In the past, gardens were created by the upper-class of society and can be classified into three main groups:
1. Gardens representing a naturally scenery for aesthetic pleasure and later for strolling through
2. Dry landscape gardens
3. Tea ceremony gardens
Japanese gardens are meant to mimic natural landscape in a miniaturized form.
The history of garden design goes back about 1,000 years ago. The first form of gardening was seen in sacred places, deep in the forest containing natural objects like trees, mountains or rocks with extraordinary and rare shapes. These places marked with pebbles, white sand or rope ties were used for ceremonies to honor gods or sacred spirits which are believed to live in or come to these areas.
Chinese culture, especially Buddhism started influencing Japanese garden design in the 6th century. Since then, the style of this practice changed throughout the centuries and Japan developed its own special form of gardening. The ancient capital of Kyoto contains more than half of Japan´s historical gardens.
Different garden architecture throughout the centuries
Nara Period (710 – 794)
Nara used to be the capital of Japan and during the end of the 8th century, Japanese garden culture sprouted and gardens for the higher society were built. These early gardens featured a pond with an island in the middle surrounded by shorelines and stone settings.
Heian Period (794-1192)
With the dawn of the new era, the capital moved to Kyoto. The upper class started building large gardens at their palaces and villas using a layout inspired by the Chinese concept of feng shui. The gardens located on the south side of the villa focused on large ponds and winding streams connected by bridges, which were passable by boats; as well as islands and pavilions which reached over the water. These royal gardens were first and foremost mostly places for amusement and ritual worship.
One specific feature in these gardens was an empty place covered in gravel. Since the emperor at that time was the chief priest of Japan, white gravel or sand was an element for purity. In this certain area gods were invited to visit and religious ceremonies, as well as welcome dances for the gods were performed.
The late Heian Period was determined by a new style of garden architecture which made its way to Japan, called Pure Land Buddhism or Amidism. This architecture represented the Buddhist paradise. These Paradise-Gardens were equipped similar to their predecessor, but much bigger and more colorful. The stream which flows through these gardens separates the earth and the afterlife in a symbolic way and the bridge symbolize exactly this chapter in life. The ponds instead were usually designed in the character for heart ‐心.The gardens were mainly used for meditative strolling, chanting sutras, and to receive guidance into spiritual life. These Paradise Gardens are the forerunners of the stroll gardens.
Kamakura (1185–1333) & Muromachi Period (1336–1573)
With the beginning of the Kamakura Period the power possessed by the aristocratic court was taken over by the military regime (将軍 shogun), which supported a new form of Buddhism called Zen. Due to this new movement, garden architecture changed and became more simple and compact.
The biggest change in gardening and towards minimalism were new designed dry landscape gardens (枯山水 karesansui), connected to temple buildings with the main purpose to support monks during their meditation exercises and for spiritual improvement. The accurate raked white sand represents water and precise arranged rocks are a symbol for islands. These gardens only consisted of elements like rocks, gravel and white sand. The garden is not accessible and mostly viewed just out of one angle representing an ideal landscape or a philosophical concept.
Azuchi – Momoyama Period (1573 – 1603)
New gardens and cities were created when the Japanese feudal lords (大名 daimyo) and their robust castles were the center of power and culture. The gardens during this era had one or more ponds surrounded by a riverside out of small stones. Natural stone bridges and stepping stones, artificial mountains and more combined the design of a promenade garden with typical elements of Zen. They were located right next to the castle, where they were meant to be seen from above and combined the design of a promenade garden with typical elements of Zen.
A new concept of garden architecture was introduced, the tea garden (路地 roji). These gardens were meant to resemble the spirit of wabi (侘び), rustic simplicity, utility and calmness. The tea house is small and made out of wood with a thatched roof. A paper roll with an inscription and a branch was the only decoration allowed. The narrow garden itself was regularly watered to stay humid and green. Except a cherry tree bringing color during spring, other flowers in bright color were not allowed. The visitor was supposed to meditate before the tea ceremony starts, and bright and flashy colors would have distract the visitors’ attention. The entrance and the tea house were connected by a small path made of stepping stones, with benches to wait for the ceremony, while stone lanterns light the way and a wash basin out of stone was used for the ritual cleansing of hands and mouth.
Edo Period (1603-1867)
During the Edo Period, the Tokugawa clan, who became the Shogun, took over the power and moved Japan´s capital to Edo (today’s Tokyo). The minimalistic garden design from the Muromachi Period changed back into the landscape architecture of recreation and extravagance. Large strolling gardens (回遊式庭園 kaiyu-shiki teien) were designed featuring ponds, islands and artificial hills as well as elements of tea gardens.
Another new form of garden design was the tsuboniwa (坪庭 / tsubo is the size of 3,3m²), an inner garden or small courtyard garden created by the urban population. These could not be entered and provided a piece of nature and fresh air featuring decorative elements like stone lanterns, water basins out of stone, stepping stones and some plants meant to be viewed from a porch or from inside the house.
Meiji Period (1868-1912)
With the Meiji Period came the age of modernization and the re-opening of Japan to the western world. A new law of the year 1871 opened old private strolling gardens and abandoned gardens from the Momoyama and Edo period to the public.
Modern Japanese gardens (1912~)
Due to westernization western style city parks were designed featuring new elements like flowerbeds and open lawns. After World War II government agencies took over the task of building gardens instead of the private people. These new gardens are meant to be consistent with the architecture bringing landscape design to a different level.