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People are often character-based representations of the social and moral values of their society, and these values vary from person to person, and with age, place and time. The spaces of private hobbies such as gardening showcase strong representations of the individual character, yet we have some means to assimilate the feelings of each and every one of us. Gardens are the examples of that very spaces which has elements deemed fit for each one of us. The word “garden” is accompanied by the image of vast open space, full of lush green vegetation with strong presence of a water fountain, a variety of flowering plants, etc. But gardens carry more than just being a place of leisure. There are many examples in the history of mankind where gardens witnessed significant events which have sometimes led to serious consequences. But gardens do carry with the intangible aspect of one’s culture, the richness of its religion, the greatness of the emperors, and last but not the least a path leading to salvation of man.

Religion and culture of Japan: Essence of the Japanese Style of gardening
Japanese gardens are one such example which carries the very intangible aspect of the richness of Japanese culture, the history of change of development of the countries within is unspeaking forms that changed with the alteration of the ruling government. The Japanese gardens are an integral part of Japanese architecture style, both have interdependency on each. Each imperial head bringing his own character, his own likeness and interpretation of what life meant to him, changed the styles of how gardens are built in Japan. But along the course of history, it is the religious shadow, the religion and culture of Japan which has always been the essence of the Japanese style of gardening. There were many types of gardens, each one different in its form, structure, use of material, but other than these differences, what actually makes all the garden styles unique and different is the following of an individual branch of religion. Japanese gardens are all based on the local context which governs the flow of design pattern being followed by designer, It is the same context which differs person to person and thus creates new meaning every time a person visits these gardens.

There are various modern types of Gardens which are in practice and can be easily found all along the island of Japan. There are gardens of early Japan which is the age before 794. Gardens of this type were based on the religion that was currently in practice through Shintoism, which has pebbles as their primary material. The gardens of this age are not visible nowadays. It was the arrival of Buddhism religion to the island of Japan in around the 6thcentury which brought itself the theme of “Gardens Influenced by Religion”. The exchange of trade and culture took place from China whose Gardens are famous worldwide. “The widespread exchange of visits of royal people of Imperial Court of Japan brought not only the Buddhism religion but also the Chinese influence of the design and development of gardens.” The style of gardening changed with the change in regime of Japan from time to time. Around 1192, at the beginning of “Kamakura Period” the nature of ruling shifts from aristocratic ruling into the military regime. This change brings in the acceptance of “Zen Buddhism” as the main religion of the Japanese people. It was the influence of ideologies of Zen Buddhism which results in the creation of “Zen Gardens”, which are so famous today. This change of style of gardening brought along with it the concept to go “Minimalist”. Now gardens became smaller and simpler than ever before. Also the nature of function changed from being built purely for aristocratic families, they are now open for recreational purposes for the public.

Zen gardens: Zen religion is a branch of Buddhism
Zen gardens sometimes also referred as Karesansui or “Dry-Landscapes is a famous style of garden design introduced by the military regime of Japan in early 1192. The style derived its name from the influence of Zen Buddhism which was famous at that time. The religion has a direct affect of the style of garden. It is known for its “Minimalist” approach of Design using many rocks, confined to a smaller space usually surrounded by walls. Although rock is the main building material used to create such gardens but other elements like, water, pond, bridges, vegetation etc are also found sometimes.

The Zen religion is a branch of Buddhism that reached from the mainland China to Japan, and hence Chinese culture has a major influence on the Design outlook of Japanese Gardens.  Nowadays, followers of Zen Buddhism are mainly military personals because of its strong belief in discipline as a way to achieve salvation. The teaching of Zen is of self-examination to attain spiritual refinement which leads to enlightenment. Japanese residential gardens interpret wilderness landscapes; they do this by recreating the visual patterns seen in the regional wilderness, into a residential garden design. The basic purpose of creating Zen gardens were to create a meditational place along with teachings of the religion.

These gardens have mainly rock as main building material. Gravel and sand are also primary materials used, along with a moss in a few pieces. These gardens, like other styles of Japanese gardens, find their roots to the mainland China where Zen Buddhism originates. The use of rock for the creation of Gardens is a response of Zen Priests for the unavailability of water (Nakagawara, 2004). These gardens are seen as the picture of moral character, which is specific for any individual, hence copying of the designs is strictly forbidden. These gardens are seen from a distinct point with no accessibility to the main area. It is said that each and every individual viewer has its own interpretation of these gardens. They are an example of abstract form of symbolic landscape. The mood of the viewer helps determine the imagination and interpretation of the garden. The place is kept quiet just to create a feeling of enclosed space, usually a wall is placed to restrict the visual boundary and to help create the concentration. The examples of these types of gardens are still visible in Kyoto: Ryoanhi, Daitokuj, etc.

