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Themed garden series part 1: Japanese gardens

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The traditional Japanese garden is an expression of core tenets from Shintoist and Buddhist philosophy. They’re a journey and a landscape as much as they are a static image, and strolling through one you’re bound to see a deliberate, precarious intertwining of rock, sand, running water, and plant life in harmony.

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In modern times, the contemporary approach to the Japanese garden maintains the feeling of a journey - there’s still often a storied pathway running along it, for example - but the end goal has transformed into creating a space that is an extension of the house, combining both human and natural elements to form a whole.

Modern Japanese gardens are serene and relaxing, but have an added element of utility to them. They’re designed equally for walking around or to just sit back and allow yourself to drink in the scenery.

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Design principles of Japanese gardens

There are a number of elements and design principles behind the structure and build of a Japanese garden. These include:

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  • Simplicity - Japanese gardens are supposed to be simple. This doesn’t mean that they’re in any way less gorgeous to look at, or that they lack sophistication. If anything, they are more impeccably cultivated than most other gardens, designed to emphasise their empty space in order to draw out the inner beauty of their simplicity. They’re especially averse to being too ‘noisy’, favouring sparsity instead.

  • Repetition - Closely tied to simplicity, contemporary Japanese architecture features repeating patterns and simple effects layered in a pattern. This quite commonly takes the form of simple geometric patterns, especially reflected in pathing throughout the garden (see the above picture for a great example).

  • Elegance - Japanese gardens have an air of nobility and elegance to them. Gardens have always been a mark of class and distinction, as well as intellectual foresight in Japan, and this is shown through the extreme care and detail given to each individual placement of grass, stone, or leaf throughout.

  • Serenity - The garden has always been a place of meditation and relaxation all over the world. For the Japanese, it is a spiritual and emotional balance where the composition is vitally important in helping create a state of mind inducive to quiet reflection upon nature.

  • Journey - While the philosophy behind it may have changed over the years, Japanese gardens are still meant to be admired in both intimate detail and as a whole. Paths feature prominently for strolling, and while they might not always be as breathtaking as a rushing creek, there’s still room for centrepieces within.

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Extension of the home

There’s always a certain point at which the home and the garden get blurry.

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One of the most influential contemporary Japanese architects, Tadao Ando, was massively influenced by the religious art of Zen. He held it as one of his core philosophies that the garden should be clean, elegant, and simplistic, emphasising simple materials such as stone and even concrete to complete the look.

As a part of this, Ando pushed the idea of the combination of human architecture and the natural garden. For instance, a patio should jut out onto the garden, often with simple, comfortable garden furniture that could easily be used indoors.

Ando wanted humans to experience the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of human architecture together. He thought that human design influenced how we saw nature and the garden, and his school of design created gardens that framed nature for viewing in a deliberate way.

Creating the garden

Cultivating a Japanese garden is an aspirational process. It takes time and commitment to plan, but is unsurpassed in beauty as to how it can turn out. Textured, flat surfaces such as stone (or a stone substitute) work wonders for paving - the Japanese are very fond of dark pavers as a human contrast against lighter, natural tones - while just about anything in the correct measure can be used for plants.

Be wary of making your garden too crowded and noisy. Focal pieces should be distinctive, but not take up too much of the eye. Simple flower or tree arrangements and cultured hedges are a good fit, as are ponds, rock formations, and interwoven geometric patterns.

There are many ways to get the flow of natural and human going, but pay special attention to the entrance to the garden (which most people don't immediately think of as very important). Note how in the above and below examples the glass panelling leads straight onto the yard proper, which in turn continues onto the grass, with no break. The garden should feel almost like another lived space.

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