Japanese-Style Gardens

See Table of Contents
  • What Do We Mean by Japanese Garden? by Brian Funk
  • Japanese Gardens in the Modern World, by Hoichi Kurisu
  • Important Garden Styles and Their Historical Roots, by Marc Peter Keane
  • Important Eras in Japanese Garden Design, by Marc Peter Keane
  • Gardens to See in Japan, by Brian Funk
  • Japanese Gardens in the United States, by Jeanne Rostaing
    • Brooklyn Botanic Garden
    • The Huntington
    • Asticou Azalea Garden
    • Portland Japanese Garden
    • Anderson Japanese Gardens
    • Chicago Botanic Garden
    • Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
    • Garvan Woodland Gardens
  • Important Elements in Japanese-Inspired Gardens, by Sarah Schmidt
  • Six Common Myths Debunked, by Douglas Roth
  • Japanese Home Gardens: Design and Layout, by Asher Browne
  • Plant Selection and Planting Scheme  by Asher Browne
  • Maintenance and Pruning  by Asher Brown
  • Maintaining Your Garden: What to Expect, by Asher Browne
  • Tool Kit for a Japanese Garden, by Brian Funk
  • Glossary, by Marc Peter Keane
  • For More Information
  • Tips for Leading Tours, by Elizabeth Peters
  • Notable Japanese-Style Gardens in North America
  • Contributors

Introduction

What Do We Mean by Japanese Garden?

Brian Funk

As curator of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, for 16 years I have had the responsibility and privilege of working in a beautiful naturalistic refuge in the midst of a huge urban environment. As an escape from the city, this Japanese-inspired garden has long been popular not just with tourists but with New Yorkers too. If you sit in the viewing pavilion over the pond, you will hear the sounds of wind blowing and of water falling, smell the fragrance of flowers, and see a harmonious landscape filled with beautiful plants as well as wildlife like turtles, ducks, and koi. Enclosed by a traditional Japanese roofed fence and entered through weathered wooden gates, this garden allows you to leave the city behind and enter a more elemental environment.

Our garden is one of the oldest public Japanese gardens in the United States, but it is still evolving—no garden is ever truly finished. Those that have survived this long have usually gone through many transitions, some of which may have been controversial. As I care for this one—pruning, weeding, cleaning, performing repairs, and making improvements to fit my vision of a Japanese garden—I always aim to maintain the garden’s integrity. In doing so, I often return to the question of what, in essence, it means to have a “Japanese” garden outside of Japan.

When Takeo Shiota designed and built this garden in 1914, he was embarking on something of an experiment. A novice designer at the time, he was asked to create a garden in a style unfamiliar to most people, in a chaotic and crowded city, with limited funds and a lack of quality materials. Pulling off this project was a remarkable feat. When it opened the following year, the garden probably seemed a little bit crude and unfinished, but it soon became a celebrated and well-respected example of the Japanese style in America.

Shiota did not try to re-create a traditional garden from his homeland; rather, I believe, he aimed to please his Western audience with a landscape that provided a postcard scene of Japan. He interpreted garden and architectural styles liberally, including in his plan, for example, a viewing pavilion built in the style of a teahouse.

His unusual choice of installing a Shinto shrine and torii, along with two five-foot bronze cranes on the shore of the island (since removed), made for particularly exotic vistas. His greatest achievement may have been the way he established the basic contours of the landscape—dredging the existing pond and using the soil to create artificial hills—but his single most successful element was the waterfall, designed and constructed using local Manhattan schist. Not only does it make for a beautiful scene, but its lovely sound also has the effect of insulating the spot from the city beyond.

Japanese Gardens in the United States

Interest in Japanese gardening outside of Japan had begun to grow just before the turn of the 19th century, after Japan opened its borders following centuries of shogunate military rule and isolationism. The new Meiji emperor made a tremendous effort to share Japanese culture and art with the world. At several world’s fairs and expositions, Japan installed pavilions, gardens, and houses. Europeans and Americans became enamored with Japan’s superb artistic traditions. Japanism became chic, and many wealthy people commissioned Japanese gardens of their own to be built on their estates.

Public gardens, with Brooklyn Botanic Garden leading the way, began installing Japanese gardens to showcase what was becoming recognized as one the finest garden forms in the world. But by the beginning of World War II, they started falling out of favor, and anti-Japanese sentiment and vandalism resulted in the closure of most public ones, including ours. After the war, though, interest slowly returned. Many existing public Japanese gardens, like that of the Huntington, were restored, and new ones, like the Portland Japanese Garden, were built across the country.

At the same time, homeowners began to try Japanese gardening, with mixed results. Good information, qualified designers and builders, and quality materials were hard to find for many years. I remember visiting garden shows in the 1970s and ’80s and seeing tacky designs that included round plastic pools, dwarf weeping cherry trees, miniature bridges, and white marble chips as groundcover. Such attempts misrepresented Japanese gardens to many Westerners, even professionals. When I was starting out in my career as a horticulturist and landscape designer, I didn’t really understand the concept myself. Many of the supposed Japanese gardens I’d seen were odd, tasteless, uninspiring—or all these things.

At that time, I worked mostly with native plants in a naturalistic style influenced by Jens Jensen and the prairie style. But I had always had an interest in Japanese culture and had worked with bonsai. This eventually led me to reconsider Japanese gardening, which is another way to express the natural world on a smaller scale. When I went to Japan in 2000, I became a true believer. The beauty of the gardens there is awe inspiring, and I found a much higher level of art to aspire to. The modest stroll garden at Murinan in Kyoto probably influenced me the most. There are grander gardens in Japan, but this simple one, about the size of a large American backyard, represented something that was within the realm of possibility.

Since then, appreciation for and knowledge of authentic Japanese gardens in the United States has grown. Qualified designers and builders are now easier to research and find online, and publications like Sukiya Living provide excellent resources and education for home gardeners and professionals. Japanese sister cities also continue to work with their corresponding North American cities to create new or better gardens, and many impressive public gardens have been built here in recent decades.

Japanese-style gardens in North America will never be quite the same as true Japanese gardens, but I believe that it’s possible to capture some of the essence of this centuries-old tradition. A collection of lanterns, bridges, and pagodas does not make a garden authentic. Instead, a good garden in the Japanese tradition should be a carefully designed environment where the natural world is distilled in a way that fosters an intimate connection. Patterns and rhythms found in nature are expressed in a sort of three-dimensional landscape painting. Spending time in this space feels nurturing in a way that promotes reflection. The best Japanese-inspired gardens are able to achieve this regardless of location, and this is what I strive for as curator of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. As you read about and visit as many of these gardens as you can, you will gain a deeper understanding of this wonderful tradition.

Image, top of page: