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Small Japanese Gardens and their Secret Behind Design

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Japanese Gardens are today extending beyond their traditional Asian domains to backyards in the West, and through the globe. Famed for their unique balance of nature, Artifice and spiritual elements, this style of gardens has consistently contributed just that extra touch needed to countless homes all over the world. 

Small Japanese Gardens

Small Japanese gardens make all the best use of Japanese gardens concepts and make them more exquisite and accessible through a deliberate toning down or miniaturization of traditional Japanese garden design ideas and elements. Japanese gardens, whether small or on a larger scale, have long been famous for more than ornamental use. They are sought after also for the serenity and spiritual balance they bring to your home.

Small Japanese garden design

Having said that, remember these gardens are to be enjoyed like all gardens, not just observed as a grand expression of symbolism or philosophy. You should bear in mind that the first examples of these gardens were called “pleasure gardens” by their emperor-owners.

You too can have your very own small Japanese garden just by following this guide to achieving one of the true marvels of fusing nature and Art.

Purposes of a Small Japanese Garden

Of all possible garden ideas, why have a small Japanese garden in the first place?

Well, if you are reading this, chances are you are already half or even fully convinced that this is the way to go regarding your outdoor landscaping.  If you are still on that fence, then take a look at the 7 excellent reasons why a small Japanese garden might just be the greenery for you:

  1. Maximizing a small space: Few garden ideas bring out all the potentials of a cramped or small outdoor space like a small Japanese garden. 
  2. Aesthetics: For sheer beauty, a small Japanese garden in all its exotic glory can do wonders for your exterior home décor. Experiment with colors, design elements, and materials.
  3. Healthy living through nature and Zen: Small Japanese gardens will often incorporate exotic and health-promoting plants such as tea plants and mint in their design.  The unique placing of elements in this garden can also promote Zen ideals and practice. Japanese gardens are known o give an ambiance of balance, tranquility, and peace. You get the full benefits of living in your own miniaturized green eco-system.  
  4. Honoring tradition: If you are a student of Japanese tradition, having a small Japanese garden is a great way to keep your roots and connection to this ancient way of existence alive.
  5. Relaxation for the family: The overall ambiance of a small garden such as this is very relaxing for all in the home.
  6. Art project: Many have derived fulfillment and satisfaction through the pursuit of this garden as a purely Art endeavor. Have fun balancing the various elements of this traditional garden experience.
  7. Agricultural hobby or leisure: If you are a keen gardener and have not tried your horticulturist skills, tending a small Japanese garden, this might just be the capping stone to your career.

Types of Small Japanese Gardens

Japanese gardens generally can be classed into three broad categories.

  • Karesansui (also dry landscape gardens) 
  • Tsukiyama (also hill gardens),
  • Chaniwa (also tea gardens)

Karesansui (Dry gardens)

Karesansui, which can also be called dry gardens, are Japanese gardens that replace water, a vital element in most garden designs, with dry elements exclusively such as sand, gravel, and rocks. 

Dry small Japanese garden design

In a Karesansui, dry elements like sand represent water, which together with stone traditionally represents the primordial yin and yang, or complementary opposites that ensure balance in existence.  In a dry garden, although rare, plants may be used. Yohaku no bi, a concept described as the beauty of the empty spaces, challenges the designer to use empty spaces as effectively as filled spaces.

Tsukiyam (Hill gardens)

Tsukiyam as the name implies incorporate an artificial hill to recreate a natural scenery or garden effect. They also utilize other elements like water, rocks, plants, etc, to complement, highlight, or interpret the hill. Tsukiyam may be large, and appreciated via a stroll through it, or small, allowing it to be observed and enjoyed from a stationary position. This type of garden grew in mass popularity in the Edo period in Japan.

Small Japanese hill garden

 Chaniwa (Tea gardens)

Chaniwa, sometimes called Roji, is a Japanese garden type that incorporates a garden and a small teahouse in a corner. The teahouse or room is the venue for tea ceremonies. Roji incorporates moss, stepping stones, paths, ponds and other water in its design. On the way to the tearoom, you are expected to contemplate the surroundings, thereby putting all participants in the right mood for the ceremony.

Small Japanese tea gardens

Many other styles and designs will fall into the three broad types of gardens above. Such differences in style or design will usually result in one of these:

Small Japanese Garden Styles

1. Tsubo-niwa (Japanese Courtyard Gardens)

The Tsubo-niwa is a Japanese traditional courtyard garden. The Tsubo-niwa  sprang through the necessity of designing a garden in a space or area. Since many of these spaces were enclosed by a wall, the concept of the Tsubo-niwa  or courtyard garden was born.

