Moss and Other Types of Gardens in Japan

Japanese gardens, referred to as nihon teien by the locals, are the places for visitors not to have a picnic during the autumn/spring season, walk their dogs, get some shade under a tree, or randomly pick free flowers from their stems for the sake of a photo.

They are regarded as a form or traditional Japanese art that perfectly show the philosophical beliefs of the community in an aesthetically pleasing manner. These gardens are designed to highlight the natural characteristics of the area and are not designed to include any artificial ornaments.

Furthermore, Japanese gardens typically feature worn and aged items as a means to create a sense of nostalgia, reminiscent of the ancient times. The use of such materials and plants also symbolize the unstoppable passing of time and existence.

Brief History of Japanese Gardens

According to records, Japanese gardens can be traced back to the Asuka Period when local businessmen with transactions in China took notice of their gardens. They made it a point to bring the concept back with them for their home country and intently observed the gardening techniques and styles used by the Chinese people.The first appearance of Japanese gardens in Japan was at its central island, Honshu.

Paying tribute to the natural beauty of Honshu, the designers made sure to incorporate its distinct characteristics such as narrow valleys, rugged volcanic peaks, waterfalls, small stone beaches, lakes, evergreen trees, and an abundance of flower varieties into the aesthetics of the gardens.

Shinto and Buddhist beliefs also greatly influenced the design of Japanese gardens in terms of symbolism, tales, and what was pleasing to the gods and goddesses. Depending on how they were used, certain items served as representations of concepts such as purity, strength, and stability. The connection between the different aspects of a Japanese garden often portrays a particular story.

Moss and Japanese Gardens

In recent years, moss has become quite a popular item that many people around the world find interesting, so much so that they have started incorporating it into nearly everything possible.

Always ahead of the game, Japan is among the handful of countries that have been obsessed with moss before everybody else. In fact, many Japanese gardens serve as a testament to the local community’s fascination with the green, flowerless plant.

For the Japanese people, the presence of moss in gardens makes the entire vicinity look even more aged and gives the landscape an untouched feel. There are also numerous Japanese gardens that primarily make use of moss to create an entirely green area that exudes life and harmony.

Saihoji – Kyoto’s Temple with Over 100 Japanese Moss Garden Plants

By Ivanoff~commonswiki (Self-photographed) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned, moss is not a mystery to the Japanese people. In fact, the country houses what many regard as the Moss Temple, which dates back to the year 1339 and features over a hundred different kinds of moss scattered all throughout its entirety.

The official name of this temple is Saihoji, but it is also sometimes referred to as Kokedera. It is among the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in Kyoto, Japan and attracts countless visitors on an annual basis.

Some of the things to expect at the temple include a dry garden, a pond garden, and a tea room. Exploring the whole complex usually takes about ninety minutes. Given the popularity of the temple, tourists need to book a reservation at least a week before their visit.

Reservations are made through postal mail and should include the following:

  • Name and address of group representative

  • Number of people in the group

  • Date of visit

  • Stamped return post card with address

  • International reply coupon

The temple will be sending a reply with the approved date and time to the self-addressed return post card several days after. Visitors must bring this to the temple as proof before paying an admission fee of 3,000 yen per person.

Address: Saihoji Temple, 56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, 615-8286, Japan

Kokedama (Japanese Moss Ball Garden Design) – DIY and Finding One For Sale

By La Florida studio (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In line with the growing popularity of moss plants, Japan has also come up with a relatively new concept known as kokedama, which literally translates to mean “a moss ball” in English.

The kokedama basically serves as a small moss garden which any person can keep at nurture inside his home. Some people refer to it as the lower class man’s bonsai, given its similarities to the care and maintenance of the trayed plant.

