Japanese Fantasy: Modern Outdoor Lighting and Garden Design

Japanese Zen gardens are filled with magic, mystery and potent symbolism; one of the most important being the moon. Therefore, many Japanese gardens are best viewed at night. Bathed in moonlight and the soft glow of lanterns, Japanese Zen gardens provide a wealth of inspiration for modern outdoor lighting.

According to Zen philosophy, gardens were intended as spaces for meditation, inviting the viewer to reflect on their inner landscape as much as the garden before them. This clarity, or sense of absence, was linked closely to the moon – a light source that doesn’t emit any light of its own. It’s the moon’s philosophical importance in Zen that means night time plays a central role in Japanese landscaping. From here, this article draws inspiration from these Zen principles for contemporary garden design and lighting.

Autumnal Fantasy: Japanese Maple and Fairy Lights

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In Japanese philosophy, Autumn is the traditional time of year for meditation in the moonlight. Particularly important is the light of the harvest moon, which rises every year around earlier October. In honour of this moment of seasonal transition, Japanese people celebrate with Tsukimi, or moon-viewing parties, where offerings are made in the garden under the light of the full moon.


A plant which is central to Japanese garden design is the eternally autumnal Japanese maple tree. Its delicate, rich orange and red leaves create beautiful, peaceful golden canopies over gently trickling streams and elegant pergolas. To emphasize the gorgeous color of these trees at night, an idea for modern outdoor lighting design is to wrap fairy lights around the trunks and branches. This delicately illuminates the bowers, as if these elegant plants were filled with fireflies.

Modern outdoor lighting: Oriental Subtlety (Bamboo and Lanterns)

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Also a popular building material due to its resilience and versatility, willowy bamboo plants are often found in Japanese gardens. As with most elements of Zen garden design, the bamboo plant is deeply symbolic, regarded as a symbol of fortitude, perseverance and tolerance. Furthermore, Nandina domestica, or Sacred Bamboo, is believed to have important purifying qualities in the Shinto tradition.

Bamboo’s imposing height means that it is often used to creative organic walls, divisions or sections within gardens. Frequently used to line walkways, the plants look stunning up-lit from small paper lanterns placed on the ground, lighting the way during night-time strolls. These small paper lanterns also play an important role in Zen symbolism; lanterns represent the light of knowledge and the dissipation of the mists of ignorance. Placed on the ground, they also invoke the qualities of stability and steadfastness.

Dramatic Modern Outdoor Lighting: Cherry Blossom Canopies

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Perhaps the most quintessentially Japanese plant is the cherry blossom tree. Bursting into astonishing pink blooms in the spring, these trees add a joyful splash of color to the otherwise reserved and earthy palette of the Zen garden. Celebrated for its transience and delicacy, in Japanese philosophy the cherry tree symbolises poignancy and deep emotion.

The Japanese festival of Tanabata, or the Star Festival, celebrates the meeting of the Shinto deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. The lovers, who are symbolised by the stars Vega and Altair, cross the Milky Way to meet each other for one day on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar. To mark this joyous event, Japanese people hang beautiful red bamboo paper lanterns in the canopies of cherry blossom trees. Casting a gorgeous warm light, intermingled with the pink of the blossom, this ancient tradition provides wonderful inspiration for a modern outdoor lighting concept.

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