The culture of Japan has typically been nature loving. For more than centuries, prior to the start of trading activities in and out of Japan, this culture has been well preserved by its people. “The reduction in the use of material for the creation of Zen Garden is seen as an element of integration with the local culture.”The sleek and minimal design reflects the culture’s sensitivity towards art and beauty in creating a space that is more to be felt than to be seen. By creating a design that is so sleek and minimal in visual aspect, a creation of visual meditation has been attempted by carefully placing the mere rocks. Each viewer with its own restriction to the visual boundary will seek to judge the element of minimalism in totality to its own existence as compared to the almighty and thus, intro respect the aim of his creation on this earth.

Although the rock, sand and gravel are the primary materials used for creating a Zen Garden, other materials are also used sometimes. Due to the strong representation of physical characteristics by stone, it is considered to hold more importance than trees for the Japanese people. As the use of stone is permanent, the shape of the stones being used is also certain. There are only 5 basic shapes of stones regarded as natural foam of stone, and they are to be used as such they exist in nature. As the garden is more like an abstract symbol that depends upon the mood of the viewer, each element has different meaning for different viewers. So in order to create a meaningful interpretation and ease in assuming the viewer’s perspective, each material has a meaning.

Essentially, the physical barrier is marked by the creation of gates, temporary fences or straw cloth which is used to demarcate the paces. These gardens stand on their own, irrespective of being created around any shrine because as per the teachings of Zen Buddhism, mind is the only barrier which hinders the salvation and any physical entity which diverts the mind is not acceptable. So these gardens are never created around a shrine or any built structure, they are more of a one on one reckoning with you and your inner soul. The garden is primarily based on the setting, which allows the human activities all around it, thus people act like a centre of concentration, while sand is also used as a depiction of water in order to create a ripple effect on the ground and mind of a viewer as well. One of the main influences of religion on design of these gardens is a factor of wilderness. Theses gardens present the most effective way to create a limited visual boundary with the elements of wilderness. “The feeling to taken away resonates in each and every aspect of Japanese Gardens” (Kaplan, 1989).


Example of Zen Garden:
Ryoanji’s, a world famous Zen Garden, nowadays it called a “Rock Garden” and is located in the Kyoto District of Japan. The Garden has been listed as a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto and now a UNESCO world heritag site. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Zen Gardens. There are many facts which are still unknown about the garden, when it is sure that the garden was built during late 14th century in the Muromachi Period, the identity of its founder is still a mystery yet to be found. There were many assumptions about who found it, who designed it, but no one concrete evidence has been found yet.

It is a space of about 248 sq.m., in which 15 rocks are arranged within the space. The designer’s perspective of placing the stones is like a smile of Monalisa, while some theories assume it to be “islets in an ocean” or “Mountain peak in a sea of cloud”. The 15 rocks are placed on the base of mosses. The rock pattern spells out the character of heart or sometimes of heart or cluster, which symbolizes to the five mounts or Zen Monterey, and this is located in China. So it is clearly visible that this concept of Zen garden is influenced by the Chinese culture and religion. Other than stone, the gravel and sand is speared evenly on the site to ease out the water discharge. The gravel used in the design of garden are a symbolic representation of water, it tends to reflect the still-like characteristics that are common in both sand (gravel) and water. But water cannot stand still and on the other hand sand can be controlled and brought into a desired shape and pattern. There is a tilt on the southeast corner facing the “Hajo”. A wall is placed on the right west end corner, which is slightly higher at top end, inclining towards the south end.

This innovation in the design of wall helps achieve optical illusion to the viewers, which is splendid. While controlling the right amount of wall height and inclination, the designer, whoever he or she is, has managed to achieve a perfect sense of optical illusion.  The Ryoanji is an example of an ultimate and unique rock garden. The garden has a strong context, which forces the viewer to forget each and everything and focus on the piece of mental relaxation. The garden has a background wall, which contrast with the Design of the garden, at the same time it has a lush green patch of vegetation on the northern side. The whole setting tends to create a sense of visual equilibrium which is a unique property of every rock garden. The one astonishing fact about this garden is that the viewer cannot view all the stones from any angle he views the stones.

Just in front of the “Hajo,” a 180 cm high wall made up of earth surrounds the spaces from three sides which results in an overall composition of the design element placed on the ground. This wall has been named as “Oil Earth Wall” made up of a mixture of foam and grape seed oil to avoid the glare of the white sand spread on the ground. On the interior side, the wall is 80 cm higher as compared to exterior wall which helps to maintain its stability.

Most of the history has been unknown about who built it, who founded it, what was the Design aim? But recorded historical evidence tells us about the year 1450 when it was built by “Hosokawa Katsumoto” a deputy under Ashikaga Shagon. It was Katsumoto’s who earns the credit of creating a
temple on the very present site but unfortunately the temple was burnt to ashes during the Onin war, again to be rebuilt by katsumoto’s son “Masamoto”. The “Hojo” building, which can be said to be a viewing gallery, was built in the year 1499. Many believed rock gardens were founded in the same year. Again “Hajo” also destroyed in a fire occurred 1797, along with that the founders hall and Buddha hall went to the ground. Then “Hojo” of what is left of it is transferred here to its present location. It also comprises of the tombs of Katsumoto along with his family.

