Why Japanese Gardens Are Superior to American Backyards

Shannon Quinn - May 29, 2021
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Japanese gardens are perfect for meditation. Credit: Shutterstock

29. It’s a Great Place to Meditate

In American backyards, it’s all about action. Most people love the idea of having a wide open field of grass for their dogs and kids to run around. Before any landscaping project, most Americans ask themselves how they can make their backyard more fun. Maybe you want to add a swing set for the kids to play, or set up an outdoor patio area for parties. It’s exactly like American culture. We are always on the move. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be exhausting. And in reality, many people enjoy their backyards far less than they would imagine, simply because they’re so tired from working too hard.

The goal of Japanese gardens is the polar opposite. It’s supposed to be a place to be calm, and totally relax after a stressful day. Most of the time, you’ll see depictions of people sitting by their Japanese gardens with a cup of tea while they relax. It’s also designed to be the perfect place to meditate, connect with nature, and decompress. Over the past few years, we’ve finally been adopting the phrase “self care” here in the United States, But Japanese people have known for thousands of years that meditation and self care is crucial for a long, happy, and healthy life.

Rock gardens are simple and yet amazing. Credit: Shutterstock

28. Japanese Gardens Are Often More Affordable Than Western Ones (Sometimes)

Here in the United States, it can sometimes be expensive to create an intricate garden. That’s why so many people just have nice grass in their backyard with maybe a pot of annual flowers, and call it a day. This is especially true if you’re trying to emulate an English cottage style garden. Every single plant you buy is between $5 to $50 apiece, and you need a lot of them in order to get a good-looking western garden. This process may take years to propagate your own collection of plants, or it would cost thousands of dollars out of pocket.

With Japanese gardens, a lot can be accomplished with little money. For a dry garden, all you really need is a lot of stone or gravel, and sand. Or if you want to do a combination of styles, you can get away with a Japanese garden with just a few signature plants to accomplish the look. Obviously, you could also spend thousands of dollars if you wanted to go over-the-top with a bridge or water feature in a strolling garden. So I’m not saying that all Japanese garden styles are cheap. But it’s easier to get something elegant-looking on a budget. 

Looking to feel at peace? A zen garden should do the trick. Credit: Shutterstock

27. The Feeling of Zen

Earlier on this list, I already mentioned how Japanese gardens are great for relaxing. But it goes beyond that. The design of Japanese gardens is all centered around “zen”. This is the feeling of serenity, joy, and tranquility. It’s also meant to encourage a sense of introspection. Because of this feeling of zen, people will walk through a Japanese garden and immediately feel soothed. This is probably why so many major cities in the United States have taken the time and money to build Japanese gardens, as well. 

In Japan, many of these gardens were located in Zen temples. So in modern times, philosophers and academics have seen this as a physical representation of the zen mindset. Even the process of creating and maintaining the garden can be seen as zen contemplation. In their belief system, this is necessary toward the path of enlightenment. So if you feel like you’re on your own spiritual journey, making a zen garden might help you get in the right mindset.

Japanese gardens have all four elements present. Credit: Shutterstock

26. Incorporation of The Four Elements

Since many Japanese gardens incorporate Feng Shui into the design, they often include symbols of the elements earth, wind, fire, and air. But there are even more elements that you may not even be aware of. The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens has a publication called Japanese Gardens in the Modern World, and here is what the author Hoichi Korisu has to say about the elements:

“The essential elements used to create a Japanese garden are stone, which form the structure of the landscape; water, representing life-giving force; and plants, which provide the color and changes throughout the seasons.  Secondary elements include pagodas, stone lanterns, water basins, arbors and bridges.” Most gardens in Japan are going to include all of these elements in one form or another.

Most Japanese gardens don’t rely on too many plants to make it beautiful. Credit: Shutterstock

25. There Are Fewer Plants

With Japanese garden design, it’s a lot easier to get away with having fewer plants in the garden and still make it look elegant. With rock gardens, you’re eliminating the need for so many different types of plants to make the area look beautiful. In the photo above, you can see how there is a large amount of empty space with gravel, with random patches of moss throughout. You have a few shrubs, but just one main focal cherry blossom tree. That’s all you really need to make a Japanese style garden.

