It is not often that I am asked to design a Japanese garden, especially in the hot desert of Phoenix, Arizona. You may wonder how a traditional Japanese garden can be viable in such a climate. You may visualize a dry Zen like garden where there are few plants and no water.

Well it is possible to create a Japanese inspired garden in the desert. You may have visions of what a Japanese garden looks like, but let’s look at the basic fundamental principles that go into the design of a Japanese garden.

1) Reverence for nature;

2) Earth and Water

3) Wabi and Sabi

You will notice that except for the reference to Earth and Water, the qualities of a Japanese garden are felt, not visual. They may be triggered by physical objects, but the aesthetic is the subtle feeling conveyed and the symbolic meaning embodied in the physical layout and elements.

Japanese gardens are essentially representations of nature in a way that reveres the natural qualities of earth, mountains, oceans, lakes, streams, trees, plants and flowers. Also recognized are the changing qualities of the seasons.

A Japanese garden is not at all a garden or landscaped yard in the typical Western world where there may be a bbq island, outdoor fire pit and a swimming pool. That is why in Western landscapes, we may incorporate Japanese or Asian like gardens within the overall scheme because we do not see our gardens the same way the traditional Japanese garden is designed.

Hardscape or manmade elements only distract from the natural qualities that are revered. It is those natural qualities that give rise to feelings of tranquility, harmony and that foster a purity of heart and mind.

Water is an essential component in a Japanese garden. It may be the real thing or it can be symbolic as in using sand. Mountains represented by boulders are also a key to balancing the energies between the Yin (water) and the Yang (mountains).

The concepts of Wabi Sabi are hard to grasp in terms of understanding the aesthetics not for their outer form, but the essence beyond the form. Such concepts are derived from Buddhist principles and include Impermanence, Incompleteness and Imperfection.

Wabi expresses its aesthetics through simplicity, asymmetry, and austerity. It is the appreciation of the beauty of a falling leaf in autumn. It is the meandering path that seems to lead nowhere in particular. It is the absence of ostentatious elements and showy flower displays.

Sabi is the state of mind beyond the perception of something rustic, imperfect and perhaps shows signs of old age. It is the appreciation for something that is flawed when compared to human standards. It is the crooked trunk of a tree or the crack in a boulder. This idea is sometimes referred to as ‘imperfect beauty’.  There is an aesthetic quality to the naturalness of things. It’s the authenticity that we are attracted to whether it’s what we consider perfect or not.

So with all these so called unseen qualities, how does one go about design a Japanese garden? That would seem difficult since many of the aspects are intangible and can only be felt by someone experiencing the garden. That is the challenge of the garden designer. How does one combine the site, the client and the elements to manifest this concept of Wabi Sabi? It’s all behind the scenes and it goes into the ideas behind the choices made when planning the garden and in the physical arrangement of the boulders, sand, gravel, plants and other elements.

Let’s take a look at my recent project which has yet to get started, but I do have the plan to show and refer to.

Below is a screen shot of the AutoCAD design image:

See my next post which discusses the ideas behind the design titled Scottsdale Japanese Garden Design.

Filed under: Asian Gardens

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