5 Elegant Japanese Garden Styles to Try

A touch of Japan adds minimalist style to your own backyard.

When I was studying abroad in Japan, my motto was “Say yes to everything.” Eating something that was still looking at me was a little difficult, but saying yes to visiting Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto was easy. Despite the crowds, I found it incredibly peaceful to stroll along the meandering paths that bordered the scenic lake and walk beneath the deep red leaves of the Japanese maples.

What I love most about Japanese gardens is that instead of focusing on glitz and glam, they tend to be more stripped down and strive to capture the essence of nature. Flashy flowerbeds take a backseat to elegant touches like stepping-stones and ponds. Completely transforming your garden into a Japanese-styled one may not be on your to-do list, but there are plenty of ways to bring a little Land of the Rising Sun to your garden space. Here are five of our favorite Japanese garden styles.

1. Karesansui Garden

No plants? No problem! Instead of a bustling space with flowers and soil, a karesansui or Zen garden features finely combed gravel and a few large rocks, all within a simple rectangle of space. This garden style was originally adopted from China, but the Japanese imbued it with their own symbolism, using the rocks to represent mountains and the gravel lines the sea. This type of garden isn’t intended to be walked through; instead, you’re encouraged to use the minimalist setting as a way to meditate and feel calm.

To create your own meditative space in your backyard, find a quiet patch to level and measure into a rectangle of any size. Although some karesansui gardens use sand, fine gravel will tolerate all kinds of weather. When you’re creating the garden layout, think of it as a bird’s-eye view of a coastal scene. You may want to include a stone bench, too, so you can sit and let your soothing new space calm your mind.

Josh Wilburne (public domain)

2. Strolling Garden

Moving beyond the simple tranquillity of the karesansui garden, this garden style is all about exploration and discovery. Strolling gardens are expansive and detailed. Traditionally, this type of garden has a large pond or lake at its center and was originally designed for medieval Japanese lords who wanted the sensation of embarking on a journey but were restricted from traveling by the government.

Re-create the surprising reveals of a strolling garden with pathways that zigzag or a water element like a stone basin or pond. Evergreens are popular in Japanese gardens, so trees like cedar, Japanese black pine and Canadian hemlock work well with this style, as do hedges like flowering quince and Japanese barberry. (Before planting, make sure these plants aren’t invasive to your area.) You’ll be on your own gardening journey in no time.

3. Tea Garden

One of the best-known Japanese traditions is the tea ceremony, in which green tea is ritualistically prepared. Tea gardens, which arose in the 16th century, were designed for those ceremonies. The main feature of a true tea garden is a stone path, which is meant to metaphorically transport visitors from the everyday world to a more enchanting one. The path in a tea garden always leads to a small tatami-floored room or building where tea ceremonies take place.

To enjoy the transformative effect of a tea garden, find a way to incorporate a path into your garden by taking advantage of a narrow space that isn’t being used. While creating the stepping-stone path itself, consider the size of the stones and their distance from one another; uneven distances invite visitors to move a little more slowly and stop to appreciate their surroundings. Line the path with Japanese garden-inspired plants, like azaleas and camellias, and don’t forget to bring along a comforting cup of tea!

Sora Sagano (public domain)

4. Pond-and-Island Garden

The oldest style of Japanese gardens, this one was imported directly from China thousands of years ago and was once reserved only for the leisure class. This garden tends to be more subdued in color, with impressive elements like waterfalls, streams, bridges and small islands.

Although pond-and-island gardens are usually sweeping in scale, it’s possible to take aspects of this style and incorporate them into the average-size garden. A stone lantern or a koi pond would be simple options for a backyard. When choosing what to plant, favor evergreen over deciduous trees, and lean toward classic Japanese garden staples like native wisteria and Japanese holly.

5. Courtyard Garden

Eventually, beautiful gardens weren’t reserved just for the elite class in Japan, and the middle class started installing smaller, more manageable private gardens. Courtyard gardens took inspiration from tea gardens and often featured stepping-stones and stone water basins, though mostly for fashion rather than function.

Contemporary courtyard gardens are usually surrounded on all sides by buildings, so they typically feature shade-tolerant plants like moss and hostas. These plants are also low-maintenance, which help your small or contained space to stay looking tidy. Surprisingly, courtyard gardens can include tall plants like trees and bamboo. Tiny plants tend to draw attention to the smallness of the space, which is why incorporating a well-placed tree can really make your courtyard shine.

4 Japanese Gardens to Visit

1. Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco, CaliforniaThe oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S., this tea garden sits inside Golden Gate Park and includes a teahouse.

2. Anderson Gardens, Rockford, IllinoisThis 12-acre strolling garden has winding paths around ponds and waterfalls, and educational programs like tea ceremonies and kimono demonstrations.

3. Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, OregonDivided into five major sub-gardens, this renowned Japanese garden has a bit of everything.

4. Seiwa-en Japanese Garden, St. Louis, MissouriLocated inside the Missouri Botanical Garden, this strolling garden hosts a Japanese festival every summer.

Kaitlin Stainbrook
Kaitlin Stainbrook, Associate Editor, Birds & Blooms Although Kaitlin is a newbie when it comes to birding and gardening, she loves getting to learn on the job. (She's already impressed a few friends by being able to identify a couple songbirds!) Previously, she worked on other Reader's Digest magazines like Reminisce and Country Woman. Hidden talents include playing the ukulele and speaking Japanese.