Of course, there are some Japanese gardens with a lot of plants that take just as much time to cultivate as any other style. However, it’s possible for you to make a plan with just a few trees and shrubs, and it will still look beautiful. This really just depends on your time and budget. I suggest searching online for inspiration. Also look at books like Authentic Japanese Gardens for ideas. Once you have a plan in mind, make a sketch of what you want the garden to be. This can help you determine how much you want to spend, and the amount of upkeep you’re willing to do on the garden.

Almost everything is miniaturized, like this bonsai tree. Credit: Shutterstock

24. It’s Designed to Be Done on a Miniature Scale

Most Japanese people don’t have huge pieces of land to work with. They might only have a small courtyard in the center of their property. So what a Japanese garden represents is a downscaling of nature as a whole. The next time you see photos of a Japanese garden that includes a pagoda, try to imagine it as a miniaturized version of a town with a temple and an entire forest.  

Since these gardens are already meant to be accomplished in small spaces, this makes it easy for you to have one too. It doesn’t matter if you only have a small plot of land outside of your condo or apartment. You can also have a small plot of land on your property to create a Japanese section of your backyard without it taking over the entire garden.

Want an easy garden to take care of? Just get rocks. Credit: Canva

23. Rock Gardens Are Incredibly Easy to Maintain

In the second most popular historic text about Japanese Gardening called Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu (Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes), the author Zoen focuses a lot more on the significance of rock gardens. In the book, he explains that you can’t just pick any old rock and plop it into the ground and call it a day. There are specific geomantic significance of certain rocks. He gives names to the different shaped and sized stones. Looking through photos of masterfully curated rock gardens, it really does look like an art installation. Through my research to write this article, it seems like these gardeners find rocks that look similar to an island with a mountain or volcano. Since the sand or gravel around it needs to be raked to signify the ripples of the ocean waves, it only makes sense. 

Once a rock garden has been installed on your property, it doesn’t take a lot of maintenance. It doesn’t require any watering or pruning plants. The only maintenance is raking the gravel or removing weeds. This could possibly be a great choice for someone who wants a Japanese garden, but you don’t have the time to tend to living plants.

Gravel is sold at most lawn and garden stores. Credit: Canva

22. Stone and Gravel Elements Are Cheap and Easy to Install

One of the easier forms of Japanese gardens is the “dry garden”, which most Americans call a rock garden. This could potentially be one of the easiest things to make on your own, because it requires that you gather stones from nature without buying anything man made. In the Lowes garden center, there are bags of various sizes of stones and gravel for just $3 to $5 per bag. Bags of sand are also only $3 each. Some people will make a tray rock garden using sand, and a small rake. So you could potentially make a small rock garden for less than $20. 

Obviously, if you were trying to install a rock garden on a large scale like the one you see in the photos above, that would be far more expensive. You would need to clear the land of any existing plant life. Then, you’d need to buy plastic sheeting to lay on the ground to prevent weeds from growing. A dump truck would need to arrive with bulk gravel, which would be a few hundred dollars. And depending on where you find the large rocks, you may need to hire help to move those, too. All-in, it would easily cost over $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the size. Even so, it may be worth it due to the fact that it’s so much less maintenance than a living garden.

Traditional Japanese homes have a central courtyard garden. Credit: Shutterstock

21. The Goal is to Have a View of Nature in Every Home

In Japanese home design, the goal is to give every house a view of nature. Larger country homes would have a central courtyard with hallways that wrapped around in a circle or rectangle. Since all of the doors could slide, this gave people the option to open all of the exterior doors in the house to face the garden. Even small townhouses in the city of Kyoto have gardens hidden in an interior courtyard called a tsuboniwa. 

These became more popular with the rise of the middle class, as cities were beginning to spring up around industry in Japan. Once people began to have some money, they modeled after these big country estates. City courtyards are nowhere near as big as the gardens of the elite, but they are still very beautiful. With that being said, the most modern Japanese homes and apartments don’t always have any space for a garden.