Courtyard gardens usually make quite good small Japanese gardens. 

Going by antecedents, the very first Japanese garden was a Tsubo-niwa. Legend has it that the Japanese Emperor Keiko in the year 74 AD placed a few fish in a pond, and thereafter a boat, where he cavorted with a favorite concubine. Since the imperial palaces were almost always shielded from the common people and for security reasons by a wall, the resulting garden can, by not such a long stretch, be called a courtyard garden.

Innovative ideas continue to be added to the sum of concepts for Tsubo-niwa gardens. Since space is a constant constraint, the challenge is always to incorporate as many natural and man-made elements as needed in a balanced and harmonious way that expresses Zen Buddhist philosophical thoughts. 

Even in a small space, creative elements such a pond, plants, and rock elements can be used effectively to create a Tsubo-niwa

A courtyard garden is also desired for the cool, natural environment it creates around the house. Since they are always enclosed by fencing, a courtyard garden can quickly become as much a part of the home as any other area such as a living area. Creative use of angles of view, lighting, and different vantage points allow you to see this garden type in new and exciting ways. 

Kayushiki Teien (Strolling Gardens)

The beauty of Kayushiki Teien is a serene arrangement of bridges, ponds or streams, paths, trees, and plants. Traditionally believed to be zigzagged to expel evil spirits, a Japanese strolling garden provides an expression of peace and tranquility, as guests stroll through the elements. These constructions usually pointed at the owner’s affluence and recreated historical events or places.

It may be difficult to achieve Kayushiki Teien in a limited space as you would in a small Japanese garden. The trick is to build all elements around a small pond. In this case, even a small bridge may be possible. Ingenious use must be made of elements to avoid clutter.

Shoinzukuri Teien (Study Gardens)

Unlike most Japanese gardens, Shoinzukuri Teien, or study gardens, give pleasure not from being strolled in or sat in, but through contemplation or study.  Pagodas, a pond, Toro lanterns made in Kasuga-style, Moss, and occasionally, statuary, are elements usually employed in a study garden. Your small Japanese garden done in the Shoinzukuri Teien style is certain to succeed, not needing a vast area necessarily to be successful.

Study gardens perhaps lend themselves more to quietude and meditation than other types of Japanese small gardens. You should note though that it may not pay you to enforce rigid symbolism to the design of Shoinzukuri Teien as in the final analysis, your garden is created to be enjoyed in a relaxing atmosphere.

Roji / Chaniwa (Tea Gardens)   

Roji, also known as Chaniwa or Tea Gardens, are some of the best-known styles of Japanese gardens outside Japan. They have been portrayed in countless films and television shows. There is always extensive use of Moss, but also, traditionally, non-flowering evergreens like Podocarpus macrophyllus , Pines, Camellia, and Japanese pieris are used.

A tearoom or teahouse, called Cha-shitsu, is a fixed element where tea ceremonies take place.

Tea gardens are traditionally large, allowing deep meditation as one strolls through the garden to the teahouse to attend the tea ceremony. You can, however, still erect or design a small Japanese garden using a Roji design. 

Japanese tea garden design

In designing for your small garden, you may choose from two main tea garden styles:

  • Sen-no-Rikyu style, named after a legendary tea master, Rikyu, whose schools are still with us today. He favored a more naturalistic style, in effect letting the plants and other natural elements grow as they would and determine the design. In a small space, as you could have for your small Japanese garden, you would do well to note where trees are and how they would grow.  You would also be ready to apply Niwaki, which means the art of pruning, or training as well as shaping trees, Japanese style.
  • Furuta Oribe was Rikyu’s student. With Kobori Enshu, his own student, he developed the Oribe/Enshu style in tea garden design. This approach exaggerated the artificial and man-made, incorporating high, protruding mountain boulders, stepping stones deliberately geometric in shape, as well as precisely cut stones. The effect is to highlight man’s interference in the otherwise natural settings.

Whichever of the two styles you do choose for your small Japanese garden concept is okay.      

Common Features of a Small Japanese Garden

Some elements have become so much a part of a Japanese Garden, it is almost impossible to construct one without incorporating them in some way. Remember that the target is an environment that feeds the spirit as it does the physical senses.

