A first thought

In the UK and beyond, why is it that the mere mention of the phrase Japanese gardens invokes such clear and distinctive imagery? When gardens of other types and other countries (arguably) does not? What’s more, I feel that this puzzle applies regardless of having any prior interest in Japan or not.

The answer comes down to the purpose and meaning of a garden, and the composition of its elements to achieve it.

In truth, they are incredibly different experiences to gardens of other types, but I want to dive in and explain what makes a Japanese garden, how they are unique, and what variations you can find. Most importantly however, these are not limited to Japan as you may expect, but are found throughout the UK. So, after learning a little more about Japanese gardens you can go out and experience some for yourself! Let’s take a look.

Looking out across a pond within Japanese gardens.
Kenroku-en in Kanazawa

Defining Japanese gardens

At a basic level, Japanese gardens are visually quite simple, where minimal and natural aesthetics are the foundation of most. Streams and waterfalls; stone and rock formations; Japanese maple trees and Hakone grass are common features. These elements exist together to invoke reflection and highlight the beauty and characteristics of nature.

Trying to describe a Japanese garden in a simple way however — is anything but. (I can’t tell you how long I’ve spent trying!) Instead, we must look at that idea of purpose and meaning which has heavy influence from religious and natural elements.

A better understanding

The gardens of Japan — and Japanese aesthetics as a whole — have been heavily influenced by Shinto and Buddhism — the two biggest religions of Japan. Shinto leans heavily on the value of nature and Kami which generally refers to gods; although also relates to the essence of all things animate and in-animate.

From Buddhism on the other hand there is the spiritual, meditation and ideas of paradise and Pure Lands. Many garden elements such as sand, gravel, rocks and guardian stones were originally used around shrines and temples to represent purity and earthen elements. One of the Japanese words for garden, niwa, even came to mean a place where the ground had been purified in preparation for the Kami.

Both religions play a role on what the purpose of a garden should be and is reflected by the composition.

A sacred tree to the Shinto religion.
3000 year old sacred tree at Takeo shrine

At the heart of it

The purpose of a Japanese garden then, is for the viewer to connect with nature on an entirely different level. To forge connections with each of the elements presented and present a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

Now this may all begin to sound totally ridiculous, however, Japanese garden designers are held in high regard. They construct their gardens similarly to how an artist would paint fine art, or a composer writes a symphony. Every decision and selection is made with absolute conviction.

This then presents a bit of a contradiction.

The purpose is to reflect nature, but almost everything is unnaturally curated.

Yet, this illusion that is created is seldom noticed when you are captivated by their aesthetics; resulting in the product achieving the aim of highlighting the very best of nature and the reason why Japanese gardens are unique. Let’s get onto some examples.

Characteristics of Japanese gardens

I mentioned previously a few elements that are common in Japanese gardens, but there is a lot more meaning and symbolism behind each where simple terms are inadequate.


Let’s take streams, waterfalls and just the idea of using of water in a garden. It is one of the most important elements to Japanese gardens and one of the few that can have movement; yet it also can be quite still in the form of a lake. Streams can symbolise the flow of time; as well as, depending on the direction of the current, carry away evil spirits or bring in good fortune. Water is also useful for its reflective property, a good example is The Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in near Kyoto.

A red temple over looking a lake
The Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in near to Kyoto

Rocks, gravel, and sand

Waterfalls can; along with rocks, which is the other most important aspect of a Japanese garden, illustrate Japan’s mountainous landscape. Weathered stones and rock can — again — illustrate the concept of time, and a group of three stones in formation can represent the heavens, earth, and mankind. (You can begin to see how much religious aspects play a role here.)

Getting smaller, gravel and sand is used in a unique way. When combined with larger rocks and stones it they aim to represent water swirling between and around islands. One of the most famous examples is at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto.

That begs the question “why not just use water?”

