18 Essential Elements of Authentic Japanese Garden Design

japanese garden pond
Photo: David McDonald

Drawing from Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist philosophies, Japanese garden design principles strive to inspire peaceful contemplation. They often combine the basic elements of plants, water, and rocks with simple, clean lines to create a tranquil retreat. You can borrow inspiration from the Japanese garden aesthetic to bring a meditative quality to your landscape.

01 of 18

Make an Entrance

bamboo gateway japanese garden
Edward Gohlich

Use a simple bamboo fence to block views of the world outside your garden and make the entrance clear with a gate and attractive arbor. You can even try growing bamboo plants yourself, which are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. Go for a clumping type, which grows from a central root ball and is less aggressive than other types.

02 of 18

Create Mystery

japanese garden path bird house
Bob Stefko

A key element in Japanese garden style is creating vignettes that can't be viewed all at once. Here, a winding path leads your eye past the stone pagoda and invites you to speculate what's around the next corner.

03 of 18

Grow Evergreens

black layered oriental tower red low planter
Richard Felber

Japanese gardens often rely on subtle differences in color and texture. Here, conifers provide soothing shades of green for year-round interest. Some echo the pyramidal form of the pagoda while others frame the feature with their low, spreading branches.

04 of 18

Encourage Moss

moss by stepping stones
Edward Gohlich

Moss makes a serene-looking groundcover in moist, shady areas. Because moss doesn't tolerate foot traffic well, place a stepping stone walkway among the moss to allow passage without damaging its soft surface. If you can't grow moss in your space, use another type of groundcover plant.

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Make a Private Pavilion

japanese garden pavilion
Richard Felber

Create an intimate space in your Japanese garden with a teahouse or pavilion made of bamboo or wood. Use the structure for entertaining or for viewing the serene landscape.

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Try a Pagoda Pillar

pagoda style sculpture japanese garden
Edward Gohlich

Stone lanterns shaped as pagodas work well to bring some Japanese style to a small garden; they hold a lot of character without taking up a ton of space. They can also echo the roofline of a teahouse or covered gate entries in addition to providing a charming glow in the evening.

Buy It: Pagoda Decorative Lantern, ($74, Wayfair)

07 of 18

Add Textural Contrast

Meditation Garden plants with bamboo screen and lantern
Bob Stefko

Shaded sections of the Japanese garden rely on subtle color contrast and bold textural differences to create interest. Here, chartreuse and green hostas surround the base of a tree while variegated Hakone grass softens the edge of the bed.

Buy It: Golden Hakone Grass ($19, The Home Depot)

08 of 18

Create Structure from Plants

japanese maple over pond
Mike Jensen

Trees in Japanese garden design are usually pruned into shapes that reveal their architectural form. This Japanese maple has an intriguing zigzag branching pattern. Arching branches reach over the contrasting groundcover and reflect in a nearby pool of water.

Buy It: Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree ($70, Walmart)

09 of 18

Protect Yourself from Evil Spirits

Bridge In Japanese Garden
Stephen Cridland

Legend has it that a zigzag bridge in a Japanese garden such as this one will protect you from evil spirits. The myth says that evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, so the simple bridge in this backyard Japanese garden traps them, allowing you to escape to safety.

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Provide an Island Getaway

Japanese Tea Garden
Clint Farlinger

A small island in the middle of this pond creates the illusion of a secluded Japanese garden retreat, even though it is not really meant for visiting. With a larger space and longer span on the bridge, you could create a more accessible island.

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Time for Reflection

japanese garden pond
David McDonald

This small reflecting pool has a decidedly Japanese garden flavor. From the glass Japanese fishing float on its surface to the bamboo fountain, Japanese bloodgrass, stone pagoda lantern, and moss-covered rocks surrounding the pond, all elements blend add up to a distinctly Asian style.

Buy It: Japanese Blood Grass ($18, Etsy)

12 of 18

Feed the Fish

koi pond
Jason Wilde

A colorful goldfish or koi pond brings hours of enjoyment in Japanese garden design. Goldfish are hardier than koi, but both types may need to be overwintered indoors in cold climates.

13 of 18

Go with the Flow

japanese garden stream pond
Mike Jensen

The sounds of moving water from waterfalls add to the soothing nature of Japanese gardens. This stream is punctuated by two waterfalls and ponds. Papyrus, ornamental grasses, and groundcovers bring life to the stream edge.

14 of 18

Deter Deer Naturally

japanese garden bamboo device
Michael Jensen

This clever bamboo device is designed to keep deer away from the garden. The upper bamboo tube drips water into the larger, lower tube. When the tube fills, the weight of the water causes it to clunk against a bamboo mat resting on a stone. The sudden sound can startle deer and scare them away.

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Braced with Bamboo

Miniature Fence Detail
Edward Gohlich

Bamboo has many uses in Japanese gardens: It's grown as an ornamental plant, and it serves as an important structural component. This fence uses bamboo shoots as rails and smaller ones tied into latticework to follow the curve of the gravel path inlaid with stepping stones.

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Graceful Gravel Garden

raked gravel garden
Amy Haskell

Raked gravel surrounding stones represents ripples of waves around islands in this Japanese garden design. This Japanese rock garden idea is created for contemplative thought and is easy to maintain, whether you choose to use gravel or sand as the floor.

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Artful Additions

polished stone egg bowl
Peter Krumhardt

Personal touches in front and backyard Japanese gardens should have connections to nature. These polished egg-shape stones arranged in a bowl are a good example. Backed by the crimson foliage of a Japanese maple, they take on a sculptural quality.

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Stone Streambed

stone stream bed japanese garden
Bob Stefko

One of the Japanese garden design principles is representation. Here, tumbled gray river rocks of uniform size have been carefully arranged in this meandering dry streambed to create the illusion of flowing water. Ferns and evergreens line the stream, softening its "shoreline."

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