Frontyard Zen - Exploring Oriental Landscaping

Landscaping is the activity of transforming visible features of a piece of land while incorporating several elements, for example, flora and fauna, landforms and terrains and other elements such as buildings and fences. One of the core features of I&P is the focus on the aesthetic values incorporated into its townships. In this issue, I&P Living looks eastward for a charming aspect of landscaping – Japanese Gardens.


Japanese Gardens are traditional gardens that craft miniature idealized landscapes in a very intangible and stylized manner. The evolution of the gardens can be seen across the various historical periods in Japan beginning with the Heian period (794-1185). Developed under the influence of Chinese gardens, the Japanese gardens also carried with it influences Chinese philosophies of Daoism and Amida Buddhism. However, by the Edo period (1615-1857), Japanese gardens developed a distinctive aesthetic value, encompassing Japanese materials and cultures.


The gardens are designed as a miniature idealized view of nature. Large rocks are used to symbolize mountains and ponds or small streams are used to represents bodies of water such as the sea or a lake. Miegakure (literally ‘hide and reveal’) is the art of concealment which is employed especially in promenade gardens, where bamboo or tree groves are hidden behind hills to be discovered by the visitor who follows the winding path around or through the garden. A more intriguing aesthetical element is Shakkei or borrowed scenery. Smaller gardens are designed to integrate features outside the garden such as hill, trees or temples; adding to the scenery and increasing the ostensible size of the garden. Asymmetry also contributes to the beauty of the gardens as they are not laid on straight axes. Features are positioned to be seen from a diagonal by integrating vertical elements, such as buildings, with horizontal features, such as water.

Garden Styles

There are several types of Japanese Gardens, the most prominent being Karensansui (dry mountain and water gardens) a dry rock garden with white sand used to epitomize water. Gravel and rocks are age old symbolization for denoting sacred areas in Japan and are essential in facilitating meditation. The Roji or ‘dewy ground', is the garden, through which one passes to the chashitsu for the tea ceremony and it generally fosters an air of simplicity. usually divided into an outer and inner garden, with a machiai (waiting arbor), a typical Roji includes features such as the tsukubai (ablution basin), tōrō (lantern), tobi ishi (stepping stones), and wicket gates. Kaiyu-shiki-teien or Promenade gardens (go-round style) are designed to complement houses that are commonly modeled after the tea house.

These gardens were meant to be perceived by following a path clockwise around the lake from one prudently designed scene to another. Finally, there is the tsuboniwa, literally meaning pot garden. This type of gardening is popular within areas fashioned by the junctions of building or between buildings. More often than not, they are shady, and obtain a good deal of the run-off from neighboring roofs during rain and snow. This cool, damp, shadiness is mirrored in the predominantly shiny, dark-green flora frequently encountered in tsuboniwa.

Building Your Own Japanese Garden

There are several important steps you must take before building your own Japanese garden. The first and probably most important is to consult with a contractor. It is important to remember that the design should suit the site and not vice versa. This is also to ensure that the land is viable for landscaping and that water sources are available should you choose to incorporate a pond or mini-waterfall. It’s best to pick a piece of land with hills and slopes, which are analogous with most Japanese gardens, this will definitely add to its charm. Next, you should pick a theme you would like to design your garden after. This will help you in choosing which elements to include in your garden such as the type of gravel and stones, which plants to purchase i.e. bamboo, moss, cherry blossom trees, the size of the pagodas, pavilions, and what type of sculptures (stone lanterns, stone walls etc.) you should include. Placing the plants and elements in the planned area and imagining them ‘in-situ’ is a critical step in the designing and building process as it helps you envision what the garden will look like and allow for you to change the positioning of elements and plants if necessary.

A few useful tips in building your own Japanese garden - remember that every element should reflect the pure essence of nature. For example, you would never find a square pond or lake in the wild; therefore you should not include one in your garden. Waterfalls are the best option, fountains – not so much. Finally, don’t forget to ensure balance or ‘sumi’. Not solely for aesthetics reasons but to attain spiritual equilibrium as well.

Written for AMG International, contract publishers of I&P Living Vol.2