Classic Japanese Tea Gardens

Lush Japanese garden with a koi-pond and stone path.

Today's gardeners can transform their landscape into a serenely lovely Japanese tea garden.

By the end of the 16th century, the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony was brought from the main house to a small shelter within its own special garden. Visitors walked along a narrow garden pathway called a roji leading to the teahouse. In this way, they experienced the garden and along the way, shed their cares and anxieties before entering the spiritual mood of the teahouse.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Karen Thurber adds, "The oldest Japanese Garden in the United States can be found in San Francisco. The garden was created in 1894 and includes a tea garden. It can be a great place to experience the tea ceremony and gather ideas for your own tea garden."

The Garden Design

Traditional Japanese tea gardens were divided into two distinct areas separated by a simple barrier, like a bamboo gate or a moss-covered rock wall, with an opening to walk through. The first part of the garden was meant to entice--to create a mood of anticipation for the coming ceremony. The roji might be set with stepping stones or raised wooden planks flanked on either side by a garden pool filled with koi. When designing this aspect of your own tea garden, there are many design possibilities discussed later in the article.

The Outer Garden

This outer garden would generally be filled with an ornamental tree, a few shrubs and plants, and a water element such as a waterfall, small garden pond or pool. Keep in mind that traditional tea gardens were kept deliberately woodsy and rustic to demonstrate the transition between the outer world of the marketplace to the tranquil world of nature. A few lanterns would light the path, the number determined by necessity and the length of the walk.

A Cleansing Spot

Placed somewhere before the entry way to the inner garden, a stone water basin would be set where visitors could conveniently rinse their mouths and hands. These low basins called tsukubai would be built low to the ground so visitors would have to crouch or kneel to use it. A ladle would be laid across the basin and under the base was generally a flat layer of gravel said to reflect the ocean. In a dry setting, rock and gravel placement could represent water in the garden design, but most Japanese gardens always contained at least one water feature.

The Inner Garden

Ideally, as the path drew closer and into the inner garden, the scenery should become more restful. Flowering plants would not be used; instead, visitors would find the shady solace of ferns, mosses and shrubs usually found in mountain woods. A single perfect blossom would be saved for inside the tea house. The tea house itself would be made from simple materials and even present an austere presence--nothing to detract from the natural surroundings. The entire approach for design concerns must lie in simplicity above all else. Today's gardeners and landscapers adapt any elements they choose most appropriate for their space.

With simplicity in mind, there are hundreds of design aspects that might be employed in a Japanese garden. Not all of them should be used in the same garden, of course, for reasons of simplicity, but there are endless combinations to choose between.

TIP: Karen suggests, "Some plants that you may want to consider incorporating into your tea garden include:

Maples -there are many varieties of maples, you can find them with red or green leaves, even variegated

Pine trees - The Black Pine is commonly found in Japanese gardens and offers structure and texture

Nandina domestica - also know as heavenly bamboo

Bamboo - Plant a clumping type of bamboo to keep it from becoming invasive

Although flowering plants are not generally used in the tea garden, the following plants used sparsely lend themselves to the woodland atmosphere.

Azaleas - Flowering in spring

Kousa Dogwood - Flowers in spring

Magnolias - flowers before the trees leafs out

All of these plants are quite hardy and can tolerate diverse growing conditions.
Some may even be invasive in your area, so it is advisable check with a local nursery before planting."

Water Elements

As mentioned previously, traditional Japanese gardens of any style feature a water element. Depending on your landscape and the maintenance level you wish to employ, there is one perfect for your garden.

A simple water feature might be a large rock indented with a space on top where water can collect. This natural and maintenance-free enhancement could be employed at any point in the tea garden and several would constitute a fine water feature. You could add to this by allowing bamboo to act as a pipe where water trickles into the basin. Such a feature is actually known as a shishi-odoshi--a deer-scaring device.

Because space is a concern for most traditional Japanese gardens, large garden ponds are not usually incorporated, but certainly a small one could easily transform your garden into an Oriental paradise. Filled with a few koi and water lilies, you could spend many fine hours devoted to meditation and experience the beauty of nature right in the backyard.

Many tea gardens feature waterfalls, and they are not difficult to create. Using layers of rock, create a simple cascade that splashes into a basin or small pool. A more elaborate waterfall could even flank a side of the garden path in a hilly area where such a natural occurring stream of water seems right at home. Adhering to nature is an important concept for the Japanese. It is not their desire to master nature as many western gardens do, but simply to interpret it and mirror it with their own simple designs.

There are many varieties of Oriental plants suited for such water features. Consider water lilies, lotus, barberries, Japanese laurel, Japanese clematis iris, and flowering cherries. Incorporating bamboo and rock is important for capturing a Japanese sensibility.

Tea Garden Accents

There are many styles of lanterns that could be employed to light the tea garden path. A large stone Japanese lantern called a kotoji doro is a focal point in itself, but there are simple lanterns as well.

When designing your walk, allow it to zigzag if possible. Straight lines are not employed in Japanese design. A raised deck that zigzags along a water feature is suitable for tea garden and even simple bridges made from stone or wood could be employed to great effect. Raised stepping stones sitting above shallow water is a particularly nice way to incorporate a Japanese touch into your design.

Finally, the end result of your garden plan should embody a simplistic austerity, tempered by the tranquility of nature. A place of repose and relaxation is ultimately what a traditional tea garden achieves. Each feature must be as natural as possible to truly resemble a classic Japanese tea garden.