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What is a Japanese Water Garden?

By Rebecca Mecomber
Updated May 16, 2024
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A Japanese water garden is considered a great work of art that is to be crafted and nurtured with meditative refinement. Japanese gardens have been developed and passed down from a master, or sensei, to an apprentice. The ancient, cultivated Japanese landscape reflected Japanese culture and philosophy: harmony with nature, tranquility, serious contemplation and discipline. The Japanese water garden is a smaller, poignant feature incorporated in a larger typical Japanese garden, and it includes water; ornaments such as a bridge, stepping stones or lantern; a pavilion or pagoda; and native plants.

The ancient Japanese Secret Book of Gardens, or Sakutei-ki, which written in the 11th century, is the oldest known book of gardening art in the world. In it, the author lays out strict rules and appropriate substitutes for the highly symbolic Japanese garden. For example, the book dictates the type, size and stones for simulating or creating waterfalls, and it says that "nine willow trees can replace a river" where no water is present. When Japanese gardens became popularized in western cultures during the late 19th century, rules were bent further to accommodate the different climates and western tastes of backyard gardening.

Water, whether real or symbolic, obviously is a key component and ultimate focal point of a Japanese water garden. Japanese water gardens attempt to adapt to the natural course of the existing water supply or provide a natural flow if simulated water is necessary. Ponds and streams flow gently, not in geometrical lines. Natural waterfalls or gentle rivulets are preferred over artificial fountains. Where no water is available, gently curved paths of sand or rounded pebbles can suggest its presence.

Continuing the theme of harmony with nature, the flora of a Japanese water garden are native to the climate and suited for a watery environment. In Japanese water gardens, flowers are sparsely grown. They serve as mere compliments to the lush greenery and bubbling water.

Natural ornaments embellish the garden but never overwhelm the garden. The focal point of a Japanese water garden is water, and ornaments such as stepping stones, a bridge and a lantern serve to heighten the importance of the water. A pagoda or pavilion beckons the visitor to linger in quiet contemplation, perhaps during a formal tea ceremony. All elements in a Japanese water garden direct the gardener and visitor to enjoy the serenity of nature.

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