Japanese Garden Design – Dry Water

Dry water is very common in Japanese gardens, and it is very eye catching too. Wait a minute, I can hear you questioning the term ‘dry water’- it’s a contradiction in terms isn’t it? Well, YES and NO! And it’s the NO part I am going to concentrate on in this small article. But let me clarify the rules of water sources and features in these specific types of gardens.

Water sources in these types of gardens should appear as natural as possible and blend in with the surroundings. Fountains do not exists in Japanese gardens, waterfalls yes, but fountains no. They are man made and not ‘natural’ in appearance. Don’t get me wrong I am not ‘fountainist’ it’s just with Japanese gardens there are certain rules that have to be observed. If you really wanted a fountain in a Japanese garden, it’s not a heinous crime but your garden would not be wholly authentic!

Streams- nearly always man-made are a big part of Japanese gardening, they often are built with curves giving them a more natural appearance. The positioning of lanterns is more often than not by streams or ponds within a garden. This represents the female and the male elements of ‘water’ and ‘fire’.

This concept is known in Japanese tradition as YIN and YANG. Any stream in a Japanese garden will have deliberate imperfections designed into it, so as to give the ‘water’ a ‘natural’ look and an organic feel. The shapes of ponds must also look natural for this reason as well.

Water is never placed in the centre of the garden- particularly ponds. these will often have larger stones within them to simulate islands. Sometimes it is common for them to have a smallish waterfall. The use of stones is always very structural and symmetrical. This also applies to the all varieties of oriental gardens.

OK, that’s the wet stuff out of the way. Let’s move onto the concept and usage of ‘Dry Water’ in Zen gardens. In Zen gardens it is fairly straight forward- sand is used to replicate water and this makes smaller landscape reproductions far easier. A Zen garden will more often than not show a miniature landscape with mounds for mountains and sand to depict water. The sand is raked to give it’s ‘watery’ appearance and can be raked in different styles over and over again.

In Japanese gardens ‘Dry water’ is featured more often than not in ‘Karesansui’ gardens. It’s one of the most popular types you can visit or attempt to design and build and in the English language it means ‘Dry mountain stream’. These types of Japanese gardens are know simply as ‘Dry’ gardens and are heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. They are peaceful, simple and waterless- rocks are used to symbolise land masses and the ‘Dry water’ -or- SAND/GRAVEL is raked to make it look like the sea or a large body of water. Brilliantly clever and with meaning too.

Many hundreds of years ago this type of garden was built by ‘Senzui Kawarami’ in a simple English translation this means ‘Mountain, Stream and Riverbed people’. They were master craftsmen by trade and vocation and specialised in building these stunning Zen influenced gardens. It is generally accepted by Scholars that these types of gardens design originated in China as does a good deal of Japanese garden history and influences. But that is another story…

Zen style gardens are becoming more and more popular in the Western world. People love the idea of gravel, rocks, some low level plantings and an ornate Japanese stone lantern adding peace and traquility to their yard or garden at home. They are not that difficult to create and my book ’11 Simple Ways To Turn Your Garden Japanese’ will give you lots of ideas that you can get on with almost immediately. You can claim a complimentary copy at my website:


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