Organic Elements


Now that you’ve decided this gardening style suits your tastes, you should first pause to consider how well it suits your local temperature and climate. Most of the plants included in the list below suit a wide range of climate zones from zones 3 through 11.


  • Chinese Lace Bark Elm (Seiryo)
  • Dwarf Blue Spruce
  • Pink, Double Flowering Japanese Weeping Cherry
  • Star Magnolia
  • Persian Lilac
  • Burgundy Flame Japanese Maple Hybrid
  • Hinoki False Cypress
  • Japanese Black Pine
  • Canadian Hemlock
  • Pink Flowering Dogwood
  • Dwarf White Eastern Pine
  • Mugho Pines(two)
  • Weeping Japanese Red Pine
  • Boulevard Blue False Cypress
  • Crimson Japanese Maple
  • Green Leaf Standard Japanese Maple
  • Japanese Larch

Shrubs, Grasses, and Flowers

  • Calgary Carpet Juniper
  • Blue Rug Juniper
  • Blue Star Juniper
  • Juniper Scandia (two)
  • Hino Crimson Azalea
  • Hino Dwarf White Azalea
  • Dwarf Rhododendrons
  • Yarrow
  • Astilbe”Peach Blossom”
  • Green Mound Japanese Garden Juniper
  • Berberis