Bridges are a key feature in Japanese gardens. Credit: Shutterstock

20. Bridges Over Water

Anyone who has visited a Japanese garden probably remembers a pedestrian foot bridge built over a pond or stream. This is common in a “strolling garden” where they goal is to go on long walks through nature. One of the most common Japanese bridge designs is a “moon bridge”, or an engetsu-kyou. This is associated with both China and Japan, since this was a style made by the Chinese and later incorporated in Japan. The bridges have an arch that forms a circular reflection in the water. This perfect circle looks like the moon, hence the name “moon bridge.”

It’s also common to see bridges in European gardens. However, we don’t really have a specific style that’s iconic here in America. Many people just had to make their own bridges by hand with the materials they had on hand. Many American garden bridges are purely ornamental. They might even be too small to walk over, unless you’re a child.

Small buildings are a big part of Japanese gardens. Credit: Canva

19. Architecture

A lot of what makes Japanese gardens look so amazing is the architecture that goes along with it. Usually, you will see traditional gardens near temples or historic buildings. So these plants typically go hand-in-hand with a gorgeous building somewhere in the background. There are also bridges, islands, lanterns, basins, paving, stones, pathways, ponds, streams, and waterfalls that are all man made. Even though all of these things are created by people, it’s all made to look totally natural, like it has been there for a thousand years. 

One of the most popular forms of architecture you see in these gardens are the stone pagodas and lanterns. These look great, even in a small garden. And they’re actually cheaper than you would imagine. For less than $50, you can get a cement pagoda to place in a Japanese garden.

The Japanese garden style has been around for thousands of years. Credit: Canva

18. It Represents a Long, Rich History

When you see a Japanese garden, you know that it represents thousands of years of history. It’s something that is so beautiful, it hasn’t changed after all this time. In the seventh century, Japan got a lot of influence from China and Korea. But besides those outside influences, Japan has been mostly isolated on their island nation. This is why their country is so unique and distinct as a culture. When you see a picture of a garden in Japan, it’s instantly recognizable. And Japanese people never forgot how to make these gardens, because the skills were written down in an ancient guide called Sakuteiki, (The Classic of Garden Making) by Tachibana no Toshitsuna

 

With many western backyards, trends will come and go. Americans often get tired of their out-of-date pools, patios, decks, and accessories that have gone out of style over the years. It’s a constant process of “keeping up with the Joneses”. On top of that, the United States is such a large country, we have vastly different climates and native plant life here. So it’s almost impossible to have one unified garden style that’s actually recognizable.

No matter what time of year your visit Japan, the gardens are always beautiful. Credit: Shutterstock

17. They Look Beautiful In All Four Seasons

Well-designed Japanese gardens take care to look beautiful in all four seasons. Evergreens stay green even in the winter time, and rock gardens look even more beautiful in the snow. In the spring, cherry blossoms are pink and fill the air with a sweet scent. And in the summer, we get a lot of flowers blooming as well. Then, in the autumn, the Japanese maple will be blazing with gorgeous red leaves. 

A well-designed English cottage garden does the same thing. And many landscape architects and influencers like Laura on Garden Answer always emphasize planning your garden for “interest” year-round. However, the average American doesn’t think about this. They focus on what looks good in the spring and summer. Then, in the winter time, they’re left with a very dead and barren backyard. So this is definitely an action step you could work on. How can you make your own garden look more beautiful in the winter? At my house, we have a holly tree, evergreens, pines, and a winterberry bush. There are loads of other winter options for you to choose from. It just takes a bit of research.

Elements of Chinese Feng Shui are present in Japanese gardens. Credit: Shutterstock

16. Feng Shui

After a long history of Chinese occupation and influences, a lot of the style we see in Japanese gardens are actually coming from China. In the original guide to Japanese gardening, it says, “Gardens should conform to what one recognizes as the Chinese principles of feng shui, playing close attention to directional symbolism and the propitious choice and placing of elements.” In Feng Shui design, all four elements need to be represented somewhere- air, fire, water, and air. 

