Approach to realization of a (Japanese Zen) garden

Take as a model the creations left to us by the famous men of old and, considering the suggestions of the owner of the house (where the garden is to be made), one must create, exercising one's own aesthetic senses (from Sakuteiki 5 ) in [1, 2].

This section is divided into two chapters. This first subsection is a general method for (Japanese) garden realization, including typification of your Japanese garden. The second part reflects how we used the method to realize Tsubo-en.

General methodology

Statement of caution: Creating and maintaining a Japanese garden not only requires knowledge and preferably experience, you also need to develop a feel for it. Part of that feel is influenced by culture, religion and mysticism. So this will be hard to develop in the western world. There is a Zen saying: "all said about Zen is said to much".
Hence the method described here offers some guidance and something to hold on to but will only lead to success if and when combined with the right "feel", or better "fuzei" 8
Interestingly my profession of IT Architect has little to do with garden design and gardening. Not knowing much about the education of horticulturists, garden architects etc. we approached the realization of Tsubo-en as a project, in the very same way as I would have executed an Information Technology (IT) project. Although much of this will often be done in an implied fashion, when phases are skipped or not done properly, the result will not be as desired. For that reason we advise to make the phases explicit. For us Tsubo-en fulfills our initial vision and desire.

Our first experience with a Japanese garden (being our 4th garden) dates back to 1983 ¹ where we introduced Japanese Garden Elements into our existing garden. So this garden evolved and so did our interest for and knowledge of Japan and the Japanese garden.
Our first full Japanese Garden was developed from 1987 until 1996. This garden was developed from an initial design and included scenes [1] and elements of different garden (arche)types, karesansui, tea garden elements, a pond and o-karikomi etc. In 1991 we had our first trip to Japan and pilgrimage to temples and gardens ¹. We made some modifications and refinements to the then named Tsubo-en garden.

Based on our knowledge and the experience with previous Japanese gardens in combination with my professional experience as IT Architect, the current Tsubo-en, shown on these pages, was designed in a structured way according to the method described below. We think that following this methodology in combination with the developed skills and "feel". brought us what we wanted. We are also convinced that the method is repeatable, and not just for Japanese gardens. When we started with Tsubo-en information on the Internet about this subject was very scares and most information came from the excellent literature and also from Japanese gardens outside Japan.
These days typing in a single search term brings up an incredible amount of pages bringing more or less relevant information, including the most beautiful photos from Japanese gardens in and outside Japan. And again this site adds to that amount. Therefore we hope that our aim to show a structured method based on our own knowledge and experience for the realization of a Japanese garden will reduce the time you need and enhance the quality of your end result.

The method should not be applied as a so called "waterfall-method", that is progressing from one phase to the other without looking back. The process should be executed as an iterative methodology, that is a continuous re-evaluation after each phase to see if it has an impact on any previous phase, that then should be propagated, that is that impact of the previous phase may impact both forward and backward, especially over time.

A simple example is maintenance and tuning where you may have to go back to "Visible-object selection" just due to the fact that a plant choice proved to be wrong or an aging effect that has a very different outcome than was expected. But also going back from architecture to the strategy because you find out that a specific choice is just not feasible.

In the following sections we give a short general description of each of the six realization-phases. We will elaborate on these phases with the for Tsubo-en most important considerations and decisions in a separate chapter Specifics on the realization of Tsubo-en.

You can click a phase-pictogram to jump directly to the short general description of a specific realization-phase.

iterate        The six iterative garden realization phases       iterate
vision and strategy architecture visible objects infra compinfra design construction maintenance
- 1-
Determine the vision and strategy
- 2 -
Design the architecture
- 3 -
Design and select the visible-objects and elements
- 4 -
Infrastructure design and component selection
- 5 -
Build and construction of the integral design
- 6 -
Maintenance and tuning

