Tsuboniwa : 坪庭 or 壷庭 ?

Kennin-ji – Kyoto

庭 – niwa – garden, yard
坪 – tsubo – unit of land measurement, 3.31 square meters, 2 tatami mats
壷 – tsubo – jar, pot, vase

The courtyard garden – called tsuboniwa in Japanese – is a garden in a small, enclosed area.
The gardener does not fill it up. […]
Instead he carefully arranges a few items […]
He links the garden compositionally to his home. And he exploits numerous untouchables: wind direction, sounds, seasons, sunlight, the true and apparent dimensions of empty space.¹

Today I would like to answer the question in the title.

When I browsed through my Facebook groups, I found an entry claiming tsuboniwa “pot gardens”. This sounded very odd to me and I decided to do some research on this topic!

Tsuboniwa are these small, or sometimes not so small, gardens within Japanese houses or, as we see it too from time to time, gardens next to buildings, enclosed by additional walls or a fence.

Ninna-ji – Kyoto

The history of tsuboniwa dates back until the Heian period.
While the sakuteiki gives no reference of these gardens, the Genji Monogatari does.
Here, the gardens next to some women’s quarters, surrounded by roofed corridors, are called “壷 tsubo”.
To understand this, we have to look at the architecture of the palaces of that time.
It is called Shindenzukuri. All buildings are connected through corridors, creating courtyards within the palace complex. It was common to plant one variety of plants in these courtyards, giving them names like “Hagitsubo” or “Fujitsubo” (Hagi=bushclover, Fuji=wisteria).
These two examples are, by the way, the last two remaining tsuboniwa of the Kyoto Palace.
Hiromasa Amazaki adds two more important points to the early tsuboniwa: they were places to enjoy the four seasons and to bring the hill & field scenery to the palaces. In contrast, the pond gardens with their rocks were meant to represent the ocean scenery.
This already shows that the meaning and use of tsuboniwa changed over time. Aren’t karesansui gardens often representing the ocean?
Especially in the temples of Kyoto we find tsuboniwa in a karesansui style. However, if we visit Kyoto’s old townhouses, the machiya, tsuboniwa are designed totally different.

Ryogen-in – Kyoto

But, why could the Kanji 壷 be used for these gardens? A possible explanation is the appearance of the garden when looking from the outside. The soil is the floor of a jar and the buildings and corridors are it’s walls.
There is no roof above, just like a vase.
And if we want to go even further: We put something in a jar, mostly only one thing of a kind. We put only one plant of a kind in the tsuboniwa. A tsuboniwa was not meant to walk in and we won’t walk in a jar, right?

When tsuboniwa is written with these Kanji 壷庭, it is almost always referring to the tsuboniwa of Heian period palaces.
On websites we find it only explained as an alternative writing for 坪庭.

In more recent times, the writing changed to 坪庭, referring to the size of the gardens. Although they are normally larger than two tatami mats, this name became the usual term for small, enclosed gardens.
Today we see tsuboniwa and nakaniwa (garden in the middle) used interchangeable, however, this was not always the case.

The tsuboniwa is the garden, which is closest to our lifes. We can see it change from moment to moment. It is the room without a ceiling.²

Private Garden – Kanagawa

Today we see the tsuboniwa in a new garment. They are usually the only space for some green within modern homes. The modern houses became stylish and so did the tsuboniwa.
While basic rules, like the use of few plants and few elements, are still followed, the use of new techniques and materials made them very elegant.

Last but not least, I want to talk about a third version of Kanji, introduced by Marc P. Keane: 経穴 (keiketsu)
These have their roots in China and refer to alternative medicine and the “ki” flowing through the body.
In acupuncture and acupressure (and other methods), special points are triggered to loosen blockades and led the ki flow unhindered. These points are also called tsubo in Japanese.

Nagae Machiya – Kyoto

I can understand M.P. Keanes desire to especially refer to machiya garden’s tsuboniwa with these Kanji and meaning.
Machiya tsuboniwa are essential for the life in the house, because they influence the climate and the life quality directly. If a tsuboniwa is not laid out in a good way and blocks the air from circling, the people in the house won’t be able to live a pleasing life.

I have to admit, I didn’t use as many sources for this articles as I could. I searched our library and found tsuboniwa in four books, which I would like to introduce later.

Yoshida House – Tokyo

Further, I used the article by Marc P. Keane in the Kyoto Journal, the really great website of japanesegardening.org with an article written by Andrew R. Deane and Jaanus, a great resource for everything Japanese architecture.
I also browsed through several not mention-worth Japanese websites and Wikipedia articles, however, only as a reference how often 坪庭 was used and how often 壷庭 was mentioned.
And finally I used my own knowledge built over more than 10 years studying Japanese gardens and 5 years working as a gardener and garden designer in Japan.

A Japanese touch for your garden:

1. Edition 1980
Paperback 1992
Revised & Extended Edition 2009
by Kiyoshi Seike, Masanobu Kudo, David H. Engel

Link is tied to the Amazon Associates Program



1. Edition 1978
12. Edition 1990

Link is tied to the Amazon Associates Program



1. Edition 2011
by Sunaga Kazushige

Link is tied to the Amazon Associates Program



1. Edition 1997
by various authors like Hiromasa Amasaki and Marc P. Keane

Link is tied to the Amazon Associates Program

I have to admit that I like Marc P. Keanes text in this book more than his English text in the Kyoto Journal.
The Kyoto Journal let it seem as if the Kanji 壷 is still widely used, while in this Japanese text it states, that it is almost never used anymore and 坪 became the common Kanji.


Quote from “A Japanese touch for your garden”

A free translation from 作庭の事典

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4 responses to “Tsuboniwa : 坪庭 or 壷庭 ?

  1. Hi Anika,i liked your post
    It is a very complete explanation, but one could say that the reason for the tsuboniwa, is the cooling of the houses? the contemplation of the seasons of the year? both? What about symbolism? Is it the same as in larger gardens? What do you think? What would be the rules when designing one and what are the most important principles?
    Best Regards

    • Hello Alberto,
      thank you for your comment!
      The purpose of the tsuboniwa depends on the building it is build in.
      The tsuboniwa of the Heian period are a result of the palace architecture style and here we find the contemplation of the seasons in different plants used.
      The cooling of the houses is an important characteristic of the tsuboniwa in Edo period merchant houses.
      Both tsuboniwa are created in completely different styles, as are the tsuboniwa in Buddhist temples.
      If you want to create a tsuboniwa in Heian period style, there isn’t much symbolism or design principles involved.
      If you want to create a dry landscape garden in the mind of temple tsuboniwa, the symbolism and design principles of dry landscape gardens apply. If you want to create a tsuboniwa like in a merchant house, you are almost freed of any rules.

  2. Pingback: Japan: Where Nature and Design Coexist – Everything Design·

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