Japanese Garden Elements: 14 Characteristics of Japanese Garden Design

Designing a Japanese garden is a daunting task. A traditional Japanese design seems simple to put together, then we try it ourselves and realise it’s anything but. Luckily, our team of experienced gardeners and designers have put together all of the characteristic elements you need to create a beautiful zen inspired garden.

Types of Japanese garden

There are several different types of Japanese garden:

  • Karesansui (Dry Gardens)

  • Tsukiyama (Hill and Pond Garden)

  • Chaniwa (Tea Gardens)

  • Chisen-shoyū-teien (Japanese Pond Garden)

  • Tsuboniwa (Courtyard Gardens)

  • Kaiyushiki-teien (Stroll Gardens)

  • Japanese Paradise Gardens (or Temple gardens)

Let’s now explain the characteristic elements of Japanese garden design.


Zen Garden Door

Enclosure is an important element of Japanese garden design. It helps to create a sense of intimacy and separation from the outside world. This is essential for achieving the feeling of peace and serenity that is characteristic of Japanese gardens.

Some examples of enclosure elements a Japanese garden will use:

  • Walls

  • Bamboo Fencing

  • Gates

  • Arbors

These elements allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the beauty and tranquility of the garden. This sense of enclosure also helps to create a sense of mystery and wonder. It’s inviting visitors to explore and discover its hidden corners and paths.

Stone Lanterns

Japanese Stone Pagoda Lantern

Stone lanterns, or tōrō, are traditionally made of granite or other types of stone, and they come in a variety of styles and sizes.

In a Japanese garden, these lanterns are often placed along pathways or alongside water, such as a pond or stream.

They were originally used to provide light at night, as they were often equipped with a candle or oil lamp. But in modern gardens, however, we also use them to accentuate the beauty of the garden during the day.

In addition to being practical and aesthetic, they also hold cultural and spiritual significance in Japan. They were, in the past, often placed in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, where they were seen as symbols of enlightenment and wisdom. In a zen garden, a stone lantern serves as a reminder of the connection between nature and spirituality.

The use of stone lanterns in a Japanese garden is a beautiful way to add a touch of spirituality to your outdoor space.


Japanese Garden Bridge

Another key element in Japanese style gardens are bridges. They are traditionally made of natural material such as stone, wood or bamboo. The style of the bridge won’t matter as long as it adheres to the other key elements. Some bridges in Japanese gardens are grand, whilst others consist of just a stone slab or wooden planks laid out as a zigzag bridge.

Try adding a bridge over a pond or stream to connect islands together, making your garden the perfect space for a relaxing stroll whilst you admire the fish below.


Beautiful Japanese Garden

Ponds are an integral part of a Japanese garden. They serve as a reflection of the natural world and symbolize the interconnectedness of all living things. The gentle ripple of water, the soothing sound of a waterfall, and the delicate beauty of aquatic plants create a sense of tranquility within the garden.

They also serve as a habitat for a variety of plants and animals, adding diversity and life to the garden.

Traditionally, ponds were associated with the concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which emphasizes the healing power of nature.

Koi fish

School of Koi

Koi fish have been highly prized for their vibrant colors and playful, energetic movements, having been selectively bred for 200 years. They create movement and add life to the water.

Koi also play an important symbolic role in Japan. The Japanese word for koi fish, “nishikigoi,” translates to “brocaded carp,” which is reference to the fish’s colorful, patterned scales.

In Japan, the koi is often seen as a symbol of perseverance and determination, as the fish are known for their ability to swim upstream against strong currents. This quality makes koi a fitting symbol for the Japanese people, who have a long history of overcoming adversity.

The inclusion of koi fish in a Japanese garden is an important element that helps to create a truly authentic Japanese garden experience.

Flowing Water

Japanese Garden Style Waterfall

Flowing water is an essential element of Japanese garden design for several reasons. It adds a sense of movement and tranquility to the garden, creating a soothing and peaceful atmosphere. Additionally, it helps to create a microclimate within the garden, providing relief from the hot Japanese summers.

The sound is also believed to have a calming effect on the mind and spirit, the perfect backdrop for further enhancing the sense of serenity in the garden.

Water is also a symbol of renewal and purity. This makes it an important element in the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Japanese garden design.

Subtle water features will add beauty, movement, and tranquility to a Japanese garden. Unless you are designing a dry garden, adding water will be an important part of your overall design.

Raked Gravel or Sand

Raked Gravel in a Traditional Japanese Garden

Raked gravel is another essential element of Japanese gardens. It helps to create a sense of calm and tranquility.

The pattern emulates ripples when a pebble is tossed into water. Replacing the form of water in a Japanese dry garden and representing the idea of cause and effect. In this way, it can help to capture the essence of the Japanese philosophy ‘wabi-sabi’, which values imperfection and impermanence.