Zen Garden vs. Chinese Garden                     
Although Zen gardens were based on the religious belief of Zen, which has found its way into Japan from China to Korea. It is also there that the concept of gardens are learnt by Japanese from Chinese only, but still the Zen gardens are a way to differentiate what Chinese gardens aims to be. It is the uniqueness of viewing religion in harmony of culture that makes the Zen Garden, a purely Japanese concept.

There was some major difference in conceptualising the Chinese Garden with that of Zen Garden. Those differences lay in the fact that people of Japan are more culturally aware about the need of nature. It was Chinese and Japanese Gardens built during the “Heian Peroid.” Following are the points of difference between the Chinese Garden and of a Japanese Gardens:

  • There was a major change in the built foam around which the gardens are made.
  • While in Chinese concept of garden designing, centrally located shrine or monastery should be there to start the project.
  • The Chinese gardens were usually located very near to a water body but there is an absence of water element from the Zen Gardens.
  • The ornamentation and extra fenestration in the Architectural style of Chinese garden are very elaborate. While there is no such thing in Zen Gardens.
  • In later Japanese gardens, the buildings were supposed to be away from the water body, if any, and the buildings were simple.
  • The architecture style of the Japanese garden is more like a journey of thoughts. It focuses us on integrating cultural and religiously perceived notion of bringing natural elements in each and every thing.
  • Chinese gardens are just like any other contemporary gardens; they can be seen from inside of the building, from the buildings galleries and pavilions, located in the centre of the garden.
  • But on the contrary, the Chinese gardens are seen to be visible from outside, because of the notation of creating meditation places for the people.
  • The architectural style of Japanese style is not prominent as much as its visible output.
  • Under “Ming Density” the Chinese garden was particularly made up of extraordinary selected rock with each one having defined shape and size.
  • The Japanese style of garden were small and minimal in nature, they are basically made up of small land.
  • The selection of building material varies for both of them. While Chinese gardens have vegetation as its prominent feature, along with other elements.
  • The Japanese gardens also played a major role in the military. The Zen component of them was something that the military used to be disciplined in their every day actions.

Even through the religious ideology of both Chinese and Japanese people are similar, the personal difference in character and history tends to induce some changes in the design and development of gardens. Japanese gardens are seen as a place to come closer to one soul and start self-examination, but on the other hand Chinese gardens were more of a personal pleasure to enjoy the beauty of nature. This difference in usage of gardens also shows the difference in the ideological and interpretational capacities of any religion which can be seen happening with every religion. Surly, Japanese Gardens are an integral part of Japanese architecture, both in harmony to one another. These gardens depict the inner self of every individual who comes to these modern meditation centres, where no one is in need of any preaching and sayings. Rocks are already there to guide us to the mystic path of life till the salvation.


It is for certain that the gardens play a major role in the identification of the Japanese people. They provide a place of empowerment, where one can escape to reflect on life, and where they can gain power to handle their everyday challenges. The Zen garden is a particular spot where people look to find focus on how to achieve their activities throughout their lives, and this plays an important role even in the military. Because the gardens are not just representative of a certain aesthetic style that is enjoyed by the people around it; instead, it represents something much more significant to the people of Japan, and this gives them strength as they look to overcome the challenges of their lives, and find motivation to design their lifestyles in the way that will provide them with the most amount of satisfaction. What is perhaps one of the most remarkable components is the gardens’ ability to transform based on who is present. They are a reflection of the viewer, a mirror that helps people find their way, and the arrangement of rocks and water help provide that peaceful atmosphere that will help the people attending these garden to find a way to attain enjoyment and satisfaction in the way that they are living their lives. They might be a reflection of a person’s religion, or way of thinking – whatever it is, the gardens bring nothing but positivity to those around them, and joy in the beholder.

1: Online Book                        
A: Chen, G. (2011), “Landscape Architecture: Planting Design Illustrated” ArchiteG, Inc.
R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2: Internet Website
B: Historical Japanese Gardens, 2011 Available from
,Accessed on 24 November 2013.

C: Historical Japanese Gardens, 2011 Accessed on 24 November 2013.

D: Official Website of Ryoanji Temple, Accessed on 25 November 2013.

4: Web Based Images
E: Visitors Observe Ryoanji’s famous Rock Garden from the Hojo Building
Available From

F:  A few stones of Ryoanji’s Famous Rock Garden
Available From

5: Journal
G: Nakagawara, C (2004), “The Japanese Garden for the Mind : The Bliss of Paradise Transcended” The University of Chicago , Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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