Article - Water in a Japanese Garden

Water is an important component of a Japanese garden both in its natural element and symbolic forms. The article covers not only flowing water situations but also still water environments and examines the link between the geology and the Japanese garden. In the natural environment water flows from its source high in the mountains with turbulent streams, broadens into gently meandering rivers and discharges to the sea at tidal estuaries. At each stage of the life of a river there are natural characteristics, which need to be observed in order to create an equivalent in a garden setting.

Rivers & Streams

The characteristics of a river are largely determined by the underlying geology through which it flows. The youthful stage as a mountain stream is high-energy environment with sharp angular boulders, shallow watercourses, few deposits and a substantial fall in level. Whilst mid life rivers of the flood plains are lower energy environments with rounded pebbles bounced downstream from the mountains. Deposits of gravels and silts are common in the lea of meanders as the river winds its way across the flood plain. Estuarine environments are low energy braided streams and tidal flats with gently sloping flooded banks of sands, silts and muds. As you proceed downstream the grain size of deposits reduces and are more rounded - the rule is finest furthest [from the source]. The same is to be found with the bank side elements. These characteristics are to be found in Japanese gardens, be they natural or dry.

According to texts in the Sakuteiki "to create a stream or river setting, shape it like the trail left by a serpent or dragon, determine where the bends will be and place a well-shaped stone at this focal point. The meanders should reflect the topography of the landscape with a fall of 2-3% to create a gentle flow. Any bank side stones should be in groups rather than continuous rows, starting at the bends. Any mid stream stones should be well buried in the streambed." The pictures show the mountain torrent of the Agon-shu monastery garden in the hills outside Kyoto and the gently flowing meandering stream in the garden of Murin-an villa in Kyoto, a Meiji period stroll garden with pond.

The story of the river of life, as depicted in the gardens at Daisen-in temple in Kyoto, a Muromachi period dry landscape garden, illustrate the link between nature and the dry landscape garden and follows the river from source to sea. This garden built in 1509 by the priest Daisho illustrates in three small connected gardens, by skilful use of perspective, the source at the mystical Mount Horai with waterfall and plunging mountain streams representing the impetuous energy of man rushing down the stream of life, the rapids of the impulsiveness of youth, the whirlpools of dismay and the bridge of doubt and contradiction. After which the stream widens symbolising the broadening of human experience after the trials and hardship of youth. The ship laden with treasure of life comes into view and the turtle endeavouring to swim back against the current reminds of the futility of effort to return to the past whilst the river of life flows ever onwards. The river flows into the sea of nothingness where the rocks of covetousness and greed have disappeared leaving only purity.

Dry streambeds differ from natural streams. The surface of the dry stream is often simulated by the use of water worn pebbles, gravel or paddle stones, arranged to indicate current flow. Some streams in nature will be ephemeral and only flow after winter rains or flash floods, which tend to leave behind muddy beds when they dry out. There are many places named Winterbourne that reflect this aspect of nature. Rivers generally end up in the sea unless they flow into ephemeral playa lakes where the water evaporates leaving behind salt and gypsum deposits (Salt Lakes in the US). Estuarine rivers continue into the sea as a submarine environment over the continental shelf and down into the deep ocean as turbidity currents. "To create a seascape in the garden the stones and rocks at sea level must be water worn and rounded with a washed out look."


Waterfalls are to be found in the mountains and hills where there is a difference between the properties of the underlying rock strata, with harder rock overlaying softer rock in horizontal beds. The erosion process is slowed by the harder rock creating a differential rate of erosion and fall in water level. Waterfalls will gradually retreat upstream over time as the erosion process advances. Waterfalls take one of two forms, overshooting the lip in a cascade (male) or tumbling down in a series of sub falls (female). Male falls have deep splash pools at their base and produce a humid micro-environment. Female falls have a lighter note of the babbling brook rather than the constant roar of crashing water. The lower Burgess falls on the Falling Water River in Tennessee is an impressive example of a male fall whilst the middle fall is a female example. A waterfall has a number of design elements; namely a lip over which the water cascades, the nature of the cascade and the splash pool. "When designing a waterfall, the shape and angle of the rock over which the water flows over the lip may be adjusted to provide a variety of effects from splitting the flow to a threaded form. To create white water arrange for the initial cascade to fall onto a rock placed in its path and deflect the flow to the side. By breaking up the flow and controlling the direction of the flow into smaller cascades you may create a female fall. Place well-shaped rocks either side below the fall in the splash pool to create a visual frame for the cascade. The splash pool should be somewhat larger than the width of the fall, which itself should be no more than 1m high and 0.6m wide to produce a good balanced result [with reasonably powered pumps]. A structure that is too low and wide can all too easily resemble a dam and lack depth of view."

