Japanese Garden - Design Delights

I have long been fascinated with all things Japanese. As a landscape designer, our Seattle Japanese Garden has a special draw. The calm quiet of this garden provides an acute contrast to the devastating images of the earthquake and tsunami destruction in Japan, and I believe the heroic composure the Japanese have shown under extreme duress may be rooted in their deep connection to nature.

Design Principles in our Seattle Japanese Garden

The essence of the Japanese Garden is a tranquil sanctuary set apart from the outer world, in which one contemplates, communes and ultimately is transformed by nature as expressed inside the garden. Our own Seattle Japanese Garden, located in the UW Botanical Gardens is a fine illustration--a quiet respite tucked just off busy Lake Washington Blvd East. A 3 ½ acre garden, designed and constructed under the supervision of the world-renowned Japanese garden designer Juki Iida, it was completed in 1960. The Seattle Japanese Garden, one of the finest outside of Japan, celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2010.

The garden is built in the “stroll” style, where the visitor must walk the garden to experience it. In Japanese garden making, people are a ‘harmonious component’--as the garden is viewed from different vantages, they are invited to appreciate the features anew, the depth of the garden is revealed and by so engaging, the outer world is transcended.

The principle of “hide and reveal” intrinsic in this garden creates mystery, discovery and delight. The surface of the path intentionally orchestrates the traveler’s pace, perhaps uneven to slow it so that one sees the details, then a larger stone or bench inviting one to linger and discern.

Experiencing Time and the Seasons

The Japanese reverence for nature is experienced in the celebration of seasons and at the same time the acknowledgement of longevity. Rocks and evergreen plants give the garden its permanence, structure against which the seasonal plants display the fleeting change of seasons and the passing of time. The ceaseless movement of water is another portrayal of time and continuity, as are the tortoise and crane. (Juki Iida, the garden’s designer, personally selected 580 large granite rocks from Snoqualmie Pass for installation in the garden.)


This principle is distilling to its essence and evoking nature with a few carefully chosen and orchestrated pieces. This again relies on the observer to engage by contemplating, interpreting, and filling in the details. The water in Seattle’s Japanese Garden’s lake brings to mind the sea and the rock and islands, miniatures of Japan. There is lore of mystical islands which floated until the Ruler of the Universe commanded that giant tortoises support them on their backs, and hence you may see in our Turtle Island the head, flippers or shape of the tortoise. The Pines suggest cranes; the weathered lantern, mankind’s presence.


To create a world apart, a world of natural serenity, enclosure is essential. Here walls and fence provide the separation, as well as a unifying element. And the gate is the threshold into this quiet world of calm, the place where one leaves worries and bustle behind in preparation to enter.

Borrowed Landscape

Shakkei, literally “nature which is captured alive,” is the technique of selectively including aspects of the outer world, while intentionally blocking others. It can be the nearby tree just on the other side of a fence or a mountain view carefully framed. Although borrowed landscape gives the impression of a larger space, when done to good effect, it heightens the feeling of enclosure.

Balance & Unity

The Japanese spirit of balance is an asymmetrical weighting of elements. A classic example is the placement of stone – a large rock visually balanced by two carefully placed smaller ones. Intrinsic in this form of balance is contrast, “in and yo” (in Chinese yin and yang). The use of light and dark, water and stone, linear and serpentine, and verdant green plants against the masculine strength of rock all balance each other. Balance is one aspect of unity. Water, rock, fences, repeating plants or even shapes serve to unify the garden, underlining the effect of a world apart.

Our Seattle Japanese Garden is a unique local treasure. When you go, take your time and become a `harmonious component’

To support & send relief to our Japanese neighbors, I suggest seattlejapanrelief.com

Leanne has over 29 years of experience of working closely with clients to create unique and imaginative gardens.

She has co-created gardens in four Northwest Flower & Garden Shows, receiving several awards, including Gold in 2013. If you would like to see some of these concepts fulfilled in your landscape contact her today at 206.948.1601.