Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu

Japanese gardens utilize elements such as ponds, streams, islands and hills to create miniature reproductions of natural scenery. The following are some of the most commonly employed elements:

Stones, Gravel and Sand

Since ancient times, stones have played an important role in Japanese culture. In Shinto, prominent large stones are worshiped as kami, while gravel was used to designate sacred grounds, as seen at some ancient shrines such as the Ise Shrines or Kyoto's Kamigamo Shrine.

In today's gardens, large stones symbolize mountains and hills, set decorative accents and serve as the building material for bridges and pathways. Smaller rocks and gravel are used to line ponds and streams. Meanwhile, dry gardens are comprised entirely of stones, with larger stones symbolizing mountains, islands and waterfalls, while gravel and sand replace water.

Ancient sand structure at Kamigamo Shrine
Dry garden at Daitokuji's Daisenin
Raked sand at Ginkakuji
Pebble lined pond at Sumpu Castle
Japan's largest rock garden at Kongobuji Temple on Koyasan
Large, beautiful or unusual stones have been considered status symbols (Nijojo Castle)

Ponds, Streams and Waterfalls

Ponds are a central element of most gardens and often represent real or mythical lakes or seas. Sometimes they provide a habitat for carps (koi) which introduce additional color and life to the garden. In dry gardens, ponds, streams and waterfalls are symbolized by raked gravel, sand and upright stones.

In recreational types of gardens, ponds can be used for boating or enjoyment from pavilions built out over the water or from plazas and embankments on shore, which often served as the site for aristocratic poetry or moon viewing parties in past centuries.

Carp are commonly found in ponds (Korakuen)
Streams feed larger ponds in Motsuji Temple (left) and Kenrokuen (right)
Waterfall at Ginkakuji
Raked gravel representing rough seas at Daitokuji's Zuihoin
Pure Land style pond at Motsuji Temple

Islands and Bridges

Islands are another long standing component of Japanese gardens, and range in size from single stone outcroppings to large islands big enough to support buildings. They often represent real islands or have religious symbolism, such as those built to resemble turtles and cranes, symbols of longevity and health, or Horai, a sacred mystical mountain in Taoism.

Bridges are another common feature that is used to connect islands and cross streams or ponds. They are built of stone or wood, and range in complexity from a simple slab of uncut rock laid across a stream to elaborate, covered wooden structures that span more than ten meters.

Large ponds often have high arching Chinese style bridges under which boats can pass (Korakuen)
Covered wooden bridge at Heian Jingu
Stone bridge at Rikugien
Wooden zig zag bridge at Korakuen
Stone island amid a sea of gravel at Ryoanji
A unique bridge made of coral at Shikinaen in Okinawa


Trees, shrubs, lawns and flowers of all kinds are used in Japanese gardens. Plants, such as maple and cherry trees, are often chosen for their seasonal appeal and are expertly placed to emphasize these characteristics. Conversely, pine trees, bamboo and plum trees are held in particular esteem for their beauty during the winter months when other plants go dormant. Mosses are also used extensively, with over a hundred species appearing at Kokedera alone.

Plants are carefully arranged around the gardens to imitate nature, and great efforts are taken to maintain their beauty. Trees, shrubs and lawns are meticulously manicured, and delicate mosses are swept clean of debris. During winter, straw, burlap and ropes are used to insulate and protect the trees and shrubs from the freezing snow, while straw wraps protect against bug infestations.

Manicured shrubs at Adachi Museum of Art
Maple trees at Koishikawa Korakuen
Pine and cherry trees at Shinjuku Gyoen
Bamboo grove at Kodaiji Temple
Moss covered statues at Sanzenin
A variety of moss on display at Ginkakuji
Winterized plants at Rikugien


Larger gardens, especially the strolling gardens of the Edo Period, make use of large man made hills. The hills may represent real or mythical mountains, and some can be ascended and have a viewpoint from where visitors are treated to a panoramic view out over the garden.

Hill representing Mount Fuji at Suizenji Park
View from the artificial hill at the center of Rikugien


Lanterns come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have been a common element of Japanese garden design throughout history. They are usually made of stone and placed in carefully selected locations, such as on islands, at the ends of peninsulas or next to significant buildings, where they provide both light and a pleasing aesthetic. Lanterns are often paired with water basins (see more details below), which together make up a basic component of tea gardens.

Cut stone lantern at Shimogamo Shrine, snow lantern at Kenrokuen and pedestal lantern at Rikugien
Buried shaft lantern at Sento Palace
Row of pedestal lanterns at Saimyoji and uncut pedestal lantern at Yoshikien Garden

Water Basins

Many gardens contain stone water basins (tsukubai), which are used for ritual cleansing, especially ahead of tea ceremonies. The basins vary from simple depressions in uncut stone to elaborate carved stone creations, and are usually provided with a bamboo dipper for scooping up water. These days they often appear as a decorative addition more than for a practical purpose. Water basins are an essential element of tea gardens and are often paired with lanterns.

Stone lantern and water basin pairings in Urakuen (left) and Kotoin (right)
Basins at Chusonji Temple and Ryoanji Temple
Cut stone water basin at Jojakkoji Temple in Arashiyama


Paths became an integral part of Japanese gardens with the introduction of strolling and tea gardens. Strolling gardens feature circular paths constructed of stepping stones, crushed gravel, sand or packed earth, which are carefully prescribed to lead visitors to the best - albeit controlled - views of the garden. Winding paths also serve to segregate different areas, such as an isolated grove or hidden pond, from each other so that they may be contemplated individually.

Packed earth paths lead through Korakuen
Stepping stone path through Heian Jingu's Dragon Pond that was featured in the movie Lost in Translation


Many types of gardens were built to be viewed from inside a building, such as palace, villa or temple. In contrast, gardens meant to be entered and enjoyed from within, use buildings as a part of the garden's composition, including pavilions, tea houses and guest houses.

Higashi Honganji's Shoseien Garden
The celebrated Joan Teahouse in Urakuen

Borrowed Scenery

Borrowed scenery (shakkei) is the concept of integrating the background landscape outside the garden into the design of the garden. Both, natural objects such as mountains and hills and man made structures such as castles, can be used as borrowed scenery. In modern times, skyscrapers have become a (usually) unintentional borrowed scenery for some gardens in the cities.

Tenryuji borrows the scenery of the Arashiyama mountains, and Ritsurin Koen the backdrop of Mount Shiun
Korakuen includes nearby Okayama Castle as borrowed scenery
Hama Rikyu's borrowed skyscraper backdrop is unintentional but fascinating