Designing a Japanese-Inspired Garden

Japanese gardens embrace a concept called “Ki,” which translates to true essence. Ki is about highlighting the natural landscape and creating a place of harmony and contemplation through the use of worn, aged, and imperfect materials. It’s about capturing the “essence of nature,” its fragility, resilience, and asymmetry, while also intertwining philosophical and spiritual ideas. You can design your own Japanese-inspired garden with the essential features.

There are three types of classic Japanese gardens: hill gardens, dry gardens, and tea gardens. All combine four primary components: water, rock, plants, and decorations.


Japanese gardens include a stream or pond. In the case of a dry garden, also called a karesansui, water is represented by white sand. Water should enter the garden from the east, ensuring health and long life, or flow from north to south, symbolizing good luck. Cascades, which are small waterfalls, are important aspects of a Japanese garden and represent the waterfalls of Japan’s mountain streams. They should reflect the moon and be tucked away in partial shadow.


Rocks are the yang to water’s yin. Rock can be large boulders, stones, gravel, or sand. Tall vertical rocks symbolize mountains, flat stones represent the Earth, and sand signifies a flowing stream. Using a variety of sizes and shapes including flat, vertical, tall or low, arching, or reclining. Rocks are arranged in purposeful groupings of two, three, five or seven, with three being the most common. Rocks can have different textures and striations and should have a subtle tone. Firmly embedding them in the ground promotes stability and permanence.


Trees, shrubs, flowers, and ground covers should be thoughtfully chosen for color, texture, shapes, and size. Arrange in odd-numbered, asymmetrical groupings to create a picturesque scene, varying size, color and texture. All plants, especially trees, are manicured to accentuate their shape, often bending and shaping them to be more sculptural and ancient in appearance. The most commonly used plants in traditional Japanese gardens are azalea, camelia, oaks, elm, cherry, maple, and bamboo. Grasses and moss, which gives a softness and also is a symbol of the primordial, are also frequently used.


Bridges, gates, stone lanterns, and fences are all important ornamental ingredients in a Japanese-inspired garden. Bridges are the symbol of the path to immortality. They can be wood or stone, arched or flat. The shape of stone lanterns represents the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and spirit. Fences embrace simplicity and are frequently constructed from bamboo while the garden gate is ornamental and sturdy.

There are important aesthetic principles to keep in mind when designing a Japanese-inspired garden. The essence of nature is imperfection, asymmetry, and soft, organic curved juxtaposed by the linear. Aged, patinaed, imperfect materials; the blending of textures, heights, and color; searching for shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” which could be a burst of color from a jacaranda tree across the street, or to allow the view of a nearby hillside.

Sound is another important feature. The rustling of grasses, the gurgling flow of water, and the crisp and subtle ringing of wind chimes all coalesce to create a pleasing soundscape. This auditory ingredient augments the other sensory aspects of touch, sight, and smell deliberately heightened and thoughtfully planned.

Whether you live in Monte Sereno, Mountain View, Los Altos, Santa Clara, or Los Gatos, characteristics of the serenity and imperfect beauty of Japanese and Japanese-inspired gardens can be integrated into any home’s garden. Or, if you prefer to explore local Japanese gardens for quiet reflection and inspiration, visit Hakone Estate and Gardens in Saratoga, the Japanese Friendship Gardens in San Jose, or the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

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Photo by Guillaume Hankenn on Pexels.