Feng Shui is the practice of moving energy, or “qi” around a space. These elements are also meant to be placed in the north, south, east, or west in order to bring the best luck and flow of qi. When it comes to an outdoor space, this has a lot to do with the environment and microclimates. They try to see what’s already on the existing landscape, and how they can use the principles of Feng Shui to bring more balance to the garden.

These trees stay green all year long. Credit: Shutterstock

15. Evergreens and Pines Make it Easy to Keep It Looking Alive All Year

Earlier on this list, we mentioned how Japanese gardens do a great job of making sure you have something beautiful in the garden during every season. This is why you have to strike a balance between planting deciduous trees and evergreens. 

In Japan, there are these iconic pine trees that are pruned to look almost like clouds. They do this, because from a bird’s eye view, it looks like multiple trees in a larger forest. When placed next to a stone pagoda, it’s giving you that sense of place.

These gardens are made to help you feel like you’re witnessing a bird’s eye view of a Japanese town. Credit: Shutterstock

14. A Sense of Place

These gardens are meant to recreate spaces that existed in ancient Japan. In the book Sakuteiki, The Classic of Garden Making, it includes an outline of the main principles of the Japanese garden: “Elements of a garden can simulate famous scenic spots, a notion also reflected in the poetry of the Heian Period.” The book also has a lot of references to the types of islands, waterfalls, and rock arrangements one might create in a garden. In a way, it’s almost like how kids create a model village. Or how hobbyists create an entire miniature town with their train set. 

 

When you say that a garden has a sense of place, it’s very clear. When you walk into one of these gardens, you feel like you’re in Japan. There are some American landscape artists who are great at this. You could have an English cottage style garden that makes you feel like you’re in Europe. Or a backyard pool area that feels like a hotel resort. But for the most part, American backyards fail to hold a sense of place.

Larger Japanese homes usually have a privacy wall, gate, and privacy plants. Credit: Canva

13. Japanese Gardens Are Designed With Privacy in Mind

An amazing element of Japanese gardens is that they are almost always designed with privacy in mind. Since many of these courtyard gardens are in the center of a home, it’s always protected from neighbors, and very private. It’s supposed to be somewhere you go to relax, be one with nature, and forget about everyone else in the world. This is why it’s so easy to meditate and relax when you get there. Because of this, privacy is always top priority when designing a Japanese style garden.

 

Here in the United States, you’re lucky if you can get any privacy in your backyard. Sure, we have privacy fences, but they are very expensive, and they don’t always go high enough to keep curious eyes away. There are some people who consider it rude to put up a privacy fence, because here in North America, we’re taught to be friendly to our neighbors. However, most people don’t realize how this can put you on-edge. You need to constantly be “on”, even in your own garden. This is something that I personally struggle with in my own backyard. I’m about to embark on a 3-year long process of cultivating a privacy shrub in order to get that privacy in the English cottage style garden that I currently have.

Bamboo grows very quickly, and provides a lot of privacy. Credit: Canva

12. Bamboo is a Cheap and Effective as a Privacy Fence

Speaking of privacy, bamboo is often used as a privacy fence in Japanese gardens. This can be in the form of a living fence. Or, the bamboo can be cut down, dried, and used to build a tall privacy fence from the free materials that you have grown in your own backyard. 

Bamboo is most likely influenced from China, since it’s so abundant there. One of the best examples of how to use bamboo efficiently in the garden that I have ever seen is by a Chinese YouTuber called Liziqi. Her grandmother’s farm is surrounded by a tall bamboo fence that keeps them well protected from wild animals. They also use bamboo for weaving baskets, making lamps, and even building furniture.

Every spring, people in Japan celebrate when the cherry blossoms bloom. Credit: Shutterstock

11. Cherry Blossom Festivals

In Japan, they have Cherry Blossom festivals that happen every spring. They even have a word for having a picnic outsider under the cherry blossoms called “Hanami”. This literally translates to “flower viewing”. The flowers smell so sweet, and they look so beautiful, it’s worth sitting outside with your friends just to be near them. As you can imagine, a lot of people include at least one cherry blossom tree in their Japanese garden. 

The city of Washington DC received cherry blossom trees as a gift from Japan in 1912. Since then, the city has hundreds of Japanese cherry blossom trees that bloom every spring. It’s also possible to buy them here in the United States.

