Why Japanese Gardens Are Superior to American Backyards

Shannon Quinn - May 29, 2021
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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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