The act of raking gravel into intricate patterns serves meditative purposes, helping the gardener slow down and find inner peace.

Stones and Rocks

Stones Arranged in Zen Garden

Where the gravel symbolises water, large stones symbolise the islands and hills. In ancient times stones were worshipped, and it was said that gods were within them and all natural things.

The Japanese find artistic and spiritual meaning when placing stones and rocks in their outdoor space. Use stones for water lining, a rock composition to fill some empty space, or stepping stones which are ideal for walks of quiet contemplation in strolling gardens.

Water Basins

Japanese Style Stone Water Basin

A water basin, also known as a “tsukubai,” is a key feature of Japanese gardens. They serve as a source of water for the garden, allowing us to keep plants watered and helping to keep the surrounding area moist and lush. In larger gardens, we can use the water from the basin to fill a small pond or stream.

The basins are typically positioned at lower levels than the surrounding area, and are used for practical and symbolic purposes.

The act of washing one’s hands and rinsing one’s mouth at the basin before entering the garden or a tea ceremony, is a ritual meant to cleanse the mind and prepare the individual for meditation and contemplation.

A focal point of the garden, they’re designed to be aesthetically pleasing in their own right. The basin may be made of stone or other materials, and is often inscribed with a simple and elegant inscription, such as “ichi-go ichi-e” (one time, one meeting), which is a reminder to cherish the present moment.


Moss in between the stepping stones

Another common feature used in Japanese gardens is moss. Moss provides a relaxing texture to your garden design and is a great example of subtle detail really adding to a space.

A good example of moss adding a lovely touch to most gardens is to add it inbetween stones on a stepping stone path.

If conditions are not right for growing moss in your area, you may be able to use alternative ground cover to achieve the same effect.


Japanese gardens are known for their elegant and serene beauty, and a key element in achieving this is choosing the right plants. In Japanese gardens, we choose plants and place plants carefully to create a harmonious and balanced environment.

We’ve given special attention to some iconic options for Japanese inspired gardens below.

Sakura (Cherry Blossom Tree)

Sakura In Japan

The cherry blossom tree, also known as Sakura or ornamental cherry trees, are known for their delicate pink or white flowers. They bloom in spring and are celebrated in Japanese culture.

Cherry blossoms symbolize the ephemeral being of life, and their blooming is a reminder to live in the present moment and enjoy the beauty of the world around us.

Bamboo Plant

Bamboo Plant

Bamboo is a symbol of strength and resilience, and its tall, slender stalks add vertical interest to the garden.

It has traditionally also been used in a variety of ways in Japan, from being used as building material to being used as a musical instrument.

Momiji (Japanese Maple)

Vibrant Red Momiji Tree

The Japanese maple, or momiji, is another plant commonly found in Japanese gardens. These trees are known for their vibrant red or orange leaves, which add a pop of color to the garden in fall. Japanese maples are prized for their delicate and graceful forms, which add a sense of elegance to the garden.

These can also be a great option to grow in a container as smaller bonsai trees.

Lotus Flower

More Ideas for Japanese Plants

  • Japanese Forest Grass

  • Pine Trees

  • Styrax

  • Azaleas

  • Lotus

  • Hydrangea

  • Iris Ensata

There are just so many planting options for Japanese gardens. Enjoy combining evergreen plants, pine trees, ornamental grasses, exotic shrubs and delicate cherry blossoms. Create a beautiful and contemplative space for relaxation and reflection.

Natural Forms and Shapes

Japanese Garden

Everything in Japanese gardens is as it is in nature; shapes should flow into each other and there are no harsh edges or corners.

The takeaways from this are:

  • We should only place rocks together if it’s consistent with naturally occurring combinations.
  • Avoid pruning plants into unnatural forms in a zen garden.
  • Use winding paths, ripples of gravel and subtle blending of plants.

  • Hide anything artificial used for planting or water features.


Japanese Garden

We achieve harmony in Japanese gardens is through the use of repetition and symmetry. The placement of rocks, as an example, is often symmetrical in odd number groupings, with a central stone surrounded by smaller stones arranged in a balanced pattern. This symmetry creates a sense of calm and order, inviting the visitor to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the garden during daily life.

Another way in which we create harmony in Japanese gardens is through the use of natural materials, such as bamboo and stone. These materials are often chosen for their texture and color, and are arranged in a way that complements the landscape. This harmony between the natural elements creates a sense of unity and connection with the surrounding environment.


Traditional Japanese Garden Design

Proportionality means the relationship between everything in the design and the balance between them. Nothing is out of place or oversized relative to everything else.

This goes hand in hand with ‘harmony’ as a principle element of a Japanese garden, being achieved through carefully placing rocks, plants, and other garden features relative to each other.

If you are looking for some more examples of authentic gardens in Japan then check out this list from japan-guide