Seeing God in a Japanese Garden

To study Japan is to realize that her people have no saving knowledge of Christ.   In this island nation, the people’s great respect for the awesome power and reverence for the stunning glory of God’s creation is sadly channeled into a sort of nature and wisdom based deism whereby the beauty and symmetry of nature is attributed to the manifestation of the many kami or gods, and spirits are thought to dwell within the elements.

Japanese culture treasures the transient nature of the seasons,  flowing water, and life in general, but they don’t see the message of salvation that lies within.  As we have read our living history books, and learned about the culture, we have experienced growing concern for the salvation of the Japanese people, and find ourselves frequently praying for them.  We wrapped up our visit to Japan with a study of the elements of a Japanese Garden, many of which are based in Shintoism, and others in Daoism and Buddhist thought.

We are blessed in our area to have a beautiful Japanese garden which exhibits many of the classic elements nearby at the Norfolk Botanical Garden.  The garden was created in 1962 to honor Norfolk’s sister city of Moji, Japan, now Kitakyushu, Japan, and was refurbished in 1995. I found this handy explanation of the elements of a Japanese Garden on a website produced by Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

In addition to simply enjoying the garden, I also made it a goal during this field trip to compare the Shintoism of Japanese Garden elements mentioned in our guide to the attributes of Almighty God.  I always feel close to God when I’m walking in a garden, and it was a joyous exercise to connect the Creator to his creation!  And in case you’re wondering, yes, this was one of our deeper field trips.  However, in this exploration of Asian culture, we’ve been reading books where the main characters pray to idols, express fear of displeasing their gods and goddesses, and react with superstition, so the setting offered by this beautiful garden provided a great place for a little Bible study, and a good  opportunity to refute the false, and reinforce the Truth!

The Elements

The elements we found in the garden included architecture, paths, streams and waterfalls, ponds and shoreline, trees, bridges, sand, islands, lanterns and basins, and stones.  We are not strangers to this garden – it has been a favorite of Grace’s since she was quite small- but we have never really taken it apart and looked at the elements separately.


Architecture was first on the list, and we considered the entrance wall and gate the primary element.  We remembered Christ’s warning about wide and narrow gates right away!


Paths are designed to guide a visitor slowly through a garden, hiding certain elements, perhaps leading one past a scented shrub, or allowing the turn of a corner to bring forth a delightful view.  I thought of several Psalms that mentioned paths!  Paths of righteousness, paths of life, usually straight paths though!  The Israelites walked a lot – and paths are a metaphor for doing things God’s way!  Grace remembered Psalm 119:105 (yay!).

Waterfalls and Streams

Waterfalls and streams to the Japanese indicate the Daoist/Buddhist concept of permanent impermanence, always flowing, yet always the same.  We discussed this and found that we could definitely relate to this!  God’s nature is unchanging and yet always flowing with love!


Trees in a Japanese garden are usually evergreen, and twisting or bent to suggest the aged, and honor them, as they stand the test of time.  One of my favorite images is the tree of Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17:7-8 which is planted by a stream, and always bearing fruit in season because it is rooted in God’s Word.


Grace loves the slender slab of granite that forms the bridge over a pond with lotus and fish.  We couldn’t think of too many bridges in our Bible, (actually not any! Can you?) now that I think about it, I wish we had discussed how to go about building a bridge of faith to the Japanese, how to tell them about God.


Sand in a Japanese garden can symbolize purification as well as evoke waves lapping against the shore or river currents if it is raked in curves.  We remembered God’s promise to Abraham of descendents as numerous as grains of sand.  It seems the prophets used grains of sand to indicate numbers too large to name… a reminder of God’s glorious abundance, like grains of sand, His generosity to us swelling in waves of mercy too large to name!  (Okay – I thought of this last bit as I was writing this post!)


Lanterns are used to light paths, and are often near basins or water in order to reflect light.  We were all over this one!  We remembered the lantern that should not be under a basket, and the Word lighting our path! (Psalm 119:105 again!)

Rocks and Stones

Rocks and stones are prevalent in a Japanese Garden, and have vast spiritual overtones that aren’t completely understood today.  Ancient gardening texts warned that poor placement would result in misfortune and illness.  This was another easy one for us.  God is our Rock.  This concept is familiar because our pastor, Bill McClung, often uses the Psalm text 19:4, “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto you LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”

One of the overarching messages that has been consistent throughout our reading is the superstition, fear, and hardship created by the worship of unresponsive idols and trying to please capricious spirits.  (It kind of reminds me of the media at times 😉  Seriously, it has not been a difficult task to contrast the goodness, even in times of trouble, of the LORD, and especially the joy of redemption through Christ!  I’m so glad that I can homeschool and connect His truth to our study of Eastern culture!

For I will proclaim Yahweh’s name.
Declare the greatness of our God!
The Rock—His work is perfect;
all His ways are entirely just.
A faithful God, without prejudice,
He is righteous and true.  Deuteronomy 32:3-5

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This was a really fun field trip for us, but you can tell by the leaves – it was in the fall.  So, I’m just a month or two late in posting…

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