The Japanese Zen Garden is one of the most common types of Japanese garden. As with all types of Japanese gardens, the Zen Garden is all about a balance between the in and the yo. In-Yo is essentially the Japanese counterpart to the more well-known Chinese Yin-Yang. The yo is bright, hard and dry. The in is dark, soft, and damp. The In-Yo balance represents the whole world in one. A balanced Japanese Zen Garden is minimalist in nature, has a monastic character, and creates a therapeutic feeling.
Japanese Zen Gardens are dry gardens comprised primarily of rock. One of the primary elements of a zen garden is gravel that is raked into ripples in order to represent and mimic the ocean. Large rocks are then placed on the gravel, in odd-numbered groupings. Odd-numbered groupings are used because even numbers are considered to be unlucky. These groupings of large rocks represent mountains or gods/deities. To achieve a good In-Yo balance, the “water” or gravel must balance the rock. There can’t be too much of one element or the other.
Three key materials can be used to create a zen garden: bamboo, gravel, and rock. Ideally, the gravel and larger rocks will be the same type of stone, such as limestone or granite. The bamboo can be used to create a border around the garden to prevent it from being walked on, and it has a very traditional look that will fit in with the garden’s aesthetic. The first step to create the garden is to clear a garden plot. The area should be as flat as possible. It is important to lay down a material like plastic sheeting to act as a membrane to keep weeds from growing. Create a border of some kind, using bamboo or stones. Lay down the gravel and carefully arrange the groupings of rock. Use a rake to smooth out the gravel and give it a rippled appearance to simulate water.
Although not entirely traditional to this type of garden, you can also consider adding seating, moss, and a water element. An unobtrusive bench beside the garden can be a peaceful spot for meditation or contemplation. Moss can give a pleasing visual contrast while still fitting in to the style. A water element such as a small fountain can also be added, even though a traditional zen garden is always a dry environment. The peaceful sound of a fountain can add to the overall therapeutic and calming effect of the zen garden.
The Zen garden needs very little upkeep and will stay looking good for a very long time. The materials used – especially the stone – are impervious to wear and will last nearly forever. The gravel may need to occasionally be raked to ensure it maintains the smooth, rippled looked that is desired. In fact, the very act of raking the stone is considered by many to be an important part of the meditative and therapeutic effect of a Japanese zen garden.