17 Japanese Garden Ideas to Inspire Your Garden Revamp

Japanese garden ideas with sofa against field background
Discover an extensive range of Japanese-inspired products available from Go Modern Furniture (Image credit: Go Modern Furniture)

Japanese garden ideas can help refresh any outside area. With spring right around the corner, now is the perfect time to get inspired by garden styles from Japan, which are among the most artistic in the world.

Able to trace their roots back through the centuries, Japanese garden ideas embrace ancient traditions, reflecting a vibrant culture that still thrives today. Whether your plot is vast or cosy, Japanese garden design ideas offer ways of lifting it to an entirely new level of serenity.

Here, we provide 17 of our favourite Japanese garden ideas to inspire your own landscaping project.

1. Incorporate Natural Stone Into Your Design

Natural stone for Japanese garden ideas

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All the best Japanese garden ideas feature a generous scattering of natural stone. From minimalist zen rock gardens to giant boulders nestled among trees, including different stone types throughout your garden will give it an authentic feel straight out of Japan.

Start small at first, with clearly marked areas of gravel and/or shale, which will emulate the landscape of a traditional Buddhist temple. Then, gradually, bring in bigger shapes, and add planting to bring in colour. 

If you’re wondering how else you can use natural stone to showcase the best of your new Japanese garden, check out our smart landscaping tips.

2. Find the Magic in Moss

Clumps of wild moss on soil

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Moss is a simple yet effective groundcover plant that brings vivid verdancy to your garden without much maintenance. Many of the lush green landscapes people often associate with Japan occur because of natural moss, and leaving it to grow freely in some areas of your garden will result in a forest-like blanket reminiscent of the best Japanese garden ideas.

If your garden has any moist, shady areas that could do with livening up a bit, remember that these are ideal habitats for moss. 

However, there are areas where this plant is perhaps less welcome. If you’ve laid a wooden deck recently, make sure you learn how to clean decking first, so that moss doesn’t seep into the raw material; otherwise, you’ll be needing replacement planks or boarding before long.

3. Frame Garden Views With 'Shakkei'

Japanese style sofa against field background

Sofa available from Go Modern Furniture's selection of Japanese-style pieces (Image credit: Go Modern Furniture)

A key concept in Japanese gardening, ‘shakkei’, which translates roughly as ‘borrowed landscape’, is vital to the composition of any outdoor space. 

It comprises four categories: distant borrowing (from the landscape beyond the garden), adjacent borrowing (from neighbouring features), upward borrowing (from clouds, sky, etc.), and downward borrowing (from rocks, leaves, earth and so on).

Shakkei uses every direction of your garden’s surrounding landscape to inform its design and enhance your garden’s overall appearance.

To embrace shakkei, first start thinking about the view from your garden. What lies beyond and around its immediate vicinity? If you happen to see any trees or vistas that grab your attention, frame them when incorporating your Japanese garden ideas. This can help also help your garden to feel larger (as shown above).

For urban gardens without far-reaching views or those surrounded by neighbouring homes, look inwards — use pergolas or structures to add privacy but that also frame the sky whilst sitting beneath them. 

4. Breathe New Life With Bonsai Trees

Bonsai tree in blue pot with stones

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Bonsai trees hold a special place in Japanese garden ideas. Representing harmony in life and the balance of nature, most Japanese gardens are adorned with these miniature trees, which help create a zen-like ambience.

Select a few bonsais for your garden, but keep in mind that they should be spaced as far apart as possible. This will help spread the tranquil effect the bonsai tree is known for, while maintaining equilibrium from end to end of your plot.

Although bonsai trees are quite hardy, British winters can still do them harm — not from the cold itself, which they're usually very resilient against, but through dehydration caused by the soil around their roots freezing and ceasing to function. To preserve your bonsais all year round, make sure you take them indoors ahead of any forecasted frosts.

5. Create Your Own Courtyard Area

Courtyard with gold leafed tree and garden furniture

(Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

There has always been an air of intimacy about Japanese gardens. Those found in tea houses were designed as retreats, far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, while strolling gardens served as extended spaces fit for quiet contemplation. Introducing a courtyard can be a means of creating

Developing your own courtyard area will typically involve isolating a select portion of your outdoor space. The edge of your home may act as a natural boundary line, and perhaps consider ordering some small garden furniture, like tables, chairs, pouffes, etc., on which to rest and reflect in comfort.

6. Add Bamboo for Screening and Privacy

Wooden bamboo beds with stalks growing inside

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Bamboo is the quickest way to embrace Japanese garden ideas. The rustling of leaves and swaying of tall shoots make bamboo the perfect candidate for your Japanese gardening project, either as an accent plant or a privacy screen.

Bamboo can actually be grown in raised beds, nowhere near your other plants, so you don't need to worry about it getting out of control. In fact, this method of cultivation also allows you to shape your bamboo. 

