What is the difference between a Japanese tea garden and a Japanese garden? A tea garden is often associated with residences and are essentially paths leading to a Japanese tea house. They are often much more secluded and private, reflecting the process of leaving our ordinary world and lifestyle and entering into a special a place.
Many Japanese gardens are meant to be viewed from a certain perspective or observation spot, while tea gardens are often more geared toward the experience of walking through a garden and taking in the atmosphere. Of course there are strolling gardens (Kai-yu shiki), but again the process is different. The best view of a tea garden is after passing through the entrance gate and entering the tea house grounds. Machi-ai, or waiting benches, are also great places to sit and take in the experience before continuing on the tea house.
In a tea garden, or Roji in Japanese, the detailed placement of stepping-stones is meant to keep your focus on the ground, not letting the mind wander to far from the path. On a practical level, these stepping-stones, which are raised above the soil line, are there to keep your feet from getting dirty after it rains.
These Serene Gardens are meant to bring about the image of a mountain pass or a stroll up to a hermit’s house deep in the woods. It often conflicts with the more refined, elegant, and tightly pruned Japanese garden often seen from a temple porch, imperial palace, or art museum. It doesn’t mean that there is no pruning done, but the selected shrubs and trees are pruned a little more naturally.
In general, I would suggest that Japanese gardens tend to be about 75% evergreen (plants that keep their leaves all year) and 25% deciduous (plants that loose their leaves in winter). Of the 25% deciduous materials the majority are probably Japanese maple trees. Bright, attention-grabbing flowers are rarely used. Especially in the tea garden, a rustic natural look is desired so flowering trees may be used but still kept to a minimal use. A white flowering Dogwood is a great example of an elegant tree that would fit well in this type of garden. Azaleas are often highly sculpted in the general Japanese garden, but are left a little rougher in a tea garden.
Because the focus of a Roji path is on experience, the process of walking through often leads one to smaller outside rooms, creating a small journey for the person. There are often many curves, which intrigue and keep you guessing as to what is to come around the next corner.
That being said, contemporary tea gardens sometimes push the limits of what is acceptable in a traditional tea garden. I believe that modern architecture of the Japanese home is also influencing the way many contemporary garden designers create their gardens. In Japan we are seeing more open style tea gardens with less shade. A more modern garden may very well compliment an avant-garde Japanese tea house.
Authentic Japanese garden landscape companies such as Serene Gardens are great places to look for ideas on Japanese gardening. A good site will have Japanese garden tips, ideas, and products that will help you build the type of garden or interior space that fits your lifestyle.