  1. Determine the vision and strategy.
    We need a vision and starting-points for our garden. That is, what purpose do we want to serve with the garden and what high-level characteristics do we pursue ?
    What Is the theme we prefer (strolling-garden, tea-garden, (Zen)meditation-garden etc.) or do we want a mixture of these ?
    Are there topology related wishes ? Do we want to stress seasonal influences etc. Very often one starts in phase 2 or even 3 by acquiring objects while the strategy and architecture are implicit. Even if it where in a minimal form, we have to make these explicit.
    Some other important factors that have a direct impact on the realization are:
    • Budget and the decision to "do it yourself" or to have it done by a professional, or perhaps a mixture of both. Do we call for tenders ?
    • Directly related to the above is the size and shape of the plants that we will use, in particular but not limited to, trees. Mature trees in particular niwaki [12] are expensive. Can we wait for them to grow ? Or is growing, pruning and clipping trees and shrubs one of our delights ?
      If so be aware of the changing proportions. Trees grow, stone don´t. This needs anticipation.
    • Legal and regulatory implications. Permissions that are required may have a direct impact on the design and/or planning or can represent a risk.
    • Time frame and possibly a migration scheme and conversion schedule in case of conversion of an existing garden or a long-term phased implementation.
      In case of a "do it yourself" approach it is important to know the estimated required and available time that one can spend.
    • Risk analysis and risk management. This is often not seen as related to garden construction but there are risks that can have a dramatic impact on the outcome.
      There are lots of risks. Some factors that constitute or higher risks are:
      - Form, content, quality and completeness of the "statement of work" if we put out the job. In case of a mixed approach the risk can even be higher. What guarantees do we get ? What are the payment agreements ?
      - Legal liability for damage to or claims from third parties (neighbours, local authorities, workman etc.).
      - Environmental consideration.
      - Consequences of errors, mistakes, misunderstandings, ambiguities in contracts and agreements on paper or verbal etc.
      - Changes to the design, or timing. Late delivery or unavailability of material. Missing parts in the design or contract. Wrong calculations or assumptions.
      - Unforeseen and unforeseeable factors and circumstances. Examples are: Use of innovative concepts and material. Price changes, soil pollution and obstacles, bankruptcy etc.
  2. Design the architecture.
    In general terms these are the requirements for the garden. What will be the structure of the garden and what aspects are most important to implement the above defined vision and strategy ?
    Spatial organization [16] has to take into account a whole list of basic principles and answer lots of question.
    Will the garden be compartmentalized, e.g. an outer, middle and inner garden as in a roji, and if so how will this be divided and partitioned off ? Or do we prefer an integration of different sections or compartments, types (gata 形 also shape katachi) and styles (, 様, you) without borders ? What are the scenes and elements, objects and components we want or need to include that best fit the selected theme(s) ? This will already take into account such earthly matters as the topology, surrounding, available budget, time-frame etc.
    There are many styles of gardening, but that does not mean that only one should be used to the exclusion of other styles. In fact, within any garden, in accordance with the shape of the pond and the general conditions of the site, it would be best to use a combination of styles.

    One should follow one's intuition on these matters. It is amusing to see ignorant people attempt to critique a garden according to a certain style.
    The latter was written 1000 years ago, so little has changed with respect to know-it-alls.

    Sakuteiki 5 , V. Gardening styles.
    One key to success is the use of the right architecture and designs principles, rules and guidelines.

    Architecture design map of Ginkakuji
    This is an architecture design map or outline garden plan of Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto.
    It is called choukanzuhou, "a bird's-eye view" or fukanzuhou, "view from above".

    It is how a first (and final) design sketch could look. Well perhaps a little less colourful. Three-dimensional can be of help but is no hard requirement. We used a two-dimensional plan and where additional detail was desired we sometimes drew a 3-d view or simple artist impressions. This will be further discussed in the realization section.

    Such a drawing is a great tool in support of and to stimulate further design and profound thoughts and discussions.

    Definition: A scene refers to a landscape that forms a complete, stand alone, entity. It may be a natural (scaled-down) composition to be found in real nature, one that originates from a painting, or one that is a product of the imagination, a so called mindscape. An element is defined as a complete, more or less, solitary part of an archetype (see typification below) or scene. A "logical" or "re-used" combination of these can be regarded as scenes. Borrowed scenery (by means of the Shakkei technique) is regarded an external or remote scene or element. Elements are composed of (visible) objects, which constitutes the smallest entity in a garden. The three basic natural objects are plants, water and stone (from rock and stone to sand and gravel). Other mostly artificial objects are for instance a house, ornaments and enclosures. We use the term component to indicate an infrastructure building block that in most cases will not be visible to the beholder.

