Japanese Landscape Design

Frank Lloyd Wright

The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright and probably some of us have a thing in common: we love Japan! How can you not fall in love with this fantastic country when they have the world’s most innovative products, and their citizens are so well-mannered and courteous towards others. If you do not know who Wright is, he is the father of modern American architecture.


Shibuya Crossing Shibuya Crossing, located in Tokyo, Japan


Some of his great architecture works include Fallingwater, Johnson Wax Headquarters, Imperial Hotel Tokyo, and so on. Wright loved collecting Japanese art prints. Here comes the irony: he earned more money selling Japanese art prints than from architecture. “At last, I had found one country on earth where simplicity, like nature, is supreme,” Wright commented on Japan after his visit in 1905.


His most prominent work was Fallingwater. However, when the design was first conceived, the seemingly abstract architectural design was not well-received by his client Kauffman. Imagine waking up to a picturesque view of the waterfalls every day. Nope, that was not what Wright wanted. Instead of designing a home facing the falls, Wright designed the house sitting atop the waterfalls. He wanted his
design to be one with nature, following the philosophy of Japanese aesthetic design. Though perceived as eccentric, the cruel verdict of others did not hold him back from conceptualizing this outstanding architectural design.


Fallingwater at Pennsylvania Fallingwater at Pennsylvania, USA


He gave this building a character like no others. Contributing to Wright as one of the world’s most celebrated architects or some say, the father of modern American architecture. Should he yield towards Kauffman’s idea and redesigned it, the house Fallingwater will never be universally recognized as one of the most significant architectural ever. You can say that Fallingwater accurately exemplified his persona and his philosophy towards “organic” architecture. So, what about the Japanese landscape design that charmed the world’s most celebrated architect?

The Concept Behind Japanese Landscape Design

Let’s look at the Japanese school of thoughts on artistic designs before we dive deeper into the design of the Japanese landscape. It helps us to understand how different this mystifying country view beauty and how you can design a Japanese landscape.

The Beauty Of Imperfection

Firstly, let’s look at 侘寂 (English: Wabi-Sabi). Wabi-Sabi is a concept derived from Buddhist teachings; it views beauty, not in perfection but imperfection, incompletion, and impermanent. This concept is why Kintsugi (English: golden joinery), the art of repairing broken ceramic with lacquer mixed with gold, is so famous in Japan. Next time if you drop pottery, Kintsugi sees the beauty of the asymmetrical cracks and turns the broken ceramic into something precious.


Kintsugi repair on ceramics Kintsugi style repair on ceramics


When you go after perfection and intricately detailed design, you will find it hard to apprehend the traditional Japanese way of aesthetics. It’s about accepting the imperfection, fluidity, and impermanence of things. In the world we live in, we are tirelessly pursuing perfection be it our work, possessions, relationships, or achievements. Maybe, wabi-sabi can be a way of how we approach lives. Not everything lasts; it is perfect or complete. Even so, that imperfection drives us to a better version of ourselves. By applying this concept in our lives, we no longer beat ourselves up for fault, but we learn to appreciate the beauty amidst chaos and imperfection.


Wabi-Sabi interior The Wabi-Sabi apartment, made of uneven textured clay-coated walls and rough wood beam supports/ staircase railing


A Consciousness of Space

Secondly, we bring to you another Japanese landscape design concept: 間 (English: Ma). If you translate the Japanese word ‘ma,’ it means ‘ a pause,’ ‘interval’ or ‘emptiness.’ The root of ma is deeply stemmed from Buddhist teachings as well. Observe, and you will find this concept manifested throughout Japanese culture. For example, when your Japanese friend ‘pause’ his bow before straightening his posture. During a bow, this ‘pause’ signals to the other party.

Regarding landscape design, the traditional Japanese consciousness of space is entirely different than of time/space theory. Rather than using the term ‘sense of place,’ the Japanese spatial concept should be best described as ‘a consciousness of space.’ Because the Japanese spatial concept is experienced progressively through intervals of spatial designation; it does not see a space in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional space but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form stemmed from an intensification of visions.


Japanese ma painting A Japanese painting reflecting the concept of "ma" with pine trees partially visible and partially obscured in mist


Try conversing with your Japanese friend, and it might shock you that they do not fancy the idea of gardens with no fences. This ‘no fences’ landscape design is especially prevalent in local housing divisions in the United States. Because when a garden has barriers, it does not allow anyone to invade their space and it gives them the space to think independently. It is the same reason why Japanese still keep a small wall between houses or building despite the scarcity and density of land in Tokyo.

Put, the concept of ‘ma’ takes place in the imagination of the human in the space; what is in the area that gives meaning. Poet monk Basho best captured the essence of ma with this phrase: “many a great thought occurred while weeding the garden.” Without the understanding of these schools of thought, we both cannot achieve the authenticity of Japanese landscape design. The Japanese landscape might end up looking insignificant, non-desirable, and inauthentic.