Some common elements you will use in designing a small Japanese Garden are:

  • Bridges
  • Lanterns
  • Rocks
  • Pathways
  • Observation Point
  • Buildings like a cha-shitsu or tearoom
  • Artificial Hills (Tsukiyama)
  • Stones
  • Gravel or sand
  • Gates
  • Pruned Trees
  • Fences
  • Tsukubai (Washbasin made of stone)
  • Flowering shrubs
  • Moss
  • Water
  • Statuary or other Art like pagodas
  • Bamboo

Steps to design small Japanese gardens

Small Japanese gardens will still follow the basic design process of modern-day western landscaping. You may decide to go the DIY route or hire a seasoned contractor /designer for your garden. Either way, you choose, the basic steps toward a perfect, aesthetically pleasing outdoor space configured Japanese style, will look something like this:

  1. Choose a style: Do you fancy a tea garden or Roji, or a strolling garden is more your style? Choose a theme that you are comfortable with, and that best expresses the vision you have in your head.
  2. Evaluate your space: This doesn’t necessitate any elaborate surveying, although that might also come in handy for large spaces or to locate stuff like piping or other such as utilities. Decide what parts of your yard or backyard you want to use.
  3. Draw up an architectural plan: Incorporate all natural elements as well as construction into this. Remember to think of arrangements and views as these are always important.
  4. Think of materials and any symbolism you want to express: Remember this is a Japanese garden. You are gunning two ways all the time. Ask yourself if the material or element you choose in any one position is the best fit, aesthetics wise and Zen wise. 
  5. Begin with your hardscape: Pathways, fences, ponds, teahouse, bridges, and other physical structures should be put in place before you plant trees, flowers, moss, etc.
  6. Soil: Make sure your soil is the right one for your planned plant life. You may need to enrich it a bit with organic manure. Make sure flowerbed lines follow your blueprint.
  7. Choose the right plants: Zen gardens may altogether do away with plants sometimes, but you will find your small Japanese garden will do better with the right plants if you do choose to use plants. Research the right seeds and care. Determine also the final height of trees such as pine, so you know exactly what you are likely to end up with.
  8. Miniaturize: Use small pieces to contain everything. E careful as you can still have clutter even when dealing small.
  9. Use Moss: This is one vital element in a small Japanese garden. Moss may be difficult to grow, requiring the right water, sunlight, and even type. The rewards are worth it though.
  10. Water is central: As an element, water is very essential to your small Japanese garden. Quite apart from needing it to keep plants healthy, it also serves as one part of the primordial opposites of yin and yang. Incorporating water in a small space may be as easy as a washbasin from bamboo or stone, a small shallow pool or a more elaborate waterfall. 
  11. Evolution: Your efforts are just the beginning of a garden that can outlast you by many decades if you do it right. Having designed and built this garden, let it evolve. Be handy to prune and maintain as needed. You will find that your garden will slowly take on its own unique character.

Fitting in the Old with the New: Modernity and Traditional Styles

One intriguing aspect of modern small Japanese gardens has been observing how garden designers and landscapers are able to add modern, man-made elements to the garden in a manner that is not just unobtrusive but actually complements traditional motifs or designs. Truth be told, for many garden ideas from Japan, and, perhaps all of the orient to survive today and in the future, more of this merging of the old and new must be done to keep the overall concept appealing to today’s increasingly young homeowners.

Japanese gardens these days can incorporate ingenious lighting design, inventive positioning to utilize naturally occurring backdrops, and carefully chosen westernized additions such as patios to make them more relevant, while retaining balance and symmetry.  A good instance of this is the Awaji Yumebutai, a Japanese contemporary garden located on the Japanese island of Awaji.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and you may end up defining the future of this outdoor Art form. 


Small Japanese gardens can be totally traditional paradises of tranquility and Zen derived purity, or an energizing fusion of contemporary, western-inspired approaches and traditional Japanese garden architecture. The trick is knowing where to draw the line toward striking the right balance and tone. 

Small Japanese gardens carry their own quaint charm, in that a lack of space means you can redirect funds from filling up the area into the purchase of quality elements and material. These gardens represent a great way of bringing nature closer to us with all its benefits. You will know you have succeeded when you are taking a stroll through your garden and that utter serenity envelopes you.

Maybe you would be interested learning about Chinese garden design and difference compared to Japanese. I have also written interesting article: What is contemporary balcony garden and key elements of European garden

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