It comes back to how the whiteness of sand represents purity and calmness. This type of composition is most commonly applicable in Zen gardens within Buddhist temples for that reason. Sand and gravel are also easier to control and manage. Designers and keepers can rake the surface to create the impression of waves and the shape will remain indefinitely.

Trees, plants, and pruning

When it comes to trees, plants and other greenery, position becomes less important than maybe water and rock; instead, specific types are carefully selected for their colour and shape and seasonal potential.

Varieties of evergreen trees provide a good foundation. Due to their everlasting colour throughout the year, it results in Japanese gardens looking full even in winter. Scattered amongst those are trees like the Japanese maple, that provide their distinguished orange and red colour, and pine trees; both have a pleasant shape even when bare and provide an alternate experience in different seasons. As much as position isn’t as important, they are planted in a methodical manner to give the impression of the randomness and spontaneity of nature.

Going even further, pruning is an activity that is took very seriously and is essentially an art form in itself. Trees and plants are pruned to the nth degree to achieve a near perfect shape and highlight inherent qualities.

Buildings and structures

One last characteristic I want to mention is the use of large structures such as shrines, teahouses or bridges. Due to Japanese gardens preferring a natural and subdued atmosphere, there will only ever be one of each and a maximum of two different structures in a garden at once. So maybe one bridge and one shrine, a shrine and a teahouse, or a bridge and a teahouse etc. This helps create a central focus to the garden and promotes the significance of each structure. Having many in one space would be distracting to each other.

This is just for large structures. Other smaller objects such as stone ornaments, simple water crossings and other design features don’t fit in this generalisation. In fact, they also add to the significance of larger structures in a comparative way.

Japanese gardens surrounding 'Kinkaku-ji'
Kinkaku-ji or ‘Golden Pavilion’ in Kyoto

The types of Japanese gardens

The term Japanese garden is a really an umbrella term for describing a garden that houses the characteristics mentioned above. In reality there are four distinctive types of in japan that are very different from one another. These are:

  • Paradise gardens.
  • Dry-Landscape gardens or Zen gardens
  • Stroll gardens.
  • Tea gardens.

Some may argue that there are five, although the other — Courtyard garden — is just that, and often enclosed within homes. The Japanese people may go even further when categorising their gardens; within each of these types splitting them by terrain. This can include; hills, water, and surrounding forestry, but also could be categorised by viewer intention. (scholarly visits and such are an example.) For now, I want to give an explanation of the four just mentioned, as these are the most well-known types.

Paradise Garden

A view of a Japanese Paradise Garden.

The paradise garden is based upon the definition of the Buddhists Pure Land and paradise ideals. The key feature of this type of garden is normally a central island surrounded by water, accessible by one or more bridges connected to outer portions of land. They often employ a technique known as ‘borrowed land’where the landscape beyond the garden such as forest and mountains are made to look as if they are included, giving the garden a feeling of enormity.

Stroll Garden

A view of a bridge within Japanese Gardens

The stroll garden can be viewed as a journey or the telling of a story. They are designed in a way that the viewer only sees what is meant to be seen at specific points as they walk. Foliage, fences, and structures conceal and reveal views of the garden when the visitor is at the optimal point. The ‘borrowed land’ idea is implemented here as well and combined with the ‘hide and seek’ methods can create some interesting vistas and illusions. Kenroku-en gardens in Kanazawa is meant to be a fantastic example along with Suizen-ji Jōju-en in Kumamoto.

Dry landscape Garden

Looking across a Japanese Zen garden

Also known as Zen gardens, Dry Landscape Gardens are an integral part of a Zen Buddhist temple and perhaps the most iconic type of garden of Japan. They rely heavily on just two features — sand and rock — and are arranged in way that only the gardener can explain. Unlike many other gardens they are designed to be viewed from outside looking in from a seated area or the porch of the connected building. Their foremost purpose is to present a space used for meditation and the symbolic nature of the composition is often left to the viewer — if there is any symbolism at all.