  3. Design and select the visible-objects and elements.
    This phase will very much be an integral part of the architecture design phase.
    Select the visible objects that will make up the garden. Choice of plants and planting, rocks, artifacts etc. This is very much depending on the personal taste of the owner of the garden and perhaps of the targeted audience, depending on the defined strategy.

  4. Infrastructure design and component selection.
    What do we need to support the construction and Life Cycle of the above ? (In IT this is called Life Cycle Management (LCM). This is about the initial construction and the maintenance. Selection of the infrastructure components, that is the non- or less visible components, is part of this phase.
    At this stage we also must decide on the order and timing of the work that needs to be done. What are the dependencies, what is the logical order of activities etc.

  5. Build and construction of the integral design.
    This is the execution of the real groundwork, digging, buying, planting, cable-laying etc. When all of the above has been done, then we have everything to perform the actual work and start digging, in the right order that is.
    In case of a mixed implementation approach (see above strategy) this requires additional planning, agreements and appointments.

  6. Maintenance and tuning.
    This is to eventually arrive at the aesthetics and characteristics as defined in the strategic vision and architecture design and to stay at that state.
    Maintenance has two important phases.
    In the IT business this is called "monitoring and tuning". The first is to maintain and "tune" the garden during the initial growth to eventually arrive at the aesthetic maturity that was initially envisioned in the strategy and architecture phase. Tuning can also involve changing earlier choices. If, for whatever reason a plant or material doe not " perform" as expected or wanted then one should consider to replace it by one that does and that should be or by now is known to be better suited.
    The second is about preservation. Once the garden has reached its desired maturity we need to keep it at that level. This is the daily maintenance and is not only about pruning and clipping but relates to everything that is subjected to change in one way or an other.

To help you getting started we have added this section below. In Specifics on the realization of Tsubo-en you can read all about our implementation.

How to typify, architect and compose a Japanese garden ?

Evocation of natural scenery is at the heart of Japanese landscape design. This is emphasized in the general guidelines at the beginning of the Sakuteiki 5 (Notes on Garden Making):

You should design each part of the garden tastefully, recalling your memories of how nature presented itself for each feature. Think over the famous places of scenic beauty throughout the land, and design your garden with the mood of harmony, modeling after the general air of such places.
Select several places within the property according to the shape of the land and the ponds, and create a subtle admosphere ("fuzei" 8), reflecting again and again on one's memories of wild nature.

Why are Japanese gardens so beautiful ?

How can I, as a Westerner, realize and maintain one ?

The Japanese garden is designed to represent natural scenery but can also be very abstract. It has traditional restraints, governed by (often unwritten) rules, in both style and the application of objects (artefact, ornaments, plants).

To Westerners, the location and setup, e.g. a small urban lot isolated by an enclosure, often make it appear odd and even incongruous. For most Westerners, the beauty is determined by what we see, that is the material and physical appearance, no more and no less. That is, how is a garden perceived or experienced by a Westerner without a deeper knowledge about meaning beyond the aesthetic ?

Japanese gardens are disciplined and serene, the placement of every object and element means something. Something that we could learn about but not have to fully and truly understand to be able to appreciate the beauty of a Japanese garden or even to build one. The Japanese garden is the offspring of the philosophy behind it, which itself may be very difficult if not impossible to grasp for a Westerner.
Learning the physical nuances in the Japanese garden by examining them based on their material characteristics can be a good way to better understand the philosophy behind it.

Considering the Japanese gardens as a work of art, while increasing our knowledge about their meaning in the contexts of culture and historical perspective, will further improve the appreciation and the "experiencing of the garden", because the garden is eventually seen through the ever changing lenses, aided by the eyes but formed by the mind, with or without a Japanese cultural background.
One important skill required to realize a Japanese garden is the ability to create illusions and thus influence, if not manipulate, the mind of a spectator, with the main purpose to make the garden appear more natural with respect to scale, i.e. size, proportions etc., and surrounding.
Space without ornaments and colorful and abundantly blooming plants is almost unthinkable to most Westerners 7.

