The History of Japanese Gardens

With a history that spans over 2,000 years, a mystifying culture and striking diversity from the ultra-modern Tokyo to the ancient Higashi Chaya Districts –  there is no other place quite like Japan.

Gardens are an integral part of Japanese culture and throughout the centuries their unique styles have mimicked the countries ever-changing trends. Beginning in the Nara Period (710-794 AD) Japan drew inspiration from Chinese designs and beautiful gardens were constructed in temples and palaces for the pleasure of the emperor and his affluent visitors.

As Japan transitioned into the Heian Period (794-1185) the then capital city of Kyoto became the central location for gardens, temples and palaces. Japanese influences began to merge with Chinese styles. Although no complete garden from this era has survived, the Heian Period saw the birth of the Paradise Garden, the likes of which can be found in Japan to this day.

The Kamakura and Muromachi Periods (1192-1573) had an enormous influence on Japanese horticulture as it introduced the Zen Garden. Inspired once again by China, these gardens came with the emergence of Zen Buddhism that began to infiltrate the Japanese way of life. After the military had secured power from the aristocracy, gardens became a religious sanctuary for meditation rather than a place of recreation. They adopted a simpler style although they maintained the waterfalls, islands and bridges that had been present in gardens from previous Japanese periods.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) Japan created a new style known as the Tea Gardens. This is perhaps the most iconic Japanese garden and replicas of this design can be found across the Western world.  Elements of the tea garden already existed in Japanese horticulture but the work of tea masters helped to elevate this style into its own league. Traditionally stone pathways lit by lanterns guide the way to small enclosed tea houses.

As the aristocracy started to indulge in an increasingly extravagant lifestyle during the Edo Period (1603-1867), Japanese Gardens departed from their former simplistic style. Alongside the traditional tea garden design, artificial hills, islands and ponds became a common feature. Springing up in various locations around Tokyo, many of these ”strolling gardens” can still be found in the capital. As these grand designs began to sweep the nation, the Edo Period also saw the emergence of the Tsuboniwa. Created to fill small spaces these petite gardens learned how to impress with minimal features.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) saw the emergence of modern, Western influences. Japanese Gardens were no longer confided to private use and traditional western horticultural trends such as flower beds began to appear in gardens across Japan.

As Japan moved into the modern age it has come to be known as one of the most advanced nations in the developed world. It’s gardens have started to reflect this, incorporating avant-garde styles into their designs. Japan continues to be a country of great fascination and visitors today have the unique opportunity to explore gardens from times past or get a first-hand look at the latest innovative designs.


Amy Horsfield / BA Film and Creative Writing