Japanese Zen gardens inspired by Wabi-Sabi

The art of the French garden is renowned throughout the world. Indeed, André le Nôtre or René Dahuron are famous names in the world of gardening especially thanks to their various achievements at the Palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV.

But, it is not only the French who master this art. The Japanese are also masters in this field. Japanese Zen gardens are very present in Japanese culture. Before discussing their roles, it is essential to know what they are. 

What is a Japanese Zen garden?


The Japanese Zen garden, called "Nihon teien", has its roots in antiquity. Traces of these gardens can be found in 300 BC on the Honshu (the largest Japanese island). This art can be found in private homes as well as in castles or even in public parks.

The style, meaning as well as the composition of these gardens evolve over the centuries. Numerous influences were added to the traditions and modified the perception of the gardens. Indeed, notables and diplomats who have traveled to neighboring countries such as China or even Korea influence the creation of the gardens.

There are many shitoist and buddhist nfluences. Japanese Zen gardens play several roles in Japanese culture, both religious and decorative. 

The three main principles of the Japanese Garden

japanese zan garden concept

The creation of Nihon Teien follows three main precepts namely, symbolism, landscape capture and miniaturization of nature. The Japanese symbolism plays a religious role. Many deities or scenes from the Japanese genesis are depicted within Japanese gardens. The capture of landscapes sets the framework of the garden.

This plays with the boundaries and constraints imposed by the garden and aims for the garden to intertwine with a larger setting. (Example: a mountain in the background or a river running through the garden.) And finally the miniaturization of nature. This is indeed one of the pillars of the Japanese Zen garden. Miniaturization is at the heart of garden design.

Its purpose is to represent scenes that nature offers us, such as a lake, a river, or a mountain, all in a small and distinctly defined space. Hence the term miniaturization. In comparison with French gardens, Japanese gardens observe a certain simplicity. These achievements are not necessarily symmetrical, are most often sober and stripped of all artifice. 

The history of the Asian garden

Japanese Zen Garden Concept

Japanese gardens have evolved over the decades. Not only their styles but also their meanings. As mentioned above, the first gardens appeared on the main island of the archipelago. The landscapes offered by the Japanese islands are found at the heart of the different creations. Volcanic massifs, misty landscapes, waterfalls and clearings crossed by countless valleys represent natural models exploited and copied in the realization of gardens. 

Japanese antiquity

In ancient times, during the Jomon period (approximately 13,000 to 300 BCE), Japan was populated primarily by hunter-gatherers. At that time stones and rocks were given religious meanings. Some rocks, some places shelter according to the stories of kami, the Japanese deities. As in many civilizations the beliefs are directly related to nature. It was at this time that the first sacred places appeared in Japan such as the Ise Shrine, one of the most sacred places in Japanese culture and in the Shinto religion.

About 500 AD, which corresponds to the early Middle Ages in the West, the first Buddhist influences begin to emerge in Japan. And that's when the true Nipponese gardens begin to appear. Inspired by neighboring countries many concepts are imported to the archipelago. The first gardens focus mainly on the representation of nature, such as a stone fountain, scenes representing the sea washing up on the coast. More generally, early gardens are laid out near a river or pond. These early settings are described in Japanese poetry as places of escape for the nobility of the time. 

From 794 to 1185 gardens are integrated into all the architecture of buildings or various palaces. The gardens are usually accompanied by numerous waterways and begin to be thought of in terms of the seasons. Indeed, many traces of this era can be found in Japanese poetry and these gardens can still be seen on the outskirts of Kyoto. The precepts of Buddhism, aestheticism and melancholy are at the heart of the various designs. Asymmetry is already part of Japanese architecture whether it is for the construction of palaces or for the creation of gardens. 

Zen Buddhism and the Kamakura Period

At this time the transition of power between the nobility and the military takes place. This is one of the reasons why the military influence is still very present in Japanese culture. During Kamakura period, the first Zen gardens were designed and attempted to recreate a peaceful atmosphere, conducive to zenitude and meditation.

The objectives and final renderings of the gardens change considerably in comparison with the previous era when mimicry and faithful representation of nature was at the heart of the creative process. From then on one tries to represent the universe as a whole and symbolism takes a prominent place. The garden moves from a place of activity to a place of contemplation.

The Japanese tea ceremony

The Momoyama period is important in the history of the Japanese archipelago because it's the tea ceremony beginning That's not all. One of the principles of this relatively codified ceremony is based on Wabi Sabi concept. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept or spiritual attitudes that stem from Buddhism. It can be translated as sober and calm refinement. One sweeps away the artifices in vogue among the nobility to leave room for certain simplicity and sobriety. Moreover one tries during these ceremonies to emphasize introspection and by extension meditation. 

The Edo period and the  of the garden

From 1600 to 1868 the art of gardening became more democratic in Japan. With the emergence of artisans and merchants whether sedentary or itinerant, small gardens were found in the courtyards, between the various stores or in the homes of many Japanese. This is the beginning of a transition.

