Making a garden in the traditional Japanese style may seem easy until you do a little research and find out there is a lot underneath the surface that complicates the issue.
If you are the type of personality who simply cares about what things look like, then you may not appreciate knowing about the historical evolution and development of Japanese gardens.
In addition, if you prefer balanced, symmetrical European style gardens, then Japanese may not be for you. They are diametrically opposed in design philosophy.
Describing what Japanese gardens are not is possibly a good way to start out. Here is a bullet list to get the basics:
Japanese gardens (traditionally) do NOT have:
o Borders or beds of flowers;
o Symmetry: whether bilateral, radial or axial;
o Ornate designs
o Clutter of accessories;
o Potted plants;
o Gaudy, bold "splashes of color";
o Pink flamingos or other decorative elements;
o Human centered designs;
o Large expanses of recreational grass.
What Japanese gardens do have (traditionally speaking) is a reverence for nature. The use of natural materials dominates the elements of the design.
o Stone (in the form of boulders, rocks, gravel or sand);
o Water (actual or symbolic), earth, trees and shrubs;
o Manmade elements such as stone lanterns, bridges, water basins;
o Enclosure usually formed by fencing, hedges or the architectural structures;
Using mostly natural materials, the design intent of a Japanese garden is to re-create and capture the essence of the natural landscape, whether creating it on site or using techniques like "barrowed scenery."
There are several styles of Japanese garden derived from the historical progress of their development. They are generally the following:
o Hillside garden;
o Tea garden;
o Karesansui (dry landscape);
o Strolling garden.
The Hillside gardens began as gardens designed to be viewed from certain vantage points such as the residences, or rooms within palaces of Emperors and the like. These gardens incorporated waterfalls and ponds. Bridges were included to access islands created in the ponds.
At one point in history, islands were symbolic of Paradise (Pureland Sect of Buddhism), or the afterlife, and the bridge was symbolic of the path of life, the journey to Heaven.
There is a parallel here between the eastern concept of Paradise and the western concept of the Garden of Eden. Both celebrate the virtues of the raw, pure form of the earth, of nature itself. But in the western (biblical) version, that purity was lost through the committing of sin.
Eastern thought at its roots especially Taoism, reveres nature in its pure form. Nature is much larger than mankind and in fact dwarfs man in the context of the Cosmos.
That relationship is more understood in the east and is reflected in not only gardens, but other cultural endeavors including landscape painting, Ichibana, pottery, etc.
Tea Gardens were a style of gardens that originated from the importation of tea from China. As Chan Buddhism was introduced to China through one known as Daruma, he also introduced tea so that the meditating monks would not fall sleep. The popularity of tea as well as this sect of Buddhism was brought to Japan, where it was known as Zen Buddhism.
Thus tea became very popular and developed into a ritualized social event utilizing a special tea house. The invited guests would come through the garden before entering the tea house separated by some form of fencing to divide the outer tea garden from the inner space.
They would then go through a ritualized practice of cleansing the mouth through the water basin outside the entry and humbling themselves upon entering by crouching down low to enter through the small doorway. At night, the paths were often strategically illuminated using a stone or iron lantern.
Karesansui style gardens or "dry landscape" gardens were of a style that developed generally at the same time as the Tea Garden era but were much more austere then and not as interactive as the Tea Gardens.
Dry landscape gardens consist of stones and gravel. The use of plant material was very sparse if at all. The types and styles varied depending on what the layout of the stones and gravel was supposedly to symbolize. However, the idea was that the stones represented mountains, as islands in the ocean or a lake.
Gravel represented water as the ocean or lake. Sand was raked to mimic the ripples on the water's surface or the ocean's waves. Course gravel was used to represent fast moving water as in a stream, whereas finer gravel represented a calm pond and more tranquil feeling.
The fourth major style of Japanese Garden design is the Strolling Garden. They were interactive, in that the use of stepping stones were incorporated so people could wander and meander through the garden. This allowed for a much richer experience as design concepts such as "seen and hidden" or progressive realization was utilized.
In other words, the paths were purposely irregular and not so easy to navigate. This allowed the designer to manipulate the gait of the walker so that they had to pause at key vantage points or to be made aware of a message message, otherwise passed by if the walker was not in a state of mindfulness.
As you contemplate designing a Japanese style garden, consider whether adapting to traditional styles and principles are important to you. Often, authenticity adds to appreciation, value and beauty. An art form that is a "reproduction" must honor the traditional style and feel of the piece; otherwise the piece will lose its value. That elusive essential ingredient in traditional form is worth trying to reproduce for a richer experience.