Learning more about Japan there are so many beautiful things. The will, or even the urge to wanting them all, and include it into a garden may be the biggest Western handicap to realize an authentic, or genuine Japanese garden.
Note however that a shop-window with only one object draws more attention to that objects than dozens of those will do. Also the qualities of such single object will be better done justice and appreciated.

This said, the most important thing however is that you enjoy what you do and create a garden space that you can appreciate and that brings happiness to you and yours. If that means you want many of the beautiful objects in your garden, that is what you should do.

In support of a discussion about your garden (to be), in many cases it will be more appropriate to not call it a Japanese garden or Japanese style garden but typify it as a Japanese, Chinese or even Asian influenced or inspired or still more general an Oriental or Easterly garden.

An other important skill is the art of training and pruning as over time the garden is only as good as the careful maintenance that it receives.

We often get to answer the question: Is Tsubo-en a Zen garden ? To us the answer is a heartfelt yes, for the simple reason that its appearance is based on the aesthetic rules and principles applied to Zen gardens in Japan (see typification further down).

As the table below shows the Japanese garden evolved over 15 centuries and is difficult to label or "put in a box". The table below can be used throughout all phases of the realization process. In realization-phase 1 and 2 to determine the vision and architecture. Do not forget "fuzei" 8 ! How in general terms do you want your garden to look, or in this case better to feel, to be experienced ?
The links give good examples that are representative for the archetype. In later phases it can be used as an entry to select scenes or elements and objects to populate your garden.

The Japanese typically categorize their gardens into three broad types. A brief overview and a wonderful six-page review of Japanese gardens, offered by the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), can be found on the beautiful website of Onmark Productions.

A multitude of other ways of how to categorize, classify, typify etc. Japanese gardens is given in numerous documents. Kuitert [1] uses "Themes, Scenes and Taste".
Nitschke [2] uses prototypes, types and stereotypes and very much follows the evolutionary track as indicated in the table. He sees "the prototype as the product of the gardener as artist, the type as the product of the gardener as craftsman and the stereotype as the product of the gardener as purely commercially-minded designer". This with reference to E. Ambasz's "Theory of Formal Types" (1969 p.69).

Archetypes of gardens according to Tokyo Agricultural University:

Art Period Archetype Short description Example links
6th to 8th C
Yamato, Nara
Ceremony Worship ceremonies, including routes for worshiping. Ise-Jingu,
Kyoto Gosho
8th to 10th C
Leisure The ancient capital 1300 years ago:
Today a legacy from the past.
Heijo-kyo ruins in Nara
(also Heijou-kyou)
11the to 12th C
Heian, Kamakura
Paradise Representation of Paradise on Earth. Joruri-ji Temple, in the hills near Nara, is the only existing Heian-era Amida Hall with nine images of Amida representing the nine levels of enlightenment. Joruri-ji,
(more Moutsuji)
13th to 15th C
Kamakura, Muromachi
Zen Ryoan-ji is regarded the archetype Zen garden. For additional remarks on Zen and karesansui see below.
Daisen-in [ f ]
16th C
Buke(-zukuri) A style of residential architecture in use among the bushi or warrior class. Daigo-ji, Sanpo-in
16th to 17th C
Momoyama, Edo
Tea Garden and house dedicated to the Tea Ceremony, Cha-no-yu.

Urasenke Konnichian,
(The Urasenke Home)
Omote-senke ( Tea room and garden)
17th - 19th C
Edo, Meiji
Theme Katsura Imperial Villa is a circuit style garden with small and large islands connected by bridges.

Kenroku-en is "a strolling-style landscape garden".
“Kenroku-en” literally means “garden that combines six characteristics”. Grouped in their traditional complementary pairs, they are spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas.

Both gardens take full advantage of seasonal change.
Katsura Rikyu,

Kenroku-en, Kanazawa Castle
19th - 20th C
Meiji - Taisho period
Modern Gardens from the last century and a half.