Koi ponds are beautiful, and give you an outdoor pet to take care of. Credit: Shutterstock

10. Koi Ponds Are Low Maintenance Pets 

Something you see often in both Japanese and Chinese gardens are koi ponds. These are large, colorful fish that live in the ponds, much like having a goldfish in a tank. But these fish are like your pets, living outside as part of this beautiful garden. Fish are some of the most low-maintenance pets that you can have. All you really need to do is make sure their pond is clean, and feed them.

If you’re trying to incorporate a water element into your own garden, stone basins and fountains are a cheaper alternative to having a pond.  Most people in Japan don’t have enough space to install a koi pond, unless they are wealthy. So you can still get away with pulling off the vibe without adding on the responsibility of caring for fish. 

Japanese gardens try to incorporate into existing gardens. Credit: Shutterstock

9. Adapting to the Surrounding Environment

One of the most important parts of Japanese gardening is that they start with what already exists in the natural environment, and they try to use natural materials in the process of curating the space. Since Japan is an island, they had this isolated society building over thousands of years, and they only used the native materials they had on-hand to create their unique garden style. Here in America, that’s not always the case. We cut down trees, plow things, lay down concrete patios, and more. It’s not usually in harmony with nature. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. We knock down the plant life that was there naturally in favor of placing something more attractive or convenient there, instead.

American gardens are mostly influenced by European culture. Instead of using the plants that we could find naturally here in North America, a lot of the plants we use today were imported from Europe. Some of the biggest gardens we see here are also modeled after English gardens. In fact, so few people actually take the time to design a garden, we might call any garden an “English garden” if it takes more effort than your average backyard. As a society, if we cared enough to develop an “American” garden style, it would be using the plants we can find native to the area. One of the only examples I know of is called xeriscaping, where people only landscape using native desert plants in dry climates.

It’s easier to take care of rocks than plants. Credit: Canva

8. Rock Gardens Are Incredibly Low-Maintenance

One of the most popular elements of a Japanese garden is a rock garden. These are made with large boulders, as well as sand or very fine gravel courtyards. Kari Sensui means “dry mountain water”. It’s meant to be a recreation of islands. The lines in the sand or gravel are meant to represent the ripples of the ocean waves. Since you must have water in a Japanese garden, this is a way to have the symbol of water without it actually being there. 

Rock gardens are supposed to be a place of stillness, while the rest of the Japanese garden is in a constant stage of change. Leaves will change colors, fall, and move with the four seasons. But a rock garden will look the same no matter what time of year it is. This solid, still, unchanging and unwavering setting is supposed to symbolize stability. It’s why so many people enjoy meditating in a Japanese rock garden.

Empty space is just as important as the moss or grass. Credit: Shutterstock

7. The Incorporation of Empty Space

The head gardener Michael Kondo at the Portland Japanese garden said during an interview, “Japanese gardens are mainly forms and shapes. But at the same time, it’s how those shapes interact with each other…The emptiness of a space is just as important as what you fill it with.”In meditation, you’re encouraged to clear your mind of any thoughts. You need to have this emptiness in order to bring in your emotions. This is just another way that Japanese gardens incorporate spirituality into their design.

American gardens often have empty space, too. We might have a large field of grass with nothing on it. But that’s different from intentionally designing empty space to fit in with an overall aesthetic. Since we’re so influenced by European gardens, we tend to have pathways that are flanked by flower beds and vegetables. So the next time you start landscaping, ask yourself if you can make some intentionally empty space work.

This building is so beautiful, it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the mountain. Credit: Shutterstock

6. Incorporating Buildings into the Natural Landscape

In the Portland Japanese garden, the building is part of the design. It enhances the view, rather than taking away from it. During a walk-through on YouTube, Chief Curator Sada Uchiyama explained how they built the new tea building so that it blended in well with the surroundings.The landscape is planned almost like a painting. There are various levels in the foreground, middle ground, and background. 