Dry waterfalls are not easy constructions and will generally tumble down steep slopes and be female in form. The one illustrated here tumbles down such a slope just below the mountain top kare-sansui garden of the Agon-shu Monastery. Adjacent to this is a raging torrent of a stream just out of shot [the wonders of hydro-power working on a mountain top!].

Lakes & Ponds

Lakes and ponds are generally formed by natural blockages to flowing water such as glacial moraines, natural or man-made dams, scrapes or basins with impermeable underlying strata. In both Chinese and Japanese culture lakes were seen for both their natural beauty and their recreational value as they are today. The ancient Chinese developed lakes as part of their pleasure gardens and used these for boating and water based ceremonies. The Japanese took up this idea of paradise gardens as portrayed in the "Willow Pattern" and some exist today at Byodo-in, Kinkaku-ji and Shagaku-in as statements of Imperial power. Many of these will inevitably be constructed from dammed streams. Others are shallow lakes designed such that the still waters would reflect the moon and add to the magic of poetry readings and other cultural evenings.

The picture shows the shallow South Pond at the Sento Gosho palace in Kyoto, which includes a cobble beach with views of the wisteria bridge and an arched bridge linking the island. "When planning a pond take note of the lie of the land, then shape your pond and position your islands, inflow and outflow in harmony with nature. It is good geomantic practice to ensure that any water flows from the Blue Dragon in the east to the White Tiger in the southwest. It is even more auspicious if the water flows under your garden house. Islands add to the lake-scape and may be used with effect to site a lantern, pine or acer. In smaller ponds it is sufficient if isolated rocks represent the islands. To create the effect of a wild seascape scatter a few rough pointed rocks along the shore of the pond with lines of rocks in the water roughly parallel to the shore with a few isolated rocks further out".

The picture shows the lily pond at the Heian Jingu shrine, a Meiji period stroll garden with pond, which has wonderful springtime displays of iris as well as the lotus. Whilst in nature, a dry lake would be seen as a polygonal mud cracked depression, the use of gravel to represent water as large flat expanses is widespread. The raking into patterns often illustrates waves. Ryoan-ji with its fifteen rocks set in a sea of gravel is a classic example, although I prefer the more dynamic garden of the Blissful Mountain at Zuiho-in as shown in the picture. Here the gravel is raked to display a greater energy. Raking patterns do not always reflect the natural motion of waves crashing into the foreshore; more often than not they describe a more abstract or geometric pattern.

Not everyone can build a lake and may have to accept a small pond as the only practical solution. A number of small ponds can be found in the gardens of Buddhist temples and represent the pond and hill style of garden as a smaller version of the grand lakeside stroll gardens of the aristocracy. These gardens are viewed from the temple veranda in the kneeling position and a number of examples of such gardens are to be found in the hills and mountains surrounding Kyoto. Joju-in, Chishaku-in and Sanzen-in at Ohara are good examples. They are largely Edo period gardens and have small hillside gardens behind the pond with mound clipped azaleas, pines, acers and plenty of moss. They utilise the natural woodland of the hillside to provide a backdrop to the garden in the Shakkei tradition. The picture shows the garden at the Joju-in sub temple of Kiyomizu-dera, in Kyoto.

One might argue that basins are indeed a water feature in the Japanese garden context. However there are many proprietary models available and their use in tea gardens is well documented - they are not featured here.

The use of water in a Japanese garden is important in both its natural and symbolic form as is rapidly becoming the case in the lush colourful gardens of England. Before building your own water feature look at its natural equivalent, consider the context of your own garden, build and enjoy for there is nothing like the delightful sounds of a bubbling stream or the reflections in still water of a treasured view to excite the senses.