The traditional Japanese garden combines the best of nature with a human touch. Serenity and harmony are touchstones of this landscape at its best, and that combination of elements creates a sanctuary from the hectic pace of modern life. Japanese landscapes may appear formal or unstudied; spacious or as a mere courtyard. However, most landscapes incorporate established devices to intrigue, calm, entertain or provoke as desired, along carefully laid out pathways.
The Japanese Courtyard Garden
Small, enclosed spaces are especially suited to tsuboniwa, or courtyard gardening. In such narrow confines, the Japanese gardener never fills up the space, but decorates it and makes it useful and harmonious with the house. Ordinary white pea gravel, laid as a base, highlights "island" mounds of soft mosses and stone "mountains." The addition of a bamboo fence or living bamboo "forest" in the background, seen from a window, is all that is necessary to create the subtle wind, light and seasonal elements important to Japanese gardens. A stone lantern, or a tsukubi, (a small water trough or stone basin) with a drinking ladle adds the human touch that balances nature and makes the space utilitarian as well as peaceful.
The Tea Garden Entry
While you do not need to build an actual teahouse to create this landscape, you can use the concept to an advantage to make a tranquil entrance to your home. Build a curving tobi-ishi stepping stone path to the door (perhaps with a short branching path to a stone basin for ceremonial hand washing). Make use of gravel around the stones of the path or use low plants--mosses or other ground cover, such as creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) or moss sandwort (Arenaria verna caespitosa). For height near house walls, try Japanese Cyprus (Chamaecyparis obtuse), little-leaf box (Buxus microphylla), and camellia bushes (Camelia japonica). A simple wooden or stone bench placed in an alcove at right angles to the door, evokes the traditional place of waiting for tea ceremony guests. A yukimi-gata lantern (traditionally associated with water features) placed near the basin, adds light and another conventional Japanese element.
Getting There by Curious Paths
No Japanese landscape is complete without the zigzagging and meandering paths that connect the house and other features together. Add an element of surprise by twisting a path back on itself to reveal a view, or a secluded bench hidden beyond a dense planting of azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), lilac (Syringa vulgaris), or Japanese house hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). For dramatic impact, give an abrupt stop to a straight path of square-edged slabs (fitted closely together to concentrate focus on the stone). Allow it to resume with a curving stepping stone path, lined on one side with bamboo--each stone nestled softly in a sea of haircap moss (Polytrichum commune), or use a short section of wooden slats flanked in ground-hugging blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis wiltoni) or dwarf satsuki azalea (Azalea gumpo) to suggest a bridge through a dense forest.