How to Design an Asian Garden
Bring the art and beauty of Japan to your garden with inspiration from Kyoto Gardens, written by Judith Clancy and photographed by Ben Simmons.
Kyoto Gardens: Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener's Art
Kyoto Gardens, with text by Judith Clancy and photography by Ben Simmons, celebrates some of the most beautiful gardens in Japan's former imperial capital. Let Clancy's words and Simmons' images inspire you to add elements of Japanese design to your own garden, whether you prefer a minimalistic look or lush plantings of verdant moss, blooming cherry trees and vibrant red maples.
Rocks in Japanese Gardens
"The first essential step in designing a (Japanese) garden is rock placement," says Kyoto Gardens author Judith Clancy. Rocks—which are believed to contain spirits—are placed horizontally, and other elements such as moss, streams, or plants are arranged around them. To add this distinctive element to your garden, consider the color and texture of the rocks you'll use. "Not too long ago, apprentice gardeners were instructed to sit near or in a stream or coastline to study the interaction between the rocks and a body of water," Clancy says. Here, a rock grouping in the estate garden of Nijo Castle forms a small island. A dwarf pine overlooks the pond.
Vertical Rock Placement
Gardener Shigemori Mirei (1895-1975) was known for placing rocks vertically, rather than horizontally, which is the traditional usage in Japanese gardens. In this Tofuku-ji garden, the vertical rocks suggest a dragon's ears and nose as the mythical creature rises from a swirling cloud of gravel. Dragons, Clancy says, are exalted in the oriental zodiac. You can add magic to your garden by experimenting with how you place the rocks.
This kare sansui, or dry garden, shows how sand and gravel are used to convey the sense of flowing water, waves, clouds or seasonal themes, says Clancy. To duplicate this effect in your garden, you'll need a long-handled rake with a large-toothed, horizontal bar. As you'd expect, maintaining the shapes takes regular attention; some zen temples work on their gardens daily. Blowers and bamboo whisks are often used to gently clear the surface. "....Leaving without a footprint takes much practice and a good balance," the author adds.
Ponds are often used in Japanese gardens to reflect the plants around them. Here, Kyoto's iconic Golden Pavilion is seen on Mirror Pond. "Ponds created 1,500 years ago helped to irrigate rice fields and cultivate a supply of small fish," says author Judith Clancy. Later, aristocrats added them for drainage purposes and to provide a way to view their estates by boat. "Pet carp enlivened the garden and seasonal blooms of water lilies and lotus expanded the floral landscape."
Many Japanese gardens are designed to be viewed from inside a temple or other building, so when you're creating your garden, give some thought to how you can see it from your home. This garden at Kennin-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, is framed by two wooden doors to draw visitors' attention to rocks that represent Buddha and two disciples.
Ferns and Rocks
Although all kinds of flowers, shrubs and trees are planted in Japanese gardens, they're arranged to mimic nature. In this image, Clancy points out that natural materials—star moss, rocks, and ferns—are used to introduce different shades of green into the garden.
Several elements typical of Japanese gardens appear in this scene, including a rock path, a lantern, a water basin, maple trees and sculpted shrubs, such as azaleas. The rock path in this small garden of Anraku-ji, in Kyoto's Eastern Mountains, isn't meant for strolling. Instead, it leads the eye to the nearly hidden basin and small lantern.
Moss Covered Bridge
Another common feature in Japanese gardens, bridges symbolize physical or spiritual passages. "This use of bridges is so widespread and accepted, that they are not expected to transport anything other than the imagination," Clancy explains. That's why the lush blanket of moss on this wooden bridge in the Daigo-ji temple garden remains untouched, although you may opt for a structure you can actually use.
Many Japanese gardens use a technique known as shakei, or borrowed scenery. That is, they incorporate the background or vista into the garden's design. The Shinnyo-do Hermitage Garden includes a view of Mt. Hiei, the second highest peak in Kyoto. "A few years ago," Clancy says, "new apartment buildings would have destroyed the view of Mt. Hiei and involved temples won (a) court battle since it is widely accepted that the distant view is an integral part of the gardening tradition."
Maple Leaf in Sand
Japanese gardens use maples, flowering cherries, and other trees and plants for their seasonal beauty. Plum trees, bamboo and pines are often planted for winter interest. These real maple leaves have tumbled onto a raked image of a maple leaf at the Honen-in temple garden. Look for plants with springtime or autumnal appeal when creating your own Japanese garden. When sculpting sand, you may want to copy other favorite Japanese designs, such as clouds, flowing water or waves.
This entrance to Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, illustrates the Japanese concept of shin-gyo-so, or three levels of formality. The base of irregularly stacked rocks is the most informal layer; the bamboo fence serves as the middle layer; and the tall hedge is the top and most formal layer. This style was favored by wealthy Japanese who owned enough property to create such landscapes.
Red Maples and Moss
Maple trees are prized in Japan, where cool autumn temperatures bring out their bright, deep colors. They also represent a sense of balance, an important element in Japanese garden design. Maples are often planted so their branches can overhang reflecting pools and help shade any pet carp from the hot summer sun.