The TAU list does not include the "new type of karesansui garden".

See Tofuku-ji as only one splendid example.
Note that Wikipedia contains a growing number of Japanese gardens, temples etc. For additional information it is worthwhile to give it a try.

The bold Archetypes in this table indicate the types that inspired the Tsubo-en architecture and design.

Related to Zen and karesansui we have selected a number of phrases to give an idea of direction and to show an impression of how concrete and tangible the design guidance are.

One, if not the most, important aspect (design principle) is the fact that a Zen garden is a three-dimensional visualization of monochrome ink (sumi) landscape paintings, sumi-e or suibokuga. This still is the art-form by many most closely associated with Zen Buddhism.
Rather then having perspective based on a common point of convergency, like that used in the West, the (original Song China) technique prescribes separation of the vista into three, or more, tiers or planes. The first and closest tier, on a human scale, the second or middle-tier on architectural scale, and the third tier, on a geologic scale. The tiers are painted on top of each other and separated by white space that suggests mist and haziness and distance. The lower tier represents the foreground drawn in "human" proportions with recognizable relatively small objects. Even leafs on plants and animals are clearly distinguishable. The second, mostly middle-tier, gets more distant, bridging the distance between the foreground and upper or background tier. The impression of distance is further attained through diminishing size and further away objects becoming indistinct. Far away mountains are often veiled in mist or clouds.
This also explains the often used technique of incorporating a stream, river or waterfall that comes "out of nothing" into the middle or foreground, where nothing is an unknown background (dark) from where it originates or rises.

Interestingly a three-dimensional real and full-size landscape is reduces and projected in tiers or planes on a two-dimensional, flat surface of a sheet of paper, which on its turn gets interpreted back to again become a three-dimensional miniature, but larger scale than the painting, landscape. The starting point that this is a primary design principle has great impact on the architecture and further design and selection phases. Scale now becomes an extremely important aspect as does distinguishability. In chapter Tsukiyama you find an example related to the Tsubo-en realization. The above link: monochrome ink shows a great example from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. More examples are available in Monochrome landscape ink painting examples
and Samurai residence gardens of the Edo era.
In the Literature [ f ] you find a fine presentation with great ink paintings of Shubun and Sesshu and material on Daitoku-ji complex and the Daisen-in subtemple.

The temple Daitoku-ji is the head temple of the Daitoku school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. It was founded in 1319, but was destroyed by a fire and was rebuilt in the 16th century. This enormous temple complex has 24 subtemples forming what resembles a small village. Along with the Tofuku-ji and Nanzen-ji it is one of the largest Zen temples in Japan. Among the subtemples, the Daisen-in boasts a superb "dry landscape" rock garden. The Ryogen-in is said to be the smallest Zen garden in Japan.

This is what the brochure states from the the subtemple Daisen-in:
"Since ancient times, the Japanese have loved Nature profoundly and desired to live according to Nature.
But in such a narrow space (about 100m2) it was impossible to realize Nature in details.
However Kogaku-Zenji was able to express the abstracted essence of Nature by means of rocks and sand.
If you look at this garden after seeing the landscape painted by Soami ( Kangaku Shinso) on the sliding doors, you may also find out that such a type of garden is nothing but a three-dimensional reproduction of monochrome landscape paintings

... A real landscape seen from a high and distant viewpoint best exemplifies the landscape painting style.

Dõgen, an early medieval Zen priest (1200-1253):
"Don't mistake simple, actual nature (mountains, rivers, the big earth) for actual nature that constitutes the pure essence of nature".

.... mountains and islands within a garden, they express the energetic constellation of nature.
They offer the garden-maker a symbolic language in which to state the more profound truth of nature, which lay's beneath its aesthetic surface.

...they are best appreciated from fixed vantage points, such as from inside the "shoin" (reception room), where they can be viewed as three-dimensional pictures framed by the rectangular lines of the building.

... This design no longer starts from existing models in nature, but is better understood as an intellectual projection onto nature, moving from land-scape to mind-scape.

Links related to the approach

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