This art which was reserved and intended mainly for the ruling classes, finds itself perpetuated by merchants and people of more modest means. In short, the more affluent citizens began to create their own gardens in their homes or near their stores.  The design of these gardens is largely inspired by that of tea gardens. 

The Meiji era and Western influence

During this period, Japan opens up to the world. The West becomes fascinated with Asia, whether in art, literature and even architecture. But the opposite also happens. The Japanese archipelago is influenced by Western motifs, precepts and styles. This can be felt in the creation of gardens. Many gardens emerge with both Western symbols and traditional Japanese symbols. 

How do you make a Japanese Zen garden?

Japanese Zen Garden Lake

No matter the era or style of garden, we generally find many of the same elements within the designs. Indeed, gardens are mainly built around buildings such as a temple or a castle. In these gardens we generally find the same elements like stones, rocks, water in different forms like a pond or rivers. We also find gravel or sand paths hedges and a small pavilion.


Water plays an important role in Japanese Zen gardens. In Shintoism, water is a purifying element; it is a component considered noble. In most gardens, water comes from a natural stream that is harnessed to create basins within these gardens. Very few gardens use drains. Often winding, it mostly rests on a stone bed symbolizing the sea or a river. It should be kept in mind that a garden is the miniaturization of nature. 

Stones and rocks from the land of the rising sun

Japanese people lend stones powers. They house kami, Japanese deities who are central to Japanese spirituality. In Japan we find several kinds of stones. The smooth stones and the volcanic stones which are steeper. Depending on their appearance or size, stones and rocks do not symbolize the same thing in Japanese gardens. Japanese landscapers also use decorative pebbles, in order to design certain small corners or spaces in the garden.

Nipponese gravel and sand

When we think of Japanese gardens, it often brings to mind the small stripes drawn on the sand or gravel in Japanese gardens. These stripes, created with a rake give a certain look of movement to the designs. Usually they represent waves or air currents which contrasts with the static side of the stones that are arranged nearby. Colored gravel can also be used such as white gravel which is very present on the archipelago.

Japanese plants and trees

The plants used vary depending on the style of garden one wishes to create. However, their roles are often the same, namely to highlight specific areas of the garden. To do this, all kinds of plants or shrubs are used such as bamboo, bonsai, cherry trees or camellias. This ranges from sacred flowers like lotus to different types of moss or greenery.

Note that flowerbeds like what can be seen in European gardens are extremely rare in Japan. As for trees, they add perspective to the gardens. Often the flora is chosen according to the seasons. Indeed,flowering is taken into account in order to accentuate the feeling of relaxation. We will try to add elements that bloom in all seasons to avoid the gardens appearing dead during certain times of the year.

Japanese Seminals

The paths the walkways are very important in the process of creating Japanese Zen gardens. Through paths, the landscape designer highlights certain parts of the garden. They encourage visitors to look at this or that viewpoint, offering a different spectacle depending on the path taken. Generally created through a flagstone layout, the paths allow for circulation and access to key areas of the garden such as the tea pavilion.

Japanese Accessories

In order to create a Zen atmosphere, one finds in gardens in the land of the rising sun, ornaments such as Japanese lanterns, incense or well small statues. The aim is to make it more harmonious, more relaxing so that visitors walk around in peace. 

What are the different Japanese zen garden style?


In Japan there are three main types of gardens. Each garden has a different specialty or function. Their composition changes according to the style adopted. 

Tsukiyama-niwa or the miniature world

The tsukiyama-niwa represents a common landscape of the Japanese archipelago. It is in all the miniaturization of a place. Hence its name the miniature world. Hills, streams, small islands connected by pontoons, these gardens are essentially places for walking. During the Edo period, these realizations were very frequent. Nowadays, you can still find this style of garden in the cities of Kyoto, Tokyo or Mito. 

Karesansui or the Japanese dry garden

This is the place of zenitude. These gardens are typical of temples and meditation places in Japan. It has all the elements of a Japanese Zen garden except water. The Japanese rock garden use of bamboo and moss are very common in this style of garden. There is usually a lot of sand or gravel decorated with grooves. Rocks are sparsely arranged in these designs, giving a sense of spaciousness and sobriety.  

Chaniwa or the Japanese tea garden

The tea ceremony, inspired by the wabi-sabi movement, leads to the creation of gardens dedicated to this activity. Mixed with spiritualism inspired by Buddhism, tea gardens are built with many paths usually leading to a building (veranda or pavilion) where introspection is practiced accompanied by hot tea. historically, these gardens are the first to be designed in order to be observed in motion. An itinerary is provided so that the landscape will unfold before the eyes of visitors on their way to the tea pavilion. 

Japanese miniature Zen gardens

Miniature Zen gardens take on all the precepts of the typical Nippon garden. The miniature Zen garden is a sober object full of symbolism that brings peace, calm and harmony inside homes. Généralement accompagné d’une petite statuette de bouddha, ces derniers sont propices à la contemplation et à l’introspection. A l’instar des jardins de thé japonais, les jardins miniatures reposent sur les principes du wabi-sabi à savoir la simplicité et l’émancipation de tout plaisir matériel.