The plant can also easily be incorporated with rocks and stones to complement a traditional zen garden.

7. Use Teak and Other Dark Stained Woods

Dark wood fence with low sofa in garden

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Dark wood commonly occurs throughout Japanese garden ideas. Going back all the way to the Classical Period, it’s important to note that the first Japanese landscaping efforts took place in dwellings near mountains, trees and rivers — in short, places where people felt most connected to nature. As such, their aim was to beautify domestic outdoor spaces while still maintaining an overall natural aesthetic.

By using teak and other dark woods in your Japanese-inspired garden, you’ll be highlighting its raw beauty with authentic materials. It can provide a good backdrop for planting and garden furniture too. 

Paint can be used to achieve this look with more inexpensive softwood. The best exterior wood paint for this job type will have a dark tone that preserves the wood’s original pigment as much as possible; alternatively, a strong coat of varnish can work just as well.

8. Consider Your Outdoor Lighting Options

Outdoor dandelion light near flowers and grass

Give your Japanese-style garden the glow it deserves with features from Sparkle Lighting (Image credit: Sparkle Lighting)

Think Japanese gardens look beautiful by day? Wait until the sun goes down! In bygone centuries, braziers, candles, and even firefly nests were used as natural light sources to help illuminate outside areas. Now, though, more modern outdoor lighting solutions are available to help you achieve the same effect. 

Outdoor lighting for Japanese garden ideas should be spread evenly throughout the space, so everything stays well-balanced. 

The more environmentally conscious homeowner may also opt for garden solar lights, which do a wonderful job of mimicking the signature moonglow often associated with nights in Japan.

9. Contrast Light and Dark With Your Paving

Light and dark paving slabs with green hedges

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Something of a yin-yang relationship, the ideal paving for Japanese garden ideas will contrast light and dark tones. This is due to the balance between forces that underpins Japanese landscape gardening as a rule.

For garden paving ideas suited to Japanese gardens, make sure you alternate the contrast of your slabs between light and dark, so that each one stands on its own and yet successfully remains part of the whole. Don’t worry about changing materials, though, as the effect of this disharmony is a subtle one that needs careful attention.

10. A Water Feature Is a Must in a Japanese-Inspired Garden

Water feature with stones and grass around it

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Among the most important components of any Japanese garden, water symbolises renewal, calm, and a sense of wonder at the natural world.

If you think your outdoor area could use more water, and you have the space to do so, why not install a pond, or a similar large feature with a waterfall effect? This will help capture the Japanese spirit of continuity and calm exemplified by Japan’s rich gardening culture.

A water sculpture or a small garden water feature can help achieve a similar effect in smaller gardens. The calming trickle of water can also help to drown out the sound of unwanted sounds such as traffic. 

11. Plant One Central Tree

Central tree with decking and surrounding grass and hedges

(Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Trees play a huge role in not only Japanese gardens, but Japanese gardening culture as a whole, too. Whether it’s the humble Japanese maple or the sprawling sakura (cherry blossom), trees frame the landscape and bring the essence of nature to even the busiest places. 

Colour is also important — trees provide a rich hue throughout the seasons in a Japanese-style garden. Acers are another popular and relatively inexpensive addition which can add colour to your garden.

Making room for one central tree, like an acer or magnolia, is a low-maintenance garden idea that adds an element of focus to your space. At the same time, freeing up any remaining areas will allow you to work on them until all your Japanese garden ideas are achieved.

12. Give Your Garden a Pagoda Effect

Garden with pagoda and water surrounded by plants and decking

(Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

No Japanese garden idea would be complete without a pagoda. A pagoda is an oriental-style pavilion, which was traditionally used as an outdoor temple. 

Pagodas are usually found sequestered away in a quiet corner of Japanese gardens; the perfect environment for reflection. The good news is, you don’t need a secluded area to enjoy a pagoda effect outside your home.

Wood trellising can be used to create a pagoda-like structure in your garden for a quintessentially Japanese feel. It will even help you to get your garden guest-ready by the time the weather warms up, because pagodas have great potential as socialising spaces, too. 

Other benefits of a pagoda include that it can provide shade in the summer; it helps zone your seating; and it can also add height and structure to a landscaping scheme, giving your garden a more refined appearance overall.

13. Choose Low-Height Furniture

Low height sofa on decking with bushes behind

Japanese-style low furniture pieces are available at Go Modern Furniture (Image credit: Go Modern Furniture)

A Japanese-inspired garden is not complete without garden furniture that complements its intended look. For instance, you don't want a zen-like space with furniture that looks more at home in a cottage or country-style garden; this will only clash with the aesthetic you have carefully planned for it.

Another thing to factor in is that Japanese gardens put inner calm at their heart. So, when it comes to choosing the right furniture for your Japanese garden idea, you should aim for comfortable pieces that provide anyone who visits a chance to relax and unwind in style.

