Design Concept for a Scottsdale Japanese Tea Garden

My clients purchased a home in Scottsdale, Arizona that included an authentic Japanese Tea House built as an addition and attached to the existing architecture. The Tea House is authentic on the inside, but the outside looks no different than the rest of the exterior walls.

There are also separate exterior structures including a Torii and Koshikake Machiai, but the grounds were largely bare with nothing more than a retention area and river rock swale. It appears there was a lawn comprising most of the open areas, but long gone. The structure for a Japanese Tea Garden is there, but whatever was initially planted has died and the majority of the space appears neglected by the previous owner.

Existing Setting and Elements

The garden setting is adjacent to an existing Tea House. Other elements consist of a covered Koshikake Machiai ( waiting area). At the far end of the side yard is a Torii (gateway). There is also another crudely built Torii at the north end of the space, but looks more like a ranch gateway rather than distinctively Asian.

A river rock swale extending from the opposite end of the backyard, end in a retention basin also lined with river rock. A crude stacked stone waterfall is situated against the walls in the southwest corner.

Scottsdale Japanese Tea Garden existing site 2

West facing main space includes a traditional Koshikake Machiai (waiting area) and bridge over a dry stream.

There is also a small pond feature close to the shoji screen opening to the Chashitsu (Tea house) and is enclosed with dilapidated bamboo fencing/trellis and Lady Banks climbing roses.

There are virtually no plants in this area except for two Texas sages and a Carolina jessamine vine on a trellis along the south wall. Several other bare wooden trellises are mounted to the stucco walls every 20 feet or so.

Scottsdale Japanese Tea Garden existing site

Existing south facing side yard with Torii at the far end

Design Concept

The Tea House was designed and built in traditional style and architectural elements except for its outward appearance. Apparently, a Japanese architect designed and built the existing structures and it shows upon close examination. One wonders why the outside space is so bare compared to the other landscaped parts of the yard.

The presence of the Torii, Koshikake machiai and Chashitsu provide the framework and architectural integration to create the actual Chaniwa (Tea Garden) and associated components.

In keeping with the traditional Tea Ceremony experience, the guests enter through the Torii at the far end of the side yard; here they pass from the mundane physical world into the spiritual realm, in anticipation of the Tea Ceremony and to experience the garden itself.  A traditional Roji, or stone pathway, leads one through the side yard which has a dry stream bed and small bridge. In the area of the retention basin, a modified pond is suggested, which could be either dry or contain water.

The stone path leads around the perimeter of the pond to the Koshikake machiai (waiting area). From there, summoned by the Tea Master or hosts, the guests cross the existing 14’ long wooden bridge and before entering the Tea House, the guests are presented with a Tsukubai situated adjacent to the existing small pond. The water basin would be outfitted with a Shishi Odoshi (Boar Scarer) to add a fountain element appropriate to the scale of the Tsukubai.

From inside the Tea House, looking across the small pond, a Karesansui style garden would be the exterior background scene. This would loosely be based on the Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto. A bamboo fencing material would cover the existing stucco block wall to create a more distinctive Asian feel and texture.

Plant Material

Due to the low desert climate, plant materials cannot reproduce a traditional Japanese garden plant palette. The use of Japanese maples, Azaleas, Camellias, Black Pine, Ferns, Moss and other classic plant species will not survive in the Phoenix climate.

Alternative plant materials that mimic or are similar in form and appearance can be used. The full plant palette is developed after the preliminary design is approved. Because this site is fully exposed to the south and west with no existing shade, trees were a necessity to provide a suitable environment not only for the shrubs, but for people as well.

Inert Materials

Native river rock would be used for the pond banks and swale/streams. Native Surface Select Granite boulders would be brought in to form the essence of the garden. Water whether real or symbolic cannot be without a strong Yang earth element that balances the Yin water element.

The stepping stone path will salvage existing Quartzite stepping stones, but would be enhanced with the use of selective pieces of river rock having a flat or other suitable surface to make the path wider than a single stepping stone

In around the boulders, river rock and plant material will be ¼” minus granite. The Karasansui garden will also contain ¼” minus granite as this is conducive to making ripple patterns in the symbolic ‘ocean’.

The use of natural materials is in keeping with an authentic style Japanese garden. Manmade materials are not traditional and only distract from the concepts of Wabi, Sabi and Shibui. Therefore any man made materials such as the existing concrete dry stack retaining wall and concrete borders would not be included as a construction material.


My approach to the design of the space was to honor the existing Tea Garden theme that has been established and to create an outdoor setting that provides an extension of the ambience contained within the Chashitsu. The level of detail and symbolism therefore should be consistent.

Because of the existing Torii at the far end of the side yard, it was important to create an experience of walking the Roji and to make full use of this odd shaped side yard space.

Once at the Koshikake Machiai, this became a seating area where one could view the pond, the Tsukubai and the Karesansui garden. The entire space would have an enhanced sense of enclosure using new trees along the south wall. The north part of the yard would remain separated by modifying the existing Torii fence/gate, further reinforcing the separation and sacred qualities of the Chaniwa.

Here’s a video shot during the second day of construction:

Filed under: Asian Gardens

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