Japanese Landscape Ideas
Image by Noriko Shiroma from Pixabay

Japanese Landscape Ideas

Large, flat stones are used as small bridges (MMGI / MARIANNE MAJERUS)

These other gardens being admired are not Zen gardens but possibly dry landscape gardens or courtyard gardens designed to give a relaxing, calm and comforting feel to the often tiny but intricate spaces around the ryokan. They have a few serene plants, often carefully pruned and shaped, pillows of mosses and maybe water, and the composition of rocks, pebbles and gravel is considered and ordered.

The whole surroundings of these inns are intensely soothing. As soon as you enter you feel you have arrived in a different, highly restful world. You can glimpse different views of parts of various mini green gardens from inside to captivate you further. The contrast is heightened when you compare the soothing, cool inn with the jostling, hot streets just a few steps away. Many of these gardens are just a few square metres in size.

When the Japanese design a dry landscape garden they will usually start with the stones and rocks. Today these cannot be simply purloined from the wild, and they are usually recycled or reclaimed from elsewhere. The shape, size and colour of these raw materials will dictate the way the garden develops, and they will be arranged according to the fundamental concept of Japanese gardens to create the feeling of a landscape. The rocks may symbolise land or an island, other carefully selected stones may be positioned skilfully to represent a waterfall, and smoothly raked gravel designed to represent the sea, broad river or lake surrounding it.

The plants are then chosen to accompany the hard landscape; for instance irises may be planted on the “banks” of the water. The growing material comes in as a secondary stage.

In Yoko’s parents’ garden a stone represents Mount Fuji; there is also a tree that is carefully pruned twice a year. This is a specialised job for professionals and is expensive. Many trees are regularly shaped (there are different styles of pruning, with Japanese names) not just to maintain them to the confines of these often restricted spaces but to bring out the beauty of the tree, and to show off its trunk and branch structure. If you cannot afford this high maintenance, you leave out the tree. Yoko now lives in Cardiff with her British husband; she prefers the trees pruned, he likes them natural.


Parts of the garden are kept hidden from view (MMGI / MARIANNE MAJERUS)

Three common elements that we Britons put into our “Japanese” gardens are tea-houses, red lacquered bridges and stepping stones. Often our tea-houses are too high and narrow. Proportions are cultural, though: the authentic tea-houses are raised off the ground, so you view the garden from your knees while you drink your tea. They are broad and lower than the proportions we use. Our buildings are often used as focal points, whereas in Japan you come across them, carefully placed in partial view initially, discreet and then slowly revealed. Our red bridges pop up in quite small plots here. In Japan they will only feature in quite large gardens – such as “stroll” gardens, which started as aristocratic gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries – where they may be used to cross a ravine. These gardens are designed to be walked around, enabling you to admire a series of framed views, and you can stand back and glimpse the bridge from various cleverly sited points. In a smaller space, a simple, large flat stone would be used to get over water, real or imaginary, wet or dry.

Stepping stones always lead somewhere in Japanese gardens. Yoko remembers visiting a “Japanese” garden in Liverpool and the stepping stones ended up at a herbaceous border; she was puzzled. “Are we meant to walk through this?” she wondered.

The planting in traditional Japanese gardens is much calmer than we are used to and the palette is more restricted. Camellias, azaleas, Prunus mume (Japanese apricot) with its intense pink or white blossoms around February or March, cydonias and cherries are popular, but on the whole there is less colour and more foliage, giving that restful, verdant feel.

Japanese gardens favour blank space, with carefully raked gravel or sheets of moss and occasional plants. Part of this is that it is thought to make the garden look more spacious. When you are working with a plot just three metres by five metres or smaller, which is the size of many courtyard or dry gravel gardens, this is important.

Stone features are used inside pavilions (MMGI / MARIANNE MAJERUS)

There are many situations here, such as roof gardens, tiny low-maintenance spaces and basement gardens, where features of a Japanese garden would work brilliantly. So how to approach the design? Yoko recommends adding Japanese elements. Many Japanese people now love roses and other plants that give colour, herbaceous plants especially. Yoko has added peonies to hers, but she has used them in a more Japanese way by positioning them near her shed, so she cannot see them from her kitchen but “discovers” them when she pops down the path to her garden building. The winding path, too, with its curvy route rather than going directly from A to B, is more Japanese. And does it have lots of empty space to make it look larger? “Oh no. I am quite undisciplined – I just like to cram lots in!” she says.

Modern gardens are changing in Japan, too. Previously, gardens were often designed to be viewed (or walked through on certain routes) and not physically used. But now they are starting to eat, sleep and entertain in their gardens as we do.

It seems that quite a lot of British influence has rubbed off on Yoko, too. “The point of a garden is to have it so you enjoy it and it makes you happy, ” she says.

*’Japanese Zen Gardens’ (Frances Lincoln, RRP £30) and ‘Serene Gardens: Creating Japanese Design and Detail in the Western Garden’ (New Holland, RRP £12.99), both by Yoko Kawaguchi, are available from Telegraph Books at £26 and £11.99 respectively, plus £1.35 p+p (0844 871 1514;