Low-height sofas and chairs will help your garden achieve the effect that, in turn, makes the entire outdoor area appear noticeably larger. And whether you have a large or small garden, selecting furniture that complements the space itself can open up a wealth of possibilities for how you design the rest of your new Japanese-style area.

14. Introduce Japanese-Inspired Panelling

Wood screen panelling with plants and grass

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For added privacy and sophistication, put up panelling directly inspired by Japanese gardens. Ideal for screening and delineating all manner of outdoor spaces, you can even use it as a boundary fence to establish where your sanctuary begins and ends.

Screening can also be used to create sheltered spots in exposed gardens, or to help muffle traffic noise, providing a more tranquil environment for you to enjoy in peace and privacy.

15. Go for a Boating Garden Aesthetic

Back of house with decking and water feature

(Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Centuries ago, Japanese boating gardens were used for recreational purposes. They often contained ponds that people rowed boats on, while also providing a safe habitat for fish like koi carp to thrive. Onshore embankments would usually run alongside the water, serving as a venue for popular forms of entertainment at the time, such as moon viewing parties or poetry recitals.

Though your garden may not be big enough to accommodate a full-sized lake, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same aesthetic as a traditional Japanese boating garden. 

Align your decking ideas with an elongated water feature, such as a small pond (as here) or fountain, and you’ll be able to achieve something of a quay effect, perfect for hosting fun outdoor gatherings of your own in the 21st century.

16. Position Ornaments Throughout Your Garden Space

Stone basin with flowing water

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Ornaments are integral to all great Japanese garden design ideas. As well as bringing character, depth, and individuality, they help craft a persona for your garden.

All ornamental touches throughout a Japanese garden should possess some connection to the natural world. For instance, the ‘tsukubai’, a type of stone basin typically found in Japanese tea gardens, perfectly symbolises the water element — a very important part of culture in Japan. 

Be sure to mix and match traditional Japanese ornaments in your garden space for added authenticity.

17. Highlight Your Garden's Key Features

Multicoloured lanterns hanging from trellis over garden table

Let Japanese-inspired fixtures from Sparkle Lighting bring out the beauty in your garden space (Image credit: Sparkle Lighting)

Although it can seem like Japanese garden ideas are often understated, highlighting various key features can also have a positive impact on the garden's overall design. Morning or evening, giving important elements the centre stage lets your garden shine no matter what the time of day, but to do that, you'll need the right fixtures first.

Paper lanterns are a fun way of showcasing the full extent of your garden's natural beauty, although they're best hung in a sheltered spot, even during spring or summer, to better withstand the unpredictable British weather. 

Accent lighting, highlighting a blossom tree or water feature, are perhaps more permanent garden lighting ideas that could help you achieve the Japanese-style garden look.

What Are Some of the Main Japanese Garden Elements?

Japanese gardens have their roots firmly (and quite literally) planted in nature, which means natural features like stone, water, trees and plants are key to creating a Japan-inspired aesthetic in your garden.

Waterfall features, in particular, should be present wherever possible. A gentle trickle or low cascade can both add a tranquil mountainous ambience to your plot and provide the traditional backdrop necessary for fulfilling your Japanese garden ideas.

Another thing you could do, space permitting of course, would be to embrace the full Japanese garden experience and install a bespoke koi habitat. These carp have been a fixture of many Japanese-style gardens for centuries now, with their bright colours and fluid motions.

How Much Does It Cost to Build a Japanese Garden?

Japanese garden ideas usually have a symbolic quality to them, which means incorporating fresh elements into your existing outdoor space for the desired effect. Costs of transforming your plot into a fully fledged Japanese-style garden will vary depending on both the garden's size and the project's scope.

For instance, a common stone material like gravel is usually inexpensive (sometimes as little as £4/m2). This means that if you plan on developing a zen garden from scratch, it shouldn’t blow your budget, because the elements needed to create it are relatively cost-efficient.

On the other hand, water features like ponds and fountains can be pricey, especially if you’re looking for traditional Japanese-style fixtures. 

Some exotic Japanese plants and flowers are also priced quite highly as well (anywhere between £65 and £85 for a flowering cherry tree), which is why it’s always prudent to have a plan for how you want your finished garden to look before embarking on such a big revamp.

No matter what the scale of your Japanese garden ideas, make sure you stick to budget.

Content Editor

Rob Keal is the Content Editor at Homebuilding & Renovating. With a background in content marketing, he began his career back in 2016 as a freelancer, before honing his craft at various digital marketing agencies. Looking to specialise in DIY and homes, he joined the team in February 2022. 

Renovation has been part of his life since he was nine years old, when his parents bought a medieval cottage and completely revived it, introducing him to kitchen remodels, loft conversions, landscape gardening, and much more besides along the way. A bedroom extension and patio refurbishment are among his next planned projects. He is also passionate about interior design and landscape gardening.