5 Elements of Japanese Philosophy in Your Outdoor Living Space

Japanese water feature

Looking for a new approach for backyard design ideas? Wabi-sabi is the principle behind Japanese outdoor garden design that brings a sense of calm and wonder to living.


The concept of wabi-sabi is the Japanese idea of the beauty of the present moment, that fleeting time when you can observe everything that is wonderful about the world around you.

Wabi-sabi is also the principle behind Japanese outdoor garden design as well as the kind of carefully-edited interiors that bring a sense of calm and wonder to living. This idea is linked to the fact that the world is both imperfect and incomplete, and that this should be celebrated.

Engaging the senses

Engaging the senses allows for wabi-sabi because of the fact that it allows for the perception of different aspects of human nature. Wabi-sabi practices are linked to seven elements of human nature, which are known as simplicity, austere sublimity, naturalness, subtle profundity, unworldliness and tranquility.

In this article, we’ll learn how to carefully plan your Japanese outdoor garden design in order to engage all of the senses, through plants and rocks but also through scent and through the sound of the water. We’ll explore how the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi can be used to design your space, providing comfort, beauty, warmth, and calm all year long.

cherry blossom branch

1. Formalized beauty

The focus of wabi-sabi is that the idea of what we see and do in daily life can be a source of beauty. Wabi-sabi and its acts can help people create a formalized representation of what we do every day, so that we can begin to draw meaning and understanding from the normal actions that we take as we go through our lives. A good example of a formalized beauty practice is the Zen Buddhist tea ceremony, which is a cultural custom in Japan called sado. This is a multifaceted ritual which is used to instruct participants in how quietly and carefully observing formalized beauty through slow and simple actions can lead to calmness and a quiet mind.

To transform the purpose of the ceremony in your outdoor living space, and add formalized beauty, is to create a natural environment which gives the human mind a sense of freedom from everything other than the practice at hand. Create simplicity and subtle profundity by finding a statue that represents a source of beauty for you. Add tranquility through the addition of a water fountain that brings to mind water pouring out of a kettle into a tea cup.


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2. Asymmetry

Ikebana is the Japanese art of arranging flowers, and it is an exercise in perfect asymmetry. The context of naturalness with this form of artistic creation can take place within nature, in a garden, or representing nature in visual art, as well as through a flower or plant arrangement. The process of finding asymmetry is achieved by careful placement of objects, such as asymmetrical flower, object or food arrangements.

In your outdoor living space, not everything has to line up in a row to look beautiful. In fact, what ikebana teaches us is that there is beauty in what can seem like imperfection, just as nature can move in every direction. Instead of buying a standard set of four chairs around a table for your deck, think about mixing a long, reclining outdoor couch with an eclectic mix of benches or chairs you’ve collected from second-hand shops, all situated around a low table.


Da Nang Kontiki brand conversation set outdoor furniture from BuildDirect.

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3. Austere sublimity

Karesansui is the creation of a dry or rock-based garden, which may look austere and plain, but can bring a sense of playfulness to your outdoor space. These gardens are not meant to stay the same at all times; it is just as important to move the stones as it is to admire them.

Try adding a rock garden to your deck, made with the smoothest stones you can find at the beach. Start with a small box filled with sand, and rake it so that the pattern of the tines in the sand pleases you. Then, place your stones in the sand. You can add brightly colored pebbles as a way to augment your design, or use your rock garden as a surround for a fire pit. Take time to come back to your rock garden daily so that it reflect the way that you see the world and how it changes over the course of seasons.

rocks for rock garden yellow flower

4. Subtle profundity

Bonsai are tray gardens, where the roots and branches of a tree are clipped carefully so that the plant will remain small. This symbol of subtle profundity is all about size. Trees do not have to be big, or flowers abundant, in order for a plant to be beautiful. Instead, you can find beauty in the smallest of additions to your space.

You can add a bonsai tree itself to your backyard design, or try another local plant as a centerpiece on your dining table. Cacti can serve a similar purpose in warmer areas of the country, as, like bonsai, they can grow in limited sizes and will often only flower once per year.

bonzai tree on deck

If you don’t have a green thumb, you can also look at other miniature elements to add to your space, such as fairy houses, beehives, or bird houses that will not only look beautiful, but will draw small insects and birds to your garden. There is nothing like watching a butterfly or hummingbird float around its source of nectar to remind you of the wonder of nature.

5. Gracefulness

Gracefulness is attempted through wabi-sabi drawn from acts of writing, movement, and also of pure, focused observation. The use of movement can be perceived as a symbol of human nature, while tending a garden can be focused on nature itself.

Grace can be felt through the warmth of the sun or the scent of flowers or herbs that you grow in your garden. In your outdoor living space, find time for movement that fits your lifestyle. Gardening is a wonderful form of exercise, but you can also incorporate tai chi, yoga, qi gong, or dance into your daily schedule, on your patio or barefoot on the grass. Take a little time out of your day to bring your own grace to nature.

Open to anyone

The art of wabi-sabi is something that we all can practice in our everyday lives. Creating a beautiful life is not limited to those who have studied Japanese philosophy, but rather is open to anyone who takes the time to make careful choices, support and enhance their natural surroundings, and appreciate what we have been given in this world.

So, this year, when you’re planning your outdoor living space, try these backyard ideas. Take some time to listen to the birds, arrange some pebbles on the sand, and stop and smell the roses. You’ll find a sense of tranquility in your garden that you never knew possible.

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