Many other countries have also adopted the idea, making it easily accessible to interested in for foreigners. For those who want to get a little crafty, the following materials and instructions are all it takes to create a DIY kokedama ball:


  • String

  • Scissors

  • Water

  • Spray bottle

  • Gloves

  • Bucket

  • Newspaper

  • Dry floral moss

  • Akadama (heavy clay-based soil)

  • Preferred plant (avoid succulents)


  1. Soak the dry moss in a bucket of water for about an hour.

  2. Gather the materials, put on the gloves, and prepare the workspace by covering it with some newspaper.

  3. After the moss has moistened, squeeze out any excess water from it then set it aside.

  4. Gradually add water to the akadama until it turns into a moldable mixture.

  5. Mold the akadama mixture into a ball.

  6. Remove the chosen plant from its pot/container and gently dust off the soil from the roots.

  7. Make a hole in the akadama ball which should be able to hold the roots of the chosen plant.

  8. Mold the akadama ball around the roots and base stem of the chosen plant.

  9. Press the moist moss all over the akadama ball. Use some string to keep the moss wrapped around the akadama ball.

  10. Fix the entire thing on a piece of wood or place in a container.

Other Types/Styles of Japanese Gardens

At present, Japanese gardens remain significant to many shrines and temples. Different kinds of gardens have been developed over time to portray various images, morals, and ideas.

Chisen shoyu teien

Chisen shoyu teien, or shinden zukuri, refers to Japanese pond gardens. The concept was brought into Japan from China during the Heian Period. The distinct features of this style of garden include a massive, ornate building with two main wings, an equally large lake, and a lovely garden.

One wing of the building had its own pavilion where visitors could stay and enjoy breathtaking views of the wide lake where several small islands were situated in. Small boats were also available at these gardens for visitors to explore the vicinity in style.

At present, there are no longer any original chisen shoyu teien gardens that exist in Japan but tourists can see reconstructions of these at the Daikakuji Temple and Heian Jingu Temple of Kyoto.

The Paradise Garden

The Paradise Garden is a style that was developed by nobles from the Amida Buddhist Sect towards the end of the Heian Period. As implied by its name, the design of this garden is meant to represent the Pure Land or Paradise (Jodo).

According to the teachings of Buddhism, the Jodo was where Buddha sat for a long period of time contemplating the lotus pond. Some of the characteristics often included in the design of Paradise Gardens include an arched bridge, a lake, and a main hall.

Existing Japanese gardens that follow this style are Iwaki City’s Shiramizu Amidado Garden, Hiraizumi’s Motsuji Temple, Kyoto’s Hokongoin, Nara’s Enroji Temple, Kyoto’s Joruriji Temple, and Uji’s Byodoin Temple.


Public Domain

Karesansui gardens, or better known as Japanese rock gardens, grew in popularity during the fourteenth century courtesy of Muso Soseki, a famous Buddhist monk known for building the Zen gardens of Kyoto’s major monasteries.

Compared to other Japanese gardens, karesansui gardens primarily make use of sand instead of bodies of water. Furthermore, rarely any flowers or plants are incorporated in the design, excluding the use of moss. Carefully arranged rocks are scattered across the sand.

The purpose of these gardens is to encourage the practice of meditating by providing a serene place. Given the nature of these gardens, they are not allowed to be explored by visitors. Instead, tourists may sit on a nearby porch and simply take in the harmonious view.

Popular karesansui gardens in Kyoto, Japan include those of Daisen-in, Zuiho-in, Rosan-ji, and Ryoan-ji.


Roji gardens served as the primary setting for Japanese tea ceremonies (chanoyu) during the Muromachi Period and Momoyama Period. As such, they are also referred to as tea gardens.

This garden style is aptly named “roji” after the path leading to a tea house of the same name. This path is believed to help guests of the tea house set themselves in a state of meditation before entering the actual building.

Common elements used by this roji path include an outer gate (for guests to wait for the host’s invitation), an inner gate (for guests to rinse their mouth and wash their hands), and plenty of green plants and moss. Roji gardens basically follow the same concept and feature similar designs.

Gardens that follow this style are perfect for tourists who want to explore a calming environment, sip some tea, and munch on a few light snacks. Some notable tea gardens in Japan include the Kentoku-en Garden, the Urakuen Teahouse, the Keishun-in Tea Garden, and the tea garden of Isu Jingu.

