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.


Classical Chinese Scholar Gardens

Ancient gardens designed to reflect a balanced life

by Anne Blankenship, NDSU Extension Master Gardener Intern,

The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, part of the Staten Island Botanical Garden, shows intricate stone mosaic pathways, stones and architecture, with trees and plants playing a secondary role. PC:

Chinese gardens intended for leisure first appeared alongside emperors’ palaces but were soon replicated within the courtyards of merchants, civic leaders, and scholars.

These scholar gardens gained popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Sophisticated gardens became a point of pride for the elite classes as a place where one could write or read poetry, practice calligraphy, paint, play a musical instrument, converse with friends, or sit alone in meditation. A balanced garden was thought to reflect a balanced life.

While small compared to English landscape gardens, the individual elements of a Chinese garden combine to represent grand scenic views that continually change as a person walks along circuitous paths, steps through interior gates, climbs over bridges, or simply sits within a pavilion and watches others interact with the environment. 

Chinese gardens are defined by four elements: architecture, water, stone, and flora. Whether in grand and minute settings, these features replicate larger formations like rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests. Ancient traditions suggested the essence of the larger formation could be contained in these miniature forms and allow viewers to immerse themselves in nature, leaving civilization behind.

“A man is known by his garden.” -A Chinese saying

High walls surround the gardens to block out the conflicts, stress, and tedium of daily life. This experience fosters a central tenet of Daoism that teaches people to separate themselves from society and connect with nature in order to follow the dao or the natural flow of the universe. This communion with nature allows a person to balance and refine their inner energy (chi).

The balance between the complementary forces of yin and yang is visually depicted within the garden when the architect harmonizes the placement of spiraling rocks (yang) and flowing water (yin). Uniform elements like relief patterns on a low wall or mosaic patterns of paving stones complement the garden’s cavalcade of abstract forms created by unusual rocks, undulating shorelines, and various flora and fauna.

Architectural elements range from large wooden tea houses, moon-viewing pavilions, and bridges to intricate stone mosaics decorating pathways. Walls separate sections of the garden and complement the beauty they surround, often undulating like a long Chinese dragon.

Each doorway and window frames deliberately designed, picturesque scenes, while latticework casts intricate shadows in the morning and afternoon sun. These views must work equally well in all four seasons and often use distant landmarks to give the impression of being in a larger space. Architects orient a long hall according to the dictates of feng shui, Chinese geomancy.

YuYuan, the Garden of Happiness, Shanghai. PC:

Tai hu, large rocks riddled with abstract hollows made by the erosion of limestone in Lake Tai, are highly prized and prominently displayed in the gardens. Larger gardens like YuYuan, a 5-acre garden in Shanghai, also contain accessible rockeries in which visitors walk through narrow valleys, climb steep paths, explore caves, and view the garden from atop a cliff. These rockeries do a remarkable job replicating the sense of being in the mountains, as you don’t know what to expect around each turn.

When constructing the garden, laborers used dirt from what would become the pond to build earthen mounds on which to place the stones to augment the vertical space. 

While flora plays a marginal role as compared to its counterparts in European and American gardens, each plant holds symbolic meaning. Gardeners chose peonies for wealth and aristocracy; bamboo for resilience and integrity; pine trees for longevity; and lotus plants for purity and perfection.

A Chinese garden is not grown so much as it is constructed.

The city of Suzhou boasts the most famous scholar gardens, many built by retired government bureaucrats. Civil service examinations in China included sections on music, literature, and poetry, so all government workers were educated in classical arts. The finest gardens in Suzhou, some one thousand years old, are honored as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

However, you need not cross the Pacific to immerse yourself in a Chinese garden. Teams of several dozen artisans from Suzhou helped build the first Chinese garden abroad in Vancouver, B.C., followed by gardens in Montreal, Staten Island, Portland, Ore., and St. Louis, Mo. The Huntington in San Marino, Ca., is the largest outside of China. These gardens follow the style of classical scholar gardens, but Seattle and its sister city Chongqing are building a Sichuan-style garden in which flora plays a more dominant role.

Associate Professor Anne Blankenship led tours of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s international gardens and teaches about them in her NDSU World Religions course.

Lion Grove Garden, Suzhou. PC: