A Japanese garden is unlike anything known in the West. The centuries have produced an art form which is deeply tied to religious thought. The ancient Shinto religion, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism have all helped to form a tradition of garden design which is deeply contemplative. The gardener in Japan is an artist, not a horticulturalist.

A Japanese garden is a strictly controlled garden in which the key elements of stone, water and plants are used to represent an ordered and restrained landscape.

Plants are pruned into smooth and disciplined shapes, no Japanese Garden Designfallen twigs are allowed to mar the perfect sweeps of sand or gravel, no fallen leaves lie on the mirror surface of the ponds. The sand and gravel are kept beautifully raked. A Japanese garden is not designed to excite the spirit. Every element in the garden has its place in the overall design, which needs to be viewed as a whole, just as a painter designs his canvas to be viewed as a whole. The garden design differs markedly from the formal gardens of much of Europe. The Japanese garden is not a geometric garden. It does not consist of squares and rectangles and triangles. A Japanese garden flows.

The artist tries to create a figurative Japanese landscape in the garden. Japan is an extraordinarily beautiful country with snow covered mountains lifting their heads above the mist and a magnificent coastline of sheltered inlets and beaches open to the ocean. The artist in the garden, therefore, brings mountains, clouds and waves to his design and uses his key elements of stone, water and plants to represent these.

Stones and rocks play an important role. They are often regarded as sacred objects and there are many taboos about their use in the garden. They should have come from a river or a mountainside and they should be placed in the garden facing in the same direction as they did in their original position. Surrounded by small white pebbles or white sand, they rise as mountains. Large rocks are often buried deep, with less than half the rock showing above the surface. This reinforces the sense of an ancient mountain rising from the earth. The sand around the rocks is raked into ridge following ridge to represent the waves. This is very much a feature of Zen Buddhist gardens where white sand and white pebbles are seen as symbols of purity. Here alone in Japanese gardens do you find symmetry; the perfectly formed parallel waves of unmarred white sand have an almost hypnotic effect.

Water fills ponds which are shaped to resemble clouds or stretches of coast, with inlets and headlands. A rocky island in a pond can be a landscape within a landscape, carefully designed with twisted miniature trees and moss-covered stones to give a new perspective.

Plants in a Japanese garden are not very varied. There is no interest in finding new varieties. The plants are there as architectural elements. The only flowers, apart from those on flowering trees and shrubs, are likely to be chrysanthemums in pots. The shrubs are carefully pruned and clipped to become part of the landscape, as waves, or clouds, or mountains. They are a complement to the stones. The result is extraordinarily restful. The gardens which have no trees have no seasonal changes. They represent a never-changing ethos.

In gardens with flowering trees, however, spring and autumn are both times for celebration. Blossom-gazing is, of course, a Japanese passion, with festivals every year for the almond and peach and cherry blossom. The cherry tree alone is not pruned, but is allowed to grow naturally. The others are pruned back hard and flower on new shoots each year because even the trees are controlled and disciplined – well-behaved trees. In autumn brightly coloured leaves are left to lie on the moss under the trees; they never form the great untidy wind blown mounds of the western gardens. These are tidy leaves.

The charm of Japanese garden design has long been recognised elsewhere and attempts to recreate the design are not unusual, particularly in North America. Although there are notable exceptions, somehow it is never quite the same. Possibly the complex nature of the design is not understood. It is not enough to have some stones, a pond, some sand and a Japanese maple. The inner meaning is lacking, perhaps because the stones are not sacred stones and the western mind finds eastern contemplation rather bewildering.