Kaiyu shiki teien

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Kaiyu shiki teien are also known as promenade gardens. They are basically landscaped gardens that feature a go-round style meant for visitors to explore in a clockwise direction. This style was developed during the Edo Period and was initially created to complement the villas and residences of Japan’s warlords and nobles.

The majority of these gardens make use of a technique referred to as shakkei to attract visitors and make the area look larger than it actually is. Shakkei basically makes use of the surrounding environment to create an illusion of the garden being a part of something bigger. The design of kaiyu shiki teien gardens is done with the idea of creating different scenes in mind.

Other gardens of this style, on the other hand, make use of a technique known as miegakure, which is a hide-and-reveal concept that requires designers to make use of fences, bamboo, and other elements to keep certain areas out of view until visitors reach the exact point the place looks particularly breathtaking.  

There are also several kaiyu shiki teien gardens that make use of both techniques to effectively recreate popular scenes from Japanese literature (Tale of Genji), iconic Japanese landmarks (Mt. Fuji), and other images (Mandala).

Some highly recommended gardens designed in this manner include the Suizen-ji Joju-en Garden, the Koshikawa Korakuen Garden, the Shugaku Imperial Villa, and the Katsura Imperial Villa.

Tsubo niwa

Tsubo niwa refers to the small gardens located inside Japanese courtyards and palaces during the Heian Period. The purpose of these gardens is to bring in some nature into the building without disrupting its sense of privacy. As such, these gardens were rarely explored and were simply looked at.

Over time, shops, households, restaurants, public places, and hotel resorts started using tsubo niwa gardens as part of their architectural and interior design. Kyoto’s Murin-an Villa serves as a perfect example of this garden style.

Other Elements Used in Japanese Gardens – Water, Rocks, Sand, Etc.

Every part of the Japanese garden plays an important role in the overall design of the vicinity and goes far beyond aesthetics. Given the relatively small space for designers to work with when creating a Japanese garden, choosing the correct elements to make a statement or to capture the interest of the public is incredibly crucial.

Some of the most common things seen at Japanese gardens include:


Water is always present at Japanese gardens, be it a large lake or a creatively placed stream. According to local belief, bodies of water are meant to attract good fortune and represent the continuous flow of life, regardless of obstacles that may appear.

Sand and Rocks

Sand and rocks are commonly used in Zen Buddhism to promote meditations. Depending on the way they are used or arranged, these elements may be used to symbolize things such as heaven, earth, Buddha, ancestral spirits, humanity, and spontaneity.

Trees and Flowers

Trees and flowers are a given when it comes to any garden. However, Japanese gardens do not allow designers to just choose random varieties. Every detail of the trees and flowers need to be thought of ahead of time in order to ensure everything comes along together well.

Regular maintenance is also a must to avoid certain trees or plants from growing too high or too thick, so much so that they might block the view of other areas.


Fish, particularly goldfish and colored carp (nishiki goi), serve as decorative elements and lucky charms when it comes to Japanese gardens. According to Chinese beliefs, fish breeds like these attract success and prosperity.


Bridges were first incorporated into the design of Japanese gardens during the Heian Period. As in real life, the bridges in gardens are meant to connect one place to another; i.e. immortality and paradise. Some bridge types used for Japanese gardens include wooden, stone, moss-covered, flat, and arched.

Stone Water Basins

Stone water basins, known as tsukubai in Japan, were initially used in Japanese tea gardens as a means for visitors to rinse their mouth and wash their hands before entering the main building. At present, many Japanese gardens continue to include the concept of their design for its original purpose or for aesthetics.

Stone Lanterns

Stone lanterns, or dai doro, were only present at Buddhist temples, particularly along the paths that led to the main hall, during the Nara and Heian Periods. According to the teachings of Buddhism, these lanterns represent cosmology’s five elements that describe life, death, and beyond. Over time, Shinto shrines and tea gardens started including them into their designs as well.