“Zen is the peculiarly Chinese way of accomplishing the Buddhist goal of seeing the world just as it is, that is, with a mind that has no grasping thoughts or feelings.”

(Sanskrit trishna)

The art of Japanese gardens has been believed to be one of the most important parts of Japanese culture for many centuries. Its conception has a large influence of the country’s philosophies and religion, such as Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism. There was a general wish to bring a spiritual sense to the gardens and make them places where people could spend their time in a peaceful way and meditate.

Therefore, there are different styles of gardens in Japan:

  • Hill and Pond Style Gardens that originated from China.  The ponds represent the sea, and the hills symbolize the islands. Lanterns, trees, bridges, and ponds are practically necessities here. They vary in size, usually cover many acres, but with careful techniques, it can be created in a small backyard.
  • Dry Landscape Style Gardens are very simple and modern-looking, usually placed in a very small area. They reproduce natural landscapes in a more abstract way by using stones, gravel and sand onto mountains, islands and rivers. They refer to the Zen philosophy and usually try to evoke a deeper meaning.
  • Tea Style Gardens have a very intimate atmosphere and are meant to provide relaxation from a person’s busy lifestyle. They are designed for the tea ceremony. They contain a tea house -where the ceremony is held – and a stone basin where guests can purify themselves before participating in it.
  • Stroll Style Gardens that are meant for admiring from the path and that is why they never reveal the whole gardens’ beauty from one spot. They must be big enough to enable visitors to walk along the path and spacious at the same time to allow the path to take turns.
  • Courtyard Style Garden follows the rule of having an outside sensation while still being inside. Apart from other styles, everything here must be full-sized. All elements, as lanterns, bridges, basins have an ornamental rather than a functional meaning.

Until the 6th century, gardens were built in imperial palaces for the recreation and entertainment of the emperor and aristocrats. During the Kamakura period, a shift of power from the aristocratic court to the military elite was completed. The majority of gardens designed were property of the shoguns and daimyos, the highest classes in Japanese society. The military rulers also embraced the newly introduced Zen Buddhism, which would exert a strong influence on garden aesthetics. They were no longer conceived for recreational purposes, but built attached to temple buildings to help monks in meditation and religious advancement.

Zen is a buddhist school that was firstly developed in China and later in Japan as the result of a fusion between the Mahayana form of Buddhism (originated in India) and Taoism. Zen and Chan are, respectively the Japanese and Chinese ways of pronouncing the Sanskrit term Dhyana, which designates a state of mind roughly equivalent to contemplation or meditation.

The Japanese rock garden (karesansui) or ‘dry landscape’ garden, often called as Zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rock, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water. A Zen garden is usually relatively small, surrounded by a wall, and is usually meant to be seen while seated from a single viewpoint outside the garden, such as the porch of the hojo, the residence of the chief monk of the temple or monastery. Classical zen gardens were created in Zen Buddhism temples in Kyoto during the Muromachi period. They intended to imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and to serve as an aid to meditation about the true meaning of life.

So, the design of traditional Japanese gardens answers to some strict guidelines:

  • There must be a sense of naturality, so the garden looks like it is growing by itself;
  • They pledge to asymmetry, which creates the impression of being natural and not a man-made
  • One of the most important cornerstones of Japanese gardens is its simplicity, that follows the idea of ‘less is more’;
  • The lines play an interesting part in Japanese gardens by creating both tranquility and tension;
  • The curves soften the effect of lines.

Very different from occidental gardens, the Japanese gardens have an aesthetic based on curve and asymmetries. The trees, flowers, plants, water, rocks and other garden elements symbolize nature. But, they aren’t simply a faithful of a landscape; they represent the desire to create an ideal in miniature, in a limited space, that offers us the opportunity and possibility to mediate.


BONUS: The gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation, in Lisbon were built in the likeness of 
the Japanese gardens' principles and aesthetics. Click here to see them.