Japanese Garden Design (How To Create a Peaceful Zen Japanese Garden In Your Yard)

Want to create a relaxing spot in your garden but need some inspiration to get going? Find out the 10 must-have elements of a zen Japanese garden.

How To Create A Peaceful Zen Japanese Garden

Zen Japanese Garden

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For quite some time, I have been wanting to do something in the back corner of my yard.  It is about the only space I have left that doesn’t have much in the way of a garden, so this would give me an excuse to buy some plants (and make the space look better than it does right now).

I would really like to create a relaxing, zen garden space where I could go to read a book or just watch the birds and butterflies.  And to me, nothing feels more zen than a Japanese garden…

Since I don’t know that much about what goes into making a Japanese garden (and I always like to look for inspiration before I start a new project), I went hunting for some ideas that will help me create a little bit of zen in my yard.

Keep reading to see what I found…the 10 elements required for a really peaceful and zen Japanese garden.

1 | Make An Entrance

By Wkatsuhiro (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese gardens are all about creating an element of mystery by not allowing the whole garden to be seen at once.

Japanese inspired garden entrance, via zeterre.com

Japanese inspired garden entrance, via zeterre.com

An entry way with a large (but see-through) gate creates that sense of wanting to see more in this garden created by Zeterre Landscape Architects.

2 | Use Water

Japanese garden pond and fountain
Japanese garden pond and fountain

Water is a central element of many Japanese gardens (and it definitely helps with the zen feeling!).  Fountains made of wood leading into a koi pond with lily pads are one way of adding this element.

Japanese garden pond with landscaping, via commons.wikimedia.org

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Large gardens often have well-manicured landscaping around very large ponds.

Japanese garden pond with large rocks

By 663highland (663highland) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Large rocks and waterfalls are also part of the traditional Japanese garden landscaping.

But a basin with a bamboo dipper also works for smaller areas.

3 | Or Create The Illusion of Water

Japanese Garden dry river at Daisen-in

No author provided. Ivanoff~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

In places where water is not practical (or just not wanted), dry river beds can be made out of sand (or crushed white granite).  The sand is often raked to make it look like waves. In this picture, it almost creates the illusion of movement.

This is likely what I’ll do in my garden…with all the trees at the back of my yard, I’d be cleaning leaves and algae out of a real pond all day long!

4 | Add An Island

Japanese garden island at Manshu in, via zen-garden.org

Japanese garden island, via zen-garden.org

Landscaped islands in the middle of the pond (or sand as the case may be) are another common design element of Japanese gardens. According to the Japanese Garden site, islands figure prominently in Japanese myths, so many people believe they were included in ancient Japanese gardens because of their symbolic meaning.

5 | Build a Bridge

10 Elements of a Zen Japanese Garden

Japanese Garden stone bridge, via Adobe Stock Photos

With all of that water, it makes sense that bridges are also a featured element in Japanese gardens.  They are usually made of natural materials like this curved stone bridge crossing a dry river.

10 Elements of a zen Japanese garden

Wood plank bridge, via Adobe Stock Photos

A wooden plank bridge is another option that is a little easier to build if you are spanning a wider distance.

6 | Add a Japanese Tea House

Japanese tea house over water, via commons.wikimedia.org

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese tea house adds some architecture to the garden, and gives some shelter from the elements.  It doesn’t have to be a large space, but should have a beautiful view of the garden.

7 | Install Paths

Japanese garden path, via insidekyoto.com

Japanese garden path, via insidekyoto.com

Winding garden paths help to draw you into the garden, and lead you to the next “room”.  Using large stepping stones in a sand or gravel path is a common way of creating walk ways.

Those same large stepping stones can also be used to make stairs to make hills easier to climb.

8 | Plant Evergreens

Clipped pine trees in a Japanese garden, via commons.wikimedia.org

By Fg2 (Self-published work by Fg2) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese gardens make use of clipped pine trees (like the ones shown above in Nijojo gardens) to add structure and year-round interest.

Plant evergreens, via bhg.com

Evergreens create structure in a Japanese garden, via bhg.com

However, standard evergreens will add the same effect even without all of the effort of clipping them.

Japanese garden pond and azaleas, via commons.wikimedia.org

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Azaleas are another evergreen that is used extensively in Japanese gardens.  They are also usually clipped, and they have the added benefit of beautiful spring flowers.

9 | Add Interest With Plants

Japanese maple
Japanese maple

Japanese Maples are a commonly used plant in Japanese gardens.

Japanese Maple
Japanese Maple

They have an interesting shape and delicate leaves that look beautiful in the garden.

Japanese Irises

Japanese garden irises, via Adobe Stock Photos

For flowering plants, soothing purple and white irises suit the zen feeling of a Japanese garden.

Cherry tree in a Japanese garden

Weeping Japanese cherry tree, via Adobe Stock Photos

And the flowing branches of weeping Japanese cherry trees and Wisteria also fit right in.  (Although wisteria is very pretty, it can be quite invasive, so be careful where you plant it).

10 | Install A Stone Lantern

Stone lantern in a Japanese Garden

Japanese garden stone lantern, via Adobe Stock Photos

Finally, traditional Japanese stone lanterns can add light to your garden, or just look beautiful.

A stone lantern near the tea house in a Japanese Garden

A stone lantern near the tea house, via Adobe Stock Photos

Just like regular landscape lighting, the stone lanterns are often placed in strategic locations like close to the tea house or in dimly-lit areas of a path.

Stone temple in a Japanese garden

Japanese garden stone lantern, via Adobe Stock Photos

Now that I have some zen Japanese garden inspiration, I’m off to start planning the version I’ll do in my own garden.

Have comments or questions on elements of a zen Japanese garden?  Tell us in the section below.

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Elements of a Zen Japanese Garden

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5 Responses

  • I have just finished my waterfall and am looking at obtaining 2 x Japanese Laterns to compliment it, one for each side, have been looking at many sites but still undecided, prices do vary a lot from site to site with some charging rather high prices, looking at around 40cm in height or just over, anyone know of any nice sites who will deliver to just outside Edinburgh area, many thanks

    • Hi Bill…In the United States, I have had good luck finding Japanese Lanterns on wayfair.com. I’m not sure if they have the same stock on the UK site (wayfair.co.uk) but you could try there.

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