Types of Japanese Landscape Garden

In Japan, landscape gardening goes way back to 600 AD. There are many types of gardens: Karesansui, Roji, and Kaiyū-Shiki-teen. All of these gardens look different and have different purposes. When you visit a Japanese landscape garden, you have to change your mindset and take it that you are entering into another world to find tranquility.

1. Karesansui Garden

Forget your pet rocks and start to cultivate your Japanese rock garden. Karesansui (English: Dry Mountains and Water) is a Japanese rock garden or also known as ‘dry landscape.’ This style of garden fully epitomizes the characteristics of Japanese aesthetics: minimalistic, elegance, and simplicity. All credits to a Buddhist Monk, Musö Soseki who made this garden-style famous in the 14th century. Like what the name suggests, this garden is filled with rocks, sand, and decorative gravels.


Karesansui garden The common sight of a Karesansui garden


However, enter into a Japanese rock garden, and you will be confounded by the arrangement of meticulously placed stones and sculptured raked gravels. The Japanese rock garden is usually enclosed and limited to a narrow range of greys. The rocks and gravel is the chief element of the Zen garden. No, the stones are not for you to throw at each other and express your frustration.

The sand is also not for you to build sandcastles like what you do at the beach. Remember, it is a sacred place to practice quiet meditation. The rocks are viewed as rock or island formations, whereas the sand represents the sea. The spaces between the stones project the feeling of rejuvenation and serenity. Tending monks will usually rake ripples of water on the gravel. The idea of raking gravel is different from what you thought as well.


water ripple rake mark pattern "Water" ripple rake mark patterns that spans the length of the garden


You will be surprised to find how much effort the Buddhist monks put the raking. It is almost as if you are looking at a unique form of art. Also, there is usually no living element found in a classic Zen garden. Maybe you will see grass, but it is almost impossible for you to find flowers inside this garden. Ultimately, the goal of this Japanese rock garden is to create a small-scale cliff-top view of a coastal scene. Hence, you are supposed to enjoy the garden by viewing it from outside. (If not you will be ruining all the effort of raking the sand).

2. Roji Garden

Another type of garden landscape is the Roji (English: Dewy Ground) Garden. The word ‘Roji’ refers to the path to a teahouse. This style of the garden also introduced the concept of wabi-sabi in Japanese landscape design too. To a Japanese, every step taken on Roji is another step away from the mundane world. This path serves as a visitor to pass through and meditate before chai, a tea ceremony that serves simple small portioned dishes and tea. Step into a Roji garden, and you will find that the path replicates the path of a remote mountain - green and moist. The trail usually has no bright colored flowers as they might disrupt visitors from meditating. It is also designed in a way that is easy to walk on. Also, it strictly adheres to having an inner and outer garden with a waiting arbor.


Tea house Roji garden Tea house entrance of a Roji garden at Adachi Museum of Art, located in Shimane Prefecture, Japan.


Before entering into a tea house, you are required to wash your hands and rinse your mouth as an act of purification in the washbasin area. The washbasin, surrounded with stone, is considered to be the focal point of the garden. Take note because these stones surrounding the water basin have different purposes like draining water, being stepped on and to place a lantern during a tea ceremony at night.

3. Kaiyū-Shiki-teen Garden

Time-travel back to the 15th century in Japan and you will find Kaiyū-Shiki-teen gardens at most nobles and warlords' houses. It is best translated as the ‘strolling garden’ or ‘promenade landscape’ garden. This garden-style was conceptualized to complement the new Sukiya-Zukri style of architecture, similar to the architectural concept of a Japanese tea house. Therefore, it shares many elements of a Roji Garden but does not strictly adhere to the strict requirements of a Roji Garden. The renowned Suizenji Park is a type of Kaiyū-Shiki-teen garden and is the best place to enjoy the pleasant view of the famed Mount Fuji.


Suizenji Park Suizenji Park, located in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan


By incorporating the mountain as the landscape background, Suizenji Park seems more significant than its actual size. It is what a Kaiyū-Shiki-teen garden aims to accomplish. To absorb the full scene of Mount Fuji, you will find yourself strolling along the clockwise path around a lake transiting from one stage to another. Also, your view will be perpetually obstructed by plants or fences to make you stroll to the best viewing point of Mount Fuji. This obstruction is a technique known as 'Miegakure' or the ‘Hide and Reveal’ which hides a particular view with thick foliages, buildings, or paths until you are at the ideal viewing point. So, don't worry if you cannot get a clear view of Mount Fuji, it is meant to be 'hidden' till you reach the perfect spot. The downside is that the supposed ideal place is high likely swarmed by tourists.

If you ever find yourself venturing into Japanese landscape design, be warned that it is an intricate process. Most Japanese landscape design is never fully completed because nature is fluid and ever-changing.