“True Beauty can be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete.” (Okakura, Kakuzo. (1906) The Book of Tea)

The appeal of gardens is universal. They recall man’s journey of sovereignty over the wilds in which we originated. Also, they call us to that initial setting in that we were formed. Many religious traditions and mythology stem from this theme of humanizing landscape and can be glimpsed in a culture’s art. Typically, one thinks of art as a painting, sculpture or photograph but, landscaping and architecture must be included. In particular, Eastern gardens serve an example of artful expression in culture, follow the philosophies of Taoism and Zen – resulting in asymmetrical landscape.


A roofed garden gate. Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto.

There are several types of traditional Eastern gardens including “Tsukiyama” (hill gardens),”Karesansui (dry gardens), and “Chaniwa” (tea gardens). Below, we will explore common aesthetic and philosophical aspects which can be found in any of the three but, with an emphasis on Chaniwa gardens.


A garden of clipped azaleas and Japanese red pine. Doi Inn, Kyoto.

The elements commonly contained in a garden: rocks, foliage, trees and water should be interpreted in a variety of ways. First, the actual contents in view. For example, certain rock faces, orientations, textures and patterns are decided for an immediate aesthetic attraction. Second, using an imagination to fill in missing parts. Does the rock bed lack a bridge? – indicating that running water should flow underneath, imagine it! Finally, philosophically, the Zen principles implied in the garden are universal.

Rock garden

The zen rock garden of Ryoan-ji.

To explain further; rock patterns, shapes, and layout refer to religious purposes. Thus, my favorite interpretation is the philosophical. The idea that slight nuances can represent something greater than the garden itself intrigues me. Vertical rocks become sacred mountains, ponds become oceans and each scene is met with a desire to understand the greater purpose of life.


Temple garden. Hojo, Daitoku-ji, Kyoto.

The principles of space, privacy, antiquity, rhythm, symbolism, and imagination used are a reflection of the creator’s beliefs. For inspiration, Some landscapers drew passages from literature, poetry, religion, and even symbols of the alphabet while laying the garden’s foundation.


Imperial Palace, Kyoto.

As a symbol of our spiritual journey through life, tea gardens often contain paths to guide its guests with places for meditation and ceremonial rites trickled along the way. To aid the guest, Buddhist geomancy facilitates the placements of attractions with the purpose of generating luck by balancing the forces of yin and yang.


A Kasuga stone lantern at a Tomoda residence. Yamashina, Kyoto.

Originally a symbol of Buddhist cosmology, lanterns paired by water basins were introduced to gardens by the tea masters of the Momoyama period. Together these stone works symbolize earth “chi”, water “sul”, fire “ka”, air “fu”, and spirit “ku” as a humbling reminder of life’s cyclical nature.


Lantern in Shukkei-en garden in Hiroshima.

In regards to the tea ceremony, lanterns denote places of interest such as a water basins and sand enclosures. Basins were used ceremoniously for washing the guest’s hands and feet before the ceremony.


A water basin resembling currency. Ryōan-ji, Kyoto.


The traditional garden gate of the Adachi Museum of Art.

Tea gardens set the stage for Japan’s traditional tea ceremony. Gates were used as an initial gathering point for guests. The garden’s attractions were relevant to ceremonial procedure and reiterated the guest’s need for meditation before such an undertaking.

Moon bridge

The Japanese garden at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden.

A vital aspect of the tea garden is seclusion, the separation of its visitors from the outside – going so far as to block views which may distract the guests. The San Antonio Tea Garden and other gardens from surrounding cities such as Fort Worth and Houston excel in this aspect. The garden serves as an invitation, the introduction of real and metaphysical concepts with its curious guests.


“Though inspired by nature, it is an interpretation rather than a copy; it should appear to be natural, but it is not wild.” Young, The Art of the Japanese Garden, pg. 20

I particularly enjoy this image for its contrast. The darkly colored bamboo stand with stoicism as it grows upward, meanwhile, the brightly colored leaves face downward and in time will fall to the floor. Here, is a prime example of balancing color, rhythm, and philosophical principles to present a lesson of yin-yang to the viewer.


Try to complete the image by imagining running water. Raiko-ji, Otsu.

As a facilitator of meditation, some gardens refrained from bright flowers in fear that it would distract visitors from pursuing their spiritual journey. However, the path needed to be kept moist and green as a reflection of the surrounding mountains – moss was often used to create this effect.


Sand raked to represent a swirling river. Tomoda residence, Yamashina, Kyoto.

Sand-garden additions ease the guest’s mind into a meditative state due to the relaxing motion of shifting sand to a desired aesthetic. Often times, it is meant to imitate the flow of a river. Karesansui (dry) gardens rely solely on pebbles and small rocks to lay in place of water attractions. However, water plays a major role when it can be found.


Cascading waters can bring good luck or misfortune depending on the direction it flows. Nanzen-ji, Kyoto.

In honor of ancient divinities, water in a garden should flow from east to west to carry away evil or from north to south in accordance with Buddhist cosmology to bring good luck. Such a principle denotes man’s spiritual crisis with himself, nature, and the divine. Our actions and judgement are necessary to manipulate our experiences and given talents – the environment – to achieve a divine character.


A koi pond in the Himeji Koko-en garden.

The aforementioned sequence of miniature landscapes is included to split the garden into several lessons. A pond or the largest body of water available remind the viewer of water’s life-giving qualities.


An island in Koraku-en gardens, Tokyo.

Islands, and their variety of styles, have their purposes as well although typically one island is representative of the Eight Immortal’s home – Mount Penglai.


Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California.

Bridges denote that our path to paradise requires us to examine the “big picture”. A reminder that our lives are journeys from the mortal plane to immortality.


An emphasis on delicacy rather than sturdiness to insist the guest observes their surroundings. Korakuen, Okayama.

Some obstacles can induce peace by requiring us to slow down and focus on the moment. Bridges in a zig-zag fashion require the viewer to become aware of the changing path which allows him or her to experience the view intended by the artist.


Each addition in a garden is selected with special attention for aesthetic and symbolic qualities. Sambo-in, Daigo, Kyoto Prefecture.

As a young adult, I am brought to peace by learning and understanding more each and every day. My research for this topic reminded me of three things; first, these styles of gardens are renowned and replicated today because of the proper planning invested by the artist. To me, planning the future is an essential part of my journey. Second, taking time to reflect and assess myself will help to guide me through the garden of life. Just as the obstacles laid in a garden require the guest to reevaluate their intended course. Finally, a beautiful life – and garden – comes with time. On occasion some flowers will bloom while others wilt and vise versa, but everything has its purpose in the guest’s journey from the garden’s gate to paradise.