Tea Garden

a simple path leading to a Japanese building

Tea gardens offer something quite different yet again. The central focus of the garden is the teahouse itself, but it is also about the journey to it. The art of tea in Japan is very ceremonial and so everything that is related to it is treated incredibly importantly, as such the walk to a teahouse gives the essence of a pilgrimage. Pathing in a tea garden is a carefully thought-out feature and are often purposefully sprinkled with water in preparation for a ceremony. The area directly around a teahouse is often partially enclosed which is kept simple with little adornments as to not detract from the occasion.

Japanese gardens UK locations

I think by now we have a good understanding of the nature of Japanese gardens. It would be a shame then to learn all we have and not be able to appreciate them. Yet we’re in luck. You don’t have to fly all the way to Japan to catch a glimpse because the UK is home to many authentic Japanese gardens; as well as those that take inspiration from Japanese aesthetics and principles.

Here is a selection of some Japanese gardens that you can find throughout the UK:

Kyoto Garden at Holland Park: London

Kyoto Garden officially opened in 1991 and was a gift from Kyoto. It is reminiscent of a stroll garden and features lots of rock, Japanese maple tree’s and ponds full of koi carp which are native to Japan.

Japanese Landscape at Kew Gardens: London

The Japanese Garden at Kew is designed around the idea of the stroll garden, although includes features found in other types as well. It is also home to a near perfect replica of the Nishi Hongan-ji gate in Kyoto.

Japanese Garden at Gatton Park: Surrey

The Gatton Park gardens are available to the public once a month — including the Japanese garden. Recently having undergone some refurbishment it features a simple but pleasant setting with bridges, stone ornaments and a teahouse.

Japanese Garden at Compton Acres: Dorset

This Japanese garden is a place with lots of colour and character. It has the ‘hide and seek’ elements of a stroll garden, hiding and revealing some great Vistas. It also has elements of the ‘borrowed land’ whether intentional or otherwise.

The Japanese Garden in Cornwall

This garden down in Cornwall looks like an authentic Japanese garden. It has been designed well and includes ponds, waterfalls, a zen garden, teahouse and even has a Torri gate as the entrance.

Pure Land meditation centre and Japanese Garden: Nottinghamshire

This is a very open garden which has lots of variety. It has a little bit of everything in terms of traditional Japanese characteristics. lots of stonework, winding paths, bridges, waterworks and a great variety of greenery.

A Japanese Garden at Birmingham Botanical Gardens

In Birmingham lies a bit a treasure with a bit of history and unique features. Its a large and spacious garden that originally opened in 1967. It features a huge Torri gate at the entrance, a traditionally built teahouse with materials from Japan, and has even be classed as a ‘Japanese Cultural Center’ by the Japanese government.

Japanese Garden at Tatton Park: Knutsford

This garden has been classed as one of the finest examples of a Japanese garden in Europe. It aims for complete authenticity rather than just being inspired by. It houses its own Shinto shrine that are rarely seen outside of Japan.

Japanese Garden at Cowden: Scotland

This once forgotten garden has recently been restored by a Japanese team from Osaka. It closely resembles that of a paradise garden due to the large lake surrounding a small island. covering a large area and surrounded by natural scenery the ‘borrowed land’ works wonders here. One of the best Japanese gardens in the UK.

Japanese Garden at Attadale Gardens: Scotland

With a more intimate feel to this Japanese inspired garden, it offers pockets of traditional Japanese elements but with a western fusion. Zen-like features, ponds, arch bridges and a variety of Japanese plants and trees.

Red bridge over water in a scenic Japanese garden
Daigo-ji Temple in Kyoto

Japanese gardens undoubtably have a unique aesthetic and atmosphere that makes them extremely distinctive from any other. If you’re in need of some quiet respite from the world, make that connection and take a walk through a stroll garden or reflect from the comfort of a teahouse. Whether you’ve had the chance to visit some Japanese gardens or one of the many scattered around the UK; let me know what you think of the experience.