Landscape gardening is an art that has developed in Japan since olden times. Its origins may be traced back to around 600AD: there is evidence from that time that well-designed gardens with artificial hills and ornamental ponds already existed in Japan.

The aim of the art is to create a scenic composition in the same way that an artist composes a landscape on canvas. Rocks, trees, ponds and running water are naturally arranged so as to leave no trace of artificiality. The traditional features of such a garden include an island set in a lake or pool and connected with the mainland by bridges. Curiously-shaped boulders and rocks are carefully arranged as well as a stone lantern, with all the elements placed in such a way as to seem like a landscape. even in a garden of limited size.

With the introduction of Zen Buddhism during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333) the principles of religion were applied to the traditional rules guiding the construction of landscape gardens. The gardens designed in this period were not as decorative as those of the previous period, but were more tranquil and substantial.

The popularity of the tea ceremony also influenced landscape gardening, since the garden had to be arranged to include a sukiya (tea-ceremony house). One of the greatest designers was Sen-no-Rikyu (1521-1591) – the well-known master of the tea ceremony, who created the garden of the Chishaku-in Temple of Kyoto, as well as a number of others.

Type of garden

The gardens of Japan have long been classified into two general types: the tsukiyama (hill garden) and the hiraniwa (flat garden). For many centuries, the main garden on the south side of a mansion was invariably done in the hill style, while the flat style was largely reserved for smaller gardens tucked away in cramped places. So the two styles developed side by side.

The hill garden features a hill usually combined with a pond and a stream. Examples of this style include the Shukkei-en at Hiroshima, Rakuraku-en at Hikone and Suizenji Garden in Kumamoto.

In a flat garden, stones, trees, stone lanterns, water basins and wells form the important decorative elements. The most famous example of a flat garden is at Ryonaji Temple in Kyoto, where, enclosed by a low wall on three sides, 15 rocks of varying sizes are arranged on a flat piece of ground covered with white sand. There is not a single tree or shrub. The trees outside the walls and the distant view serve as a background.

An offshoot of landscape gardening, only on a smaller scale, is the hako-niwa (box-garden). It may sometimes be seen at the entrance to a workshop or similar place in a crowded city. A miniature pond, often stocked with goldfish, tiny rocks, trees, etc., make up what could be described as a toy garden. There is also the bonkei, or tray garden – a miniature garden created with mud, peat, coloured sand and other materials. Bonseki – the art of creating landscapes with stones and sand on black lacquered trays as a form of decoration, and bonsai – the cultivation of miniature trees, are other aspects of the art of Japanese gardening.

Best gardens to visit

IN TOKYO

Hama-Rikyu Garden: In central Tokyo, this garden is in two parts: the southern garden is the older part, the garden attached to a villa used by feudal lords when they stayed in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the 17th-19th centuries. It has the Shio-iri-no Niwa (garden with tidal pond) which is on the sea: the scenery varies with the ebb and flow of the tide. The northern garden is more recent. Although it is overlooked by the skyscrapers of modern Tokyo it is recommendable as an oasis of calm in the centre of the city.

Shinjuku Gyoen: although purists may be offended by its mixture of Japanese, French and English landscape gardening styles, this garden provides a substantial area of calm in the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo. The 1,500 cherry blossom trees are a famous sight in spring; in autumn the chrysanthemums are a colourful attraction. Entrance fee: 200 yen Close to: JR Shinjuku Minamiguchi station(south exit) – 10 min. on foot.

IN KYOTO

Kinkaku-ji Temple Garden: the easiest of access, as it is featured in JTB’s Sunrise tour of Kyoto(morning and full-day). The most famous part of the garden is the lake: it has several islands whose changing shapes can be appreciated as you view them from different angles. But the most impressive feature is the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) itself, which stands by the water and can be perfectly reflected on a calm day.

Entrance fee and access included in JTB Sunrise tour.

Shosei-en Garden: this garden was designed at the request of the priest of Higashi-Hongan-ji Temple, and is situated close to the temple, just across the main “Karasuma Street” which runs up from Kyoto station. In the garden there are several tea houses, a large pond, a waterfall, stone lanterns, and trees and plants that are in bloom throughout the year: there is a wonderful display of plum and cherry blossoms in the spring, irises and water lilies in summer, and maple leaves in the autumn. Entrance fee: 500 yen Get there: walk up Karasuma Street from Kyoto station, turn right along Shichijo Street.

Ryoanji: the quintessential abstract rock garden. Just fifteen rocks and white sand, surrounded by a wall. The surface of the sand is raked into a ripple pattern, and the stones are in groups of seven, five and three, positioned with extreme care. As you view the arrangement from different angles, one rock is always hidden. Entrance fee: 500 yen Get there: bus ride from JR Kyoto Stn. to the Ritsumeikan Univ. mae Stop – 8 min. on foot.

Daisen-in Garden: another peaceful rock and sand karesansui garden (perhaps known more popularly to Westerners as a “Zen” garden). The stones themselves symbolise a natural environment of steep mountains and deep valleys. A sand bar represents “a torrent rushing into a great ocean”. Entrance fee: 400 yen Get there: bus ride from JR Kyoto Stn. to Daitokuji-mae stop – 5 min. on foot.

Tenryu-ji Garden: the Tenryu-ji Temple Garden is said to have been built by the founder of the temple and master gardener Muso Kokushi. The garden is designed to enable a visitor to enjoy changes in scenery while walking around the pond. The scenery of two hills – Kame-yama and Arashi-yama – both of which are located outside the garden, form part of the composition. This technique of making use of the surrounding landscape in garden design is known as shakkei. Stonework on a hill at the back of the pond symbolizes a mountain stream cascading into the pond. There are also stones symbolizing carp.This garden is believed to be the least changed from the original concept of Muso Kokushi, and is considered one of the most exquisite of all Japanese gardens. Entrance fee: Yen 500 Get there: JR Sagano Line to Sagano Arashiyama Stn – 10-min on foot.

IN KANAZAWA

Kenrokuen Garden: originally the outer garden of Kanazawa’s Ishikawa castle, Kenrokuen Garden was opened to the public in 1875. It is considered one of the “three most beautiful gardens in Japan” and is filled with a variety of trees, ponds, waterfalls and flowers stretching over 25 acres. In winter, the park is notable for its yukitsuri — ropes attached in a conical array to trees to break up snow as it falls, protecting the trees from damage.

JTB’s Sunrise tour “Takayama, World Heritage Shirakawa-go & Kanazawa 3-day tour from Kyoto” includes a visit to this celebrated garden.