The Landscape Guide

Timeline: Japanese garden design history

From ancient times the Japanese had a design tradition which involved composition with stones and water. They also made gardens, but what form they took is not known. The history of surviving Japanese gardens is of the introduction of Buddhist and Taoist ideas from China, in the 7th century AD, and of how these garden design ideas were adapted to the context of Japan and its ancient religion (Shinto). Since knowledge of Japanese gardens began to reach the west, they have become amazingly popular so that there are now far more Japanese gardens outside Japan than Chinese gardens outside China. In some ways, this parallels the popularity of Zen Buddhism outside Japan - and it should be remembered that Buddhism has been a profound influence on Japanese gardens.

645 Emperor Kotoku decides to adopt Buddhism and base his new capital (Naniwa, now Osaka) on Chang'an. and using Fung Shui principles.

612 Ono-no-Imoko visited China as an emissary from Japan (see chronology of Chinese gardens). This was the starting point for the development of a Buddhist approach to gardens in Japan.

710 Nara became the Japanese capital, with its design was based on Chang'an. The capital moved 30 miles to Kyoto in 794, with the design again based on Chang'an, where it remained until Tokyo became the capital in 1868.

753 the Chinese Buddhist teacher Jianzhen (Ganjin) arrived in Japan with a team of craftsmen and gardeners. They built the Toshodai-ji Temple.

1000 The Tale of Genji gives a detailed picture of life in the aristocratic garden courts of Kyoto (see website devoted to Tale of Genji).

c1100 Sakutei-ki (notes on the making of gardens) published with detailed, if enigmatic, advice on how to make a distinctively Japanese Buddhist garden. The author was a gentleman, a scholar and a dignitary in the Kyoto court. (see translation by Jiro Takei & Marc Peter Keane)

1191 A monk, Eisai, brought Chan teaching (Zen in Japanese) and the tea ceremony from China to Japan.

1342 Foundation of the Tenryu-Ji (Temple of the Celestial Dragon) in Kyoto as a base for the Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastry, which made stone compositions.

1339 Design of the Saiho-ji Temple (also known as the Kokedera or Moss Temple) which has the oldest surviving stone composition. Like Tenryu-ji, where the stones are more 'raised', it was made after renewed contact with China.

1333-1573 Muromachi Period - a high point in the influence of Zen Buddhism and the making of Ryoan-ji, the Gold Pavilion and the Silver Pavilion. The tea ceremony developed by Zen monks and led to the making of a tea garden as a path, often with stepping stones and stone lanterns, to a tea ceremony room which could be used after dark. They were a peaceful contrast with the strife of sixteenth century Japan.

1568-1600 Azuchi-Momoyama Period - this is when the tea ceremony and the wabi-sabi aesthetic became significant factors in garden design. There are good examples of tea pavilions at Kodaiji, built in memory of Hideyoshi Toyotomi by his wife.

1603- 1867 Edo Period - the design ideas underlying the tea garden came to be used on a palatial scale, resulting in the stroll garden, with carefully composed sequences of landscape views.  The emperor’s brother, Prince Toshihito,  made the most brilliant example of the style at what is now the Katsura Imperial Villa 

1868-1912 Meijii Period - the stroll garden style was adopted by the rising class of industrialists and merchants who became the new holders of wealth and power. The best examples are in Tokyo eg Rikugien, Old Furukawa, Kiyosumi, Kyu Iwasaki-tei 

1926–1989 Shōwa period - as the first East Asian country to industrialize, Japan was also the first to make contact with International Modernism. Rarely has a seed fallen on more fertile ground. Zen Buddhism had long fostered an abstract approach to art and design. Buildings, led by the Katsura Palace, were austere and disciplined. Zen gardens abstracted the ‘essence’ of mountains, water and natural principles. Modernist designers from the west found highly developed precedents for the style they were working towards.


Religious Influence, Class Influence and Design Practice in Japanese Garden History


Religious influence

Class influence

Design Practice




Not known




By Chinese designers


Pure Land Buddhism


By nobles

Kamakura and Muromachi

Zen Buddhism

Military (Shogun)

By priests

Edo and Meijii



By professional designers


An estimated 80% of Japan's historic gardens are in Kyoto