Japanese gardens anyone?



After viewing two lovely examples in Seattle last week, I found that some among our group of garden-tripping bloggers seemed jaded by the genre. Their reasons varied, but two dominated: boredom, and a feeling that the style was too often misused.

I must admit I’ve seen gardens their owners called “Japanese” that fell considerably short of the standard set in Seattle and elsewhere. In fact, I’d be the first to admit that Buffalo’s Japanese garden, despite its beautiful setting between a neoclassic museum and an ornamental lake, lacks other elements that would have completed it. There is no teahouse, though the marble terrace of the Historical Society could be considered as taking the place of an elevated place from which to view the garden. I love the setting, but the Buffalo garden lacks the quiet intimacy I’ve seen in other examples.


The Japanese garden at Seattle’s Bloedel Reserve has a nice example of raked gravel that used to be a swimming pool. The structures are pristine; the plantings are perfectly placed—lush (Seattle=lush) but controlled.

In other gardens, I’ve seen raked gravel used more as an excuse for not planting anything rather than as a viable replacement for water. I’ve also seen buddhas and lanterns pretty much plopped anywhere. And too few private attempts have a good mix of perfect specimens with the vivid foliage contrasts I saw at Bloedel.

Japanese garden at the Washington Park Arboretum

Maybe a great Japanese garden is one of those “don’t try this home” styles. I know I never would; the control and precision it would require is far beyond my capabilities. But I will always appreciate a JG done well.

Previous articleOnline becomes in-person (again)
Next articleThe garden of Linda Chalker-Scott
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. While my own gardening goes more on the “Guided Messy” (rd;controlled natural) style when i need peace i always head to the nearest Japanese Garden to pick up my spirit & chill out a bit. Maybe it’s just my S.F. upbring.

  2. My partner lived in Japan for three years where she visited quite a few formal gardens. It is her opinion that Seattle’s garden is quite Western compared to the Japanese garden in Portland, OR. Do try to see that while touring the Northwest.

  3. Understand that the Japanese Garden in Portland is considered one of the most authentic outside Japan, Do come visit, it is beautiful, calming, and more then worth the trip.

  4. Ditto on Portland’s garden. It helps that it is set on a naturally-forested hillside (with old-growth trees) with a natural stream cascading through it. A very special place, not boring at all!

    And if you’re in Portland, Lan Su, the Chinese Walled Garden, is also not to be missed. It’s a little more formal and not so big, but fascinating at any time of the year. There is a tea house there too.

  5. The client gets what they want 9 times out of 10 and for the first time in a long career a client ask specifically for a Japanese garden. Never done it before. I told her it wouldn’t likely be able to be considered authentic, but I could get her there.

    The stone structure is in and I go plant shopping tomorrow. I’m ready to hear from those critics of Japanese gardens before I call it a finished product. No mortar was used. I can fix it if need be for more authenticity.


  6. Funny. I’ve travelled to Japan I don’t know how many times and the Japanese whose gardens I’ve asked to visit always ask the same thing: where did we get the idea that they have raked sand and had tea houses and Buddhas and whatever. In Thailand, Buddhas are used in shrines. Not in gardens. In Japan, people plant what grows naturally. Ever seen a map of Japan? It’s a bazillion little islands. People living near the waters plant Tsukiyama gardens. It’s not as much about “design” as it is about practicality. Chaniwa gardens have tea houses and those tea houses are actually used for ceremonies. Karesansui gardens are used for meditation and use more of the symbolism since the “water” isn’t nearby. (The don’t plop plastic tubs into the ground and call it a pond. They plant moss and let it “represent” water.) So at the end of the day, I’m never going to have a Japanese garden in Connecticut. The best I can hope for is a Connecticut garden with plantings that remind me of my trips to Japan.

  7. I think the best we Americans can do is try to evoke the FEELING based on certain principles, like negative space, borrowed scenery, copying and bringing to size borrowed scenery, surprising the viewer with new vistas at a turn or two, and providing a crooked path that forces the viewer to slow down and take in the garden. To me, as you say, it is an intimate, quiet space, not too showy, based not on flowers so much as texture and maybe mood.

    I think a Japanese garden requires a certain degree of melancholy, so it’s best to let American teenagers design them.

  8. Having visited several gardens in Japan and tried to understand the underlying aesthetic, I find that they don’t inspire me very much. There is too much reliance on symbolism and a narrow plant palette. I’m sure it’s a matter of subjective taste, but my excitement is mostly plant-driven and not architectural. Versailles-style expanses of gravel with green blobs also leave me cold.

  9. I have found them to mean different things depending on my mood. Big crowds kill the whole reason for being there. If you can’t sit in silence, don’t expect much, as I like to tell friends. Go early or go late. Expect little and imagine the garden to yourself…..

  10. Benjamin, I love your comment! “I think a Japanese garden requires a certain degree of melancholy, so it’s best to let American teenagers design them.”

  11. I love Benjamin’s funny comment too. 🙂

    I visited Seattle’s Japanese Garden after the Garden Bloggers Fling and really enjoyed it, even if it was overcrowded. On a smaller scale, the Bloedel’s was nice too, I thought.

Comments are closed.