Famed for their precise gardens and their reverence for the craft it takes to build and maintain them, the Japanese adhere to certain rules in planning a tea garden. The Japanese tea garden is actually just one of three types of Japanese garden. The different Japanese gardens are the karesansui (the dry landscape garden), the tsukiyama (the hill garden) and the chaniwa (the tea garden). All three are very different but are something that, with skill and attention to detail, you can create in your own yard.
The karesansui, also known as rock gardens, are generally associated with Zen Buddhism. They have no plants or flowers. They simply feature rocks and sand. The sand is raked in wavy lines or circles to suggest the movement of water. The goal of the rock garden is quiet contemplation. The tsukiyama usually include a constructed hill combined with some form of water and various plants, shrubs and trees. The source of water could be a natural stream, a fountain or a koi pond, for instance. You can stroll around and contemplate natural beauty in the hill garden. The chaniwa is used for the introductory portion of chado, or the Japanese tea ceremony. A tea garden is always located immediately outside the tea house or room where the ceremony will take place. The chaniwa combines the contemplative nature of the rock garden with the natural beauty of the hill garden.
The chaniwa is typically little more than a path and a seating area outside the tea house. However, its goal is to invite you into the ceremony by detaching you from the worries of everyday life. The principles of the chado ceremony (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility) should be evoked by the different elements in the garden. The garden itself should be private and quiet, to start one on the sense of detachment that the tea ceremony brings. It should be a refuge from the world, and a place where one can focus on the simple pleasures of tea, food and conversation. Zen Buddhism emphasizes the importance of experience to learn about the world.
This complex ceremony begins with the guests walking along a series of stepping stones past Japanese stone lanterns. They gather in the tea garden and sit along the machiai, a bench, until the host appears. They then ritually purify themselves from a stone basin, the tsukubai, filled with water. There they wash their hands and mouths. Guests remove their shoes and enter the chashitsu, or tea room. The host must prepare a fire to heat the tea. There is a ritual cleaning of the utensils and then the preparation of the tea. Guests pass the first cup around and each takes a sip. There can be small snacks and glasses of sake, as well. The movements and actions of the entire ceremony are highly ritualized and practiced. The ceremony itself can last up to four hours.
As to the plantings, the goal is simplicity. You want to evoke natural beauty. Elaborate landscaping or artificial elements are not part of the tea garden. Lush natural plants and trees, like ferns, moss and Japanese maples are the ideal for the tea garden. Although you can tend to them carefully, do not let them appear over-cultivated or artificial. The chaniwa is not meant to be showy, so use limited numbers of colorful flowers.