Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese


japanese gardens

Make your outdoor room an Oriental retreat and enjoy the peaceful ambience it provides
Words: Natalie Raad

Creating a themed outdoor room is an easy way to give your outdoor living space a fresh appeal and unique sense of culture. Whether it’s a Mediterranean oasis, an Italian villa, a French abode or a Thai retreat, turning your outdoor room into a themed space is a simple — and creative — process.

A popular theme for outdoor rooms is the Japanese-style garden. Designed to be retreats, Asian-inspired gardens are all about tranquillity and peaceful ambience, so it’s no wonder many of us are looking to replicate this style in our outdoor spaces.

Adding an Oriental touch to your outdoor room can be as simple as introducing a quiet, reflective space with a seat in one corner or as elaborate as designing your outdoor room based on the intrinsic principles of Japanese garden design. Either way, turning your outdoor space into a themed room will add character and authenticity, and allow you to put your personal touch into the space.

There are certain principles that need to be adhered to in order to successfully capture the spirit of a Japanese-inspired outdoor room. Simplicity, symbolism and peaceful ambience are the signature traits of an authentic Japanese garden, so it’s important to ensure these elements form part of your design.

The basic idea in creating a Japanese-style outdoor room is to use the natural elements in the garden, such as plants, rock, stone, wood or water, in a simple way so the elements express their own essences. Most importantly, nature is the ideal you should strive for when creating your Asian-inspired outdoor retreat. When using nature as your model, it’s important to never create something nature itself cannot. For example, you would never find a square pond in the wild, so it’s best not to have one in your outdoor room.

Another key point to remember is balance, or sumi. Japanese gardens are all about miniaturising nature — they represent large landscapes on a small scale. Rocks can represent whole mountains, pools can become lakes and a raked stretch of sand can stand for an entire ocean. By copying nature in a balanced composition, a sense of serenity and unspoiled beauty is created.

Japanese gardens are largely characterised by their “emptiness”, the very models of the less-is-more philosophy. Unlike Western gardens, which tend to have every portion of space occupied by something, Asian-inspired spaces are defined by their “emptiness”. This space, or ma, defines the elements around it and is also defined by the elements surrounding it. It’s important to bear this in mind when designing your outdoor room.

Another concept inherent in Japanese gardens is enclosure. Asian-inspired gardens are designed to be retreats, so are ideal if you’re looking to turn your outdoor room into a private sanctuary or hideaway. To give your outdoor room a Japanese essence, it must first be closed off from the outside world. Once it is closed, you then need to create a method (and mindset) to enter and leave. So fences and gates are important elements in Japanese gardens. As with all things associated with this style of garden, gates and fences have a deep symbolic meaning as well as a specific function.

In Asian-inspired gardens we are encouraged to view the space as a separate world, a haven where we have no worries and no concerns. The inclusion of a gate and fence in your outdoor room will ensure the space is sealed off from the outside world and is a “room” in the true sense. When designing your outdoor room, a fence will act as insulation from the outside world, while a gate will symbolise the threshold.

Water is an essential element in Japanese gardens, so it’s important to include it in your outdoor room. Consider a water feature in the form of a water garden, a pond with a shimmering waterfall, a bamboo water feature or stone bowls containing water. Not only does water look good, but the sound of falling water is perfect for creating a peaceful ambience.

Water can also be represented in your outdoor room in a concept the Japanese call kare-sansui. Rather than the real thing, the suggestion of water can be created by the use of pebbles or sand.

Rocks and stones are garden components that are mandatory in a Japanese-themed outdoor room. They form the backbone of the space and, if the stones are placed properly, the rest of the area should lay itself out for you.

When setting stepping stones in your outdoor room they should be between one and three inches above the soil, yet solid underfoot, as if rooted into the ground. They can be set in straight lines, offset for left foot, right foot, or set in groups of twos, threes, fours or fives (and any combination thereof).

The pathway is symbolic of the journey through life, so it’s recommended that one be included in your outdoor room. There are different types of pathways and each has a different meaning. For example, a wide stone set across the path tells us to put two feet here, stopping to take in the view.

While plants play a secondary role to stones in an Oriental-themed garden, they are still a primary concern in the design. Including a Japanese plant in your outdoor room is one of the easiest ways to introduce an Oriental element to the space. Despite originating in a climate very different from ours, many Japanese plants and trees grow very well in Australia. Some include Japanese maple, Japanese black pine, azalea, camellia, Japanese box, mondo grass, juniper and Buddhist pine.

To give your outdoor room a unique, Oriental look, you can’t go past the seasonal colour changes of Japanese maples, the lovely flowers and shiny green leaves of camellias and the dark-green blades of the mondo grass. Water lilies are also Japanese in origin and, along with the water they grow in, are often used to bring a serene feel to outdoor spaces.

In Japanese gardens, colour is not emphasised, so flowers should be used sparingly. If you prefer more colour, however, opt for plants that blend well with the Asian theme, such as rhododendrons and hydrangeas. Or, if you prefer more greenery in your outdoor room, use ferns, bonsai and bamboo plants.

When choosing furniture, there are many ways to bring an Oriental flavour to your outdoor room. For seating, consider benches or chairs made of bamboo. A large square table, silk pillows and a hammock for lounging are also distinctly Oriental features.

Finally, accessories can reinforce the theme of your outdoor room. A ricepaper lantern is the perfect accessory for the Oriental style, and displaying it next to a water feature will represent the female and male elements of water and fire — yin and yang. Other traditional ornaments include stupas, basins and Buddha statues.

Creating a themed outdoor room is an easy way to personalise your outdoor living space and make it part of your lifestyle. And with a Japanese theme, your outdoor room won’t just be distinctly Oriental, it will also be a place for quite contemplation, peaceful ambience and tranquillity — a sanctuary in your very own backyard where you can escape the hurriedness of the world and be in nature.


• Including a Japanese plant in your outdoor room is one of the easiest ways to introduce an Oriental element. Consider Japanese maple, Japanese black pine, camellia, mondo grass or water lily.

• Water is an important element in a Japanese-style outdoor room. Opt for a bamboo water feature or stone bowls containing water, or create a representation of water through the use of pebbles or sand.

• Accessorise your outdoor room with stupas, basins or a Buddha statue. Or include a ricepaper lantern next to a water feature to represent yin and yang.