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10 Japanese Garden Myths

Where are the cherry blossoms in the Garden? Where can I find your red bridge? You might be surprised to learn that a lot of what we think is a part of Japanese gardens, are usually misconceptions! Here are 10 myths that may surprise you about Japanese garden design.

a vibrant red bridge within a lush, green Chinese garden at a park located in Jurong East in Singapore.
A vibrant red bridge within a Chinese garden at a park located in Jurong East in Singapore.

10: Red Bridges

When picturing a Japanese garden in your mind, you might picture a beautiful red bridge over a pond filled with koi. But you may be surprised that these red bridges are not found in most Japanese gardens! Red bridges originate from China, and while some can be found in Japanese gardens, our idea of them generally stems from 'oriental gardens' in the west that were created in the early 1900s. These Gardens were created when westerners were just learning about eastern culture during the time of Madame Butterfly and world's fairs, and didn't yet understand the nuances that separated Japanese, Chinese, and Korean arts and architecture.


Cherry blossoms line a promenade in Tokyo park.
Cherry blossoms line a promenade in Tokyo park.

9: Cherry Blossoms

In another article (link) we explained why we don’t have cherry trees in our Garden (AZ heat!), but you may be surprised to learn that many Japanese gardens don't have cherry trees. Cherry trees are rarely found in Japanese gardens, generally because they are common in parks and public spaces, can be difficult to prune, and don't offer aesthetics that can be appealing in all four seasons.


The stone pagoda in the mountain area of the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.
The stone pagoda in the mountain area of the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.

8: Religion

While Japanese garden design and aesthetics have their roots in Shinto and later Buddhism, Japanese gardens are not meant to be sacred places like temples or shrines, or even promote any religion. Despite some religious iconography like lanterns or pagoda, these structures merely serve as landmarks and points of interest to draw guests to view or further explore a certain area, while perhaps nodding to the history of the origins of Japanese gardens.


The zig-zag bridge over the koi pond at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.
The zig-zag bridge over the koi pond at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.

7: Zig-Zag Bridge

Yatsu-hashi are common in many Japanese gardens in both Japan and the West. But have you ever heard about why the bridge is in a zig-zag shape? There is an old myth that explains how 'evil spirits' can only travel in straight lines and a zig-zag bridge protects the Garden. This is untrue, and it is unclear where this myth originated. Yatsu-hashi literally means 'eight bridges' alluding to 8 planks that are used in a zig-zag pattern (often over an iris bed). The zig-zag shape allows the guest to walk over the bridge and admire the scenery at multiple different viewpoints, a common tactic of Japanese garden design. The most common visual of yatsu-hashi is from the Story of Ise.


A lattice pattern raked in the karesansui or dry garden at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.
A lattice pattern raked in our karesansui.

6. Zen Garden

What is a Zen garden? The term is broad and pertains to many things, like gardens at Zen temples, minimalist gardens, spiritual gardens, or dry gardens. Gardens at Zen temples vary in usage and type, so a 'zen garden' can't be easily defined. So what do you call something with stone, sand or gravel raking, and minimal plants? That is a karesansui, or dry garden!


Yukimi-doro near the water's edge at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.
Yukimi-doro near the water's edge at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.

5. Snow Viewing Lantern

It is commonly thought that yukimi-doro is meant to display snow resting on its wide roof. Despite some spellings using the kanji yuki (雪, snow), the name of the lantern has nothing to do with snow! As language changes and evolves over time, meanings and spellings change, and the same happened with yuki-doro. It originated from 'uku' (to float). The yukimi-doro are meant to present a beautiful image that reflects onto the water, as if the image is floating.


Various calligraphy styles of the kokoro kanji, from more formal (left) to loose (right)..
Various calligraphy styles of the kokoro kanji, from more formal (left) to loose (right).

4. Kokoro Shaped Pond

Many Japanese gardens, including our own, have a 'kokoro' shaped pond. In Japanese, kokoro (心) means 'heart' or 'spirit.' This could imply or falsely indicate that the pond Is heart shaped, but in reality, all kokoro ponds are shaped in a very loose cursive shape of the kanji for kokoro.


Okita-san's (himeji garden designer)  famous waterfalls at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. This on eis located on the east side of the garden.
One of Okita-san's famous waterfalls at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.

3. the Flow of Water

Some Japanese gardens say that their water is designed to flow from east to west to 'wash away evil spirits.' Much like the yatsu-hashi myth, this myth is untrue. However, its origin is known. Feng shui beliefs and garden design in China discussed westward flowing water and some very early Japanese gardens did adopt this feature. However, most water features in Japanese gardens are built around aesthetics and sounds, and will flow depending on topography, as Japanese garden designers and builders try their best to work with nature, not against it.


An example of niwaki style pruning on one of our pines at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.
An example of niwaki style pruning on one of our pines.

2. Bonsai

While bonsai and suiseki are popular hobbies in Japan and the west, their beautiful yet charming miniaturized forms are not commonly found in Japanese gardens. Gardens can feature bonsai pavilions, and many gardens in Japan feature pavilions with bonsai over a hundred years old! But these are limited to pavilions, and are never found planted in the garden. Partially because bonsai (盆栽) means 'plant in a pot,' but also because their pruning techniques greatly differ. The pruned trees in our Garden use niwaki pruning techniques, and while similar to bonsai in terms of looks - the care, maintenance, and size of the plant greatly differ.


The kasuga-doro on a cliff overlooking the pond at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.
The kasuga-doro on a cliff overlooking the pond at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix.

1. Symbolism

It is a common misconception that everything in a Japanese Garden must have deeper symbolism or spiritual meaning. This could be because it is common to hear that everything in Japanese garden has purpose – and it does! The purpose of all of Japanese Garden design is not to create spiritualism or symbolism, but to curate a view, a sound, a smell, and a feeling while you're visiting.

What about the Pagoda that is in our mountain area? While the pagoda has roots in religion, in our Garden it serves as a viewing point, or a point of interest that you may want to explore when you see it from across the pond. What about the kasuga lantern? While it is a replication of the ones found in Nara and has its own rich history, for our garden, it serves as an enticing starting point for our guests to view the entire garden, and help set the tone for the time ahead. It also makes for a beautiful place to take a meaningful photo with friends, family, or loved ones.


 

Which myth have you heard of? Were there any that surprised you? Let us know in the comments below, and share these surprising truths with friends and family on your next visit to a Japanese garden!

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