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The elements of the Japanese Garden

Water symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Michel Tremblay)
Water, an important element in a Japanese garden
  • Water, an important element in a Japanese garden
  • Yukimi-gata lantern
  • Bridges
  • Serviceberry (zai furi boku)
  • Pine (matsu)
  • Nelumbo nucifera 'An Tou Chun'
  • Shrub peony (botan)
  • Horsetail (takusa)
  • Malus baccata var. mandshurica
  • Rhododendron (tsutsuji)
  • Koi


Water has a place of choice among the components of a Japanese garden.

It contributes to the expression of nature and symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity in the hereafter.

In a Sansui Japanese garden, that is, one containing elevations, various degrees are provided so that water can circulate.

Water is found in many forms. It accumulates in the ponds, runs in the streams or tumbles in the cascades.

The clear, circulating water contributes to keeping the air fresh throughout the summer.

The ponds and the cascades are given a precise orientation with respect to the sun to determine how it will be reflected by the water.

Some Japanese legends have compared the hill to an emperor, water to courtiers and the stones to valiant officers preventing the courtiers (the water) from intervening in the life of the emperor.


Stones are given special attention in Eastern philosophy.

A symbol of duration and of the omnipresence of the forces of the nature, they anchor the garden to the ground and give it its specific personality.

The stones are laid out in accordance with strict rules, depending on their shapes and sizes; they often are twinned by pairs and by style contrast (a male rock opposed to a female rock).

Stones create relief, produce hills and valleys giving birth to cascades, streams and ponds.

The type of stone to use is one of the most important element, in the design of a Japanese garden.

After much searching, designer-architect Ken Nakajima found in the asbestos mines of Thetford Mines (Québec) the stone he had seeked so much. An extremely rare stone, the peridotite, glazed of emerald-green serpentine, was chosen as a base, imparting a very special character to the garden.

The lantern

With the advent of the tea ceremony, the lantern became a leading element in the layout of a Japanese garden.

Originally intended to guide the visitors during nocturnal celebrations, its light was also considered as the light of knowledge clearing away the clouds of ignorance.

Sculptured in stone, the Yukimi-gata lantern, or snow lantern, which we can admire here is of current use. Placed near water it provides an architectural element which contrasts with the natural components of the garden.


Bridges are privileged sites in a Japanese garden, where one will linger and take in the beauty of the landscape, watch the carps swimming in their watery elements, and enjoy the softness of the breeze.

Bridges may be built of wood, bamboo, earth or stone. Whether they are rounded, arc-shaped or in zigzags, they always remain in harmony with the surrounding nature.


The Japanese show a natural ability to interpret the charm of plants and flowers in order to express their joys and pains. Their communion with nature manifests itself through an elaborate symbolism and that is why their interest for the plant realm has become a real passion.

Plants are associated with moving thoughts and the universal forms of life.

The care given to plants in a Japanese garden is like that given to bonsai trees: living plants are shaped to the exact form needed fot the symbolic or graphic effect one desires.

Serviceberry (zai-furi boku)

In spring, the serviceberry is a charming sight, with its masses of white flowers. It is considered a symbol of youth in Japan.

In fall, it is remarkable for its gold and scarlet foliage and tiny blue berries.

Winter is the perfect backdrop for the silvery bark of the serviceberry, whose year-round attractions make it one of the stars of this garden.

Pine (matsu)

Our pine trees are pruned regularly, to keep their shapes in harmony with the surroundings. Some have an airy silhouette with widespread branches, others are dense and compact, while still others lean over as if battered by the wind.

The pine grove next to the Pavilion adds to the intimacy of the Garden. It creates a quiet, cosy screen that shields visitors from outside distractions.

Japanese maple (momiji)

The Japanese maple is much appreciated for its lacy leaves and magnificent autumn colours, making it a favourite in Japanese garden design.

The Japanese maples in this garden are taken indoors when winter comes, and brought back outdoors in spring, to spare them the rigours of our Montreal winters.

They are gradually being replaced with Amur maples, a hardier species. The Amur maples are allowed to grow naturally, without pruning, as is the practice with momiji in Japan.

Lotus (hasu)

The lotus, or "flower of Buddha", is considered a divine and sacred plant. Resting on the placid surface of the pond, it is a perfect aid to contemplation.

The lotus flower, with its lovely, huge corolla, blooms in summer to offer a fleeting vision of delicate shades of pink and white.

Unlike the water lily, which floats on the surface, the lotus is supported by a strong stem anchored in the bottom of the pond.

Iris (airisu)

Irises are important members of this garden. They flower from late May to mid-July, in soft tones of pink, blue and white.

Many species of iris are represented here, including Iris ensata or hana-shobu, remarkable for its huge flowers. The delicacy and graceful bearing of this plant are perfect examples of the quest for simple and refined beauty in Japanese art.

Shrub peony (botan)

Shrub peonies originated in China and were introduced to Japan in the 8th century. They flower in late spring.

A huge variety of peony cultivars has been obtained by hybridization. Their flowers, in hues of pink, mauve and yellow, last only a few days.

These plants require considerable attention and winter protection. Peonies are a symbol of prosperity, because at one time only wealthy Japanese could afford to have them in their gardens.

Horsetail (takusa)

This plant is native to Québec and lives in marshy environments. Here it is grown as a substitute for bamboo, which is often featured in Japanese gardens, but is not hardy enough to withstand the harsh Montréal winters.

The horsetail's simple, pure lines make it a clever stand-in for masses of bamboo, allowing the Garden to preserve its Oriental feeling.

Horsetail is also frequently used in Japanese floral art, ikebana.

Crabapple (hime-ringo)

The crabapple's abundant white and pink flowers in spring symbolize youth and renewal.

Here it has been used instead of Japanese cherry, which is not hardy enough to withstand the extreme temperatures of the Montréal climate.

In Japan, people celebrate the arrival of spring with annual picnics, ohanami, beneath flowering cherry trees. We have perpetuated this tradition in Montréal, under the flowering crabapples in the Japanese Garden.

Rhododendron (tsutsuji)

In springtime, the Japanese Garden is ablaze with the bright pinks, reds, purples and whites of rhododendron blossoms. These charming flowers, with their delicate petals, symbolize fragile and ephemeral beauty.

In summer, the flowers give way to the waxy and lustrous foliage of certain cultivars. The use of compact specimens makes it possible to create varying heights and depths, and the illusion of a miniature mountainous and wooded landscape.

In Japan, azaleas and their more delicate foliage are preferred to rhododendrons, since they are more tolerant of pruning.


Japan is a country where a large population leaves little land available for flower gardens.

The Japanese, therefore, have found places to grow living flowers, the colored carps.

They appeared in Japan many centuries ago and the Japanese have crossbred them for over 100 years, producing carps of high value. Contests are held and the carps are judged according to the number of spots, variety of colors, patterns on their bodies and types of scales.

Indispensable inhabitants in the pond of any Japanese garden, carp bring a flash of colour to the shallow waters.

These "living flowers" are very popular in Japan, and are even entered in competitions, where they are judged on their colours and patterns and the quality of their scales.

Carps can live for up to 50 years. In Japanese culture, they are a symbol of strength and perseverance.

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