Japanese Gardens

Honoring the divinity in nature, many are designed for meditation

By Anne Blankenship, NDSU Extension Master Gardener,

Fig. 1 One of the most visited paradise garden temples, Kinkaku-ji, features a shining gold pavilion. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Atribution Share Alike 3.0 unported license.)

Exoticized by Westerners and deployed by the Japanese for diplomatic purposes at World’s Fairs and sister cities around the globe, Japanese gardens are now one of the most recognizable styles of pleasure gardens. Inspired by Buddhist monks traveling from China, the Japanese added their unique contributions in the 12th century. The characteristics we associate with Japanese gardens all originated at Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Japanese gardens also take inspiration from Shinto, an amalgamation of folk practices and modern conceptions that honor the divinity within nature. Shinto mythology imbues the land and its natural resources with divine purpose. This reverence of nature is reflected in Buddhism as well.

Dry landscape gardens typify the simple aesthetic and impermanence central to Zen Buddhism. Most often, the gardens contain nothing but white gravel surrounding small groups of rocks. Once monks or novices rake the gravel into patterns, the stones resemble islands sitting amidst a swirling sea or mountains towering over plains. The act of raking the gravel is a form of meditation, and many people feel inspired to contemplate life or nothingness as they gaze upon the still scene.

The most famous dry landscape garden is found at the Ryōan-ji, a 15th century Zen temple in Kyoto (Fig. 1)

The gardens surrounding temples feature meticulously pruned maple or pine trees. A central water feature will likely hold koi fish, turtles, lotus plants and small islands linked to the shore with bridges. Since the objective of a meditation garden is clearing one’s mind, distracting colors are reserved for specific seasons. Red maple leaves in fall and pink cherry blossoms in spring teach a lesson about the universe’s constant changes.

The gardens require continual care to maintain their characteristic perfection. Cultivating the plants, like raking the gravel, is part of a novice’s training to become a monk. They hone their minds to focus on the particular task at hand and clear other thoughts from entering.

While perfecting this mental state takes years of practice, anyone can practice such meditation in their own North Dakota gardens to bring peace of mind. For Zen Buddhists, meditation can lead to enlightenment, a true understanding of the universe and one’s place in it.

In contrast, Pure Land Buddhists believe they will enter a paradise after death and reach enlightenment from there. Pure Land temples thus feature paradise-like strolling gardens with a regal pavilion reflected in a central water feature, replicating what adherents believe exists in the pure land.

One of the most visited paradise gardens, Kinkaku-ji, features a shining gold pavilion. Over the centuries, Buddhist temples changed affiliation, so many have both types of gardens. 

Modern Japanese gardens are still influenced by these religious roots but increasingly mix styles and integrate local plant life.

The first permanent Japanese garden in the United States arrived with San Francisco’s World’s Fair in 1894. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, it and other gardens in the U.S. adopted new names to hide their Japanese origins. 

The caretakers of the garden in Golden Gate Park, the third generation of the Hagiwara family that designed the garden and lived on site, were removed from their home and incarcerated first in horse stalls at the Tanforan Racetrack and then at a camp in the Utah desert. Similar stories played out along the coast for 120,000 people of Japanese descent, the majority U.S. citizens, due to racial prejudice and war hysteria. Those innocents brought the art of Japanese gardens with them to the country’s interior.

In Seattle, Yasusuke Kogita had tenderly wrapped tree saplings in cloth and packed them in tin cans for the two-day bus ride to Idaho’s Minidoka incarceration center.

Fig. 2 Citizens of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in Minidoka incarceration center in Idaho during World War II built their own garden, which was later moved to Seattle.  (Photo courtesy of Densho Digital Repository, licensed under (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

Alongside tar-paper barracks, Kogita and others pruned sagebrush and convinced government officials to haul boulders to their housing blocks to build Japanese-style gardens (Fig. 2). The creation, maintenance, and enjoyment of gardens allowed Japanese Americans in every camp to enhance their physical environment, assert the cultural heritage for which they were imprisoned, and improve their mental well-being.

Kogita would sit in the garden for hours, arising on occasion to turn or shift a rock slightly. In 1945, he hired a trucking company to move each small stone and boulder (the largest weighing two tons) from his camp barrack to Seattle, where they now reside in his son Paul’s garden. Reconstructed gardens at former camp sites underscore their importance for former incarcerees.

You can visit Japanese gardens throughout the country or make one in your own backyard.

The Northern Plains Botanical Garden is planning a Japanese garden in Fargo.