When you look at scenery throughout Japan, you can tell that this has always been the tradition. Parts of the country are so beautiful, it looks like a painting. Here in the United States, we don’t always think about the view or the surrounding nature before building something. We can try to do the opposite, though. A certain type of landscaping may give you a good view from your windows, or complement the architecture of your house.

The Tori gate in this garden has a small private temple. Credit: Canva

5. Ties to Spirituality

When you step into a Japanese garden, you might immediately feel a sense of calm. It’s a peaceful, sacred space. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a spiritual person, it’s hard not to feel zen when you step in one. That’s because these gardens were designed with spirituality in mind. There are records dating back all the way to the 8th century called Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan, which talk about the importance of these gardens. In these historic texts, there is an associating that only royalty could afford them. There is also a huge influence from the Shinto religion. The word “niwa” translates to garden in Japanese. But it also means “a place to be cleansed in anticipation of god”. Kami, or God, is really a description of the spirits. Shinto gives reverence to ancient rocks, lakes, and trees as the “dignitaries of nature”

When more people started being influenced from Korea and China, more and more Japanese people began practicing Buddhism and Daoism. In Japan, people began incorporating symbols into the gardens from the Hindu-Buddhist tradition. This is why you may have seen certain stone groupings or little statues of Buddah. There will also be topographical influences to stories of mystical mountains and islands. 

The shore of this pond looks very natural. Credit: Shutterstock

4. The Sense of Asymmetry 

In American gardens, we are more about perfect symmetry. There are a lot of straight lines, matching pots on either side of a doorway, or the perfect number of plants in any given area. It definitely doesn’t look natural, and it’s clearly all placed there by man. In fact, we pride ourselves in keeping something that looks well-maintained, so that the neighbors can see how hard we worked for it. 

But in Japanese gardens, it all looks so natural, it’s like it was there for thousands of years, and that it must always be perfect on its own. In reality, there is a lot of work that goes into it behind the scenes, but it just looks so effortlessly beautiful. Everything uses asymmetric outlines, and balances between colors. There is also a mix of shade and light. The placement of water, rocks, and plants are all meant to be harmonious with one another.

You can feel like you’re apart of nature when you see a garden in Japan. Credit: Shutterstock

3. Feeling One With Nature

If we haven’t already made it abundantly clear so far in this article, gardens in Japan always help make you feel like you are one with nature. You are surrounded by so much natural beauty, it becomes easy to just be still. By looking out at nature, breathing, and thinking, you can feel relaxed and finally start to sense that you are one with the universe.

Here in America, that really depends on where you live. If you live near a forest, you can also have that sense of feeling one with nature. But if you’re in a more suburban or urban area, that can be difficult. It’s not impossible, but it may require a lot of work for you to get there.

Japanese gardens look incredibly luxurious. Credit: Shutterstock

2. It Feels More Luxurious

Earlier on the list, we mentioned how many Japanese gardens are designed to fit into small spaces, since the average person in Japan doesn’t own a lot of land. This is because throughout Japanese history, land was owned by feudal lords. It was only after American occupation that this land was beginning to get divided up. For most of the country’s history, only members of the elite and royal families ever had enough land to create these multiple massive gardens. So most of your average families might have a courtyard, if they have any garden at all.

 

Here in the United States, land is more plentiful. It’s not uncommon for someone to own an entire acre of land, or more. So if you have enough land to make a large scale Japanese garden, you’re essentially creating something that only royalty could afford. Even if you’re not familiar with Japanese history, people still look at these gardens and go, “Wow!”

These stones are dry stacked, but stand during earthquakes. Credit: Portland Japanese Garden

1. Japanese Rock Walls Are Earthquake Proof

Earthquakes are common in Japan, so they have had to figure out how to earthquake-proof their structures. In some Japanese gardens, they have castle walls made from dry stacks of stone. These are held down by gravity. So if the earth shakes, the stones can adjust with the movements in the Earth. 

Here in the United States, the Portland Japanese garden made their own castle walls. So if you wanted to see them for yourselves, you wouldn’t have to travel to Japan to see it. Everything in that garden is designed and maintained by actual Japanese gardeners to make it as authentic as possible to their culture. I highly recommend watching this interview on YouTube to see the full garden.

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