STONE IN THE JAPANESE
Let the garden be your guide
There is a certain calmness that comes to you as you view a well laid-out
Japanese garden. While it is hard to define any one particular
element as the source of this peaceful influence, I would suggest that
it is the solid, anchored look that the stone features bring to the
garden that do the most to impart that feeling of peace. This should
come as no surprise as the Japanese gardener utilizes rock as the “bones”
of the garden, with plants and ornaments as trimmings.
The most visited garden in Japan, the Ryoan-ji, is entirely comprised
of stone; the only living thing in the garden is the moss that has sprung
up between the set stones. This is the epitome of stone in the Japanese
garden. But when we try recreate that look in our own gardens we are often
disappointed with the result. We find ourselves unable to duplicate that
peaceful, serene feeling; our stone groups feel disjointed and jumbled.
The spirit of the Japanese garden seems elusive.
The basic rules
The rules for setting stone in the garden are ancient and many. It is
no great surprise that we as modern Americans are not in touch with the
subtleties of a two thousand-year-old art form. But that doesn’t
mean we can’t learn these skills. The true spirit of the Japanese
garden, like so many facets of the Zen arts, lies in the rules and observances
of ritual that permeate Japanese life. By simply learning a few of the
rules that apply to stone setting, and a few of the more common forms,
we can attain gardens that give us that feeling of serenity. Let’s
look at some of the basics…
The first stone grouping to show up in the Japanese garden was the shumisen.
This grouping was (as so many things in Japanese gardening are) a symbolic
representation, in this case of the legendary mountain at the center of
the Universe. The Buddha dwells in the main stone and his disciples in
the stones around him. This is a very old grouping that was in use during
the Nara period (645-781 AD) and is no longer in use.
During the Heian period (781-1185 AD) the old Chinese legend of the Isles
of Eternal Youth began to find its way into the ponds of rich. This group
is comprised of a main island (Horai) and three smaller islands (Hojo,
Eishu, and Koryo). All are tall, vertical stones, as they represent the
unattainable dwelling places of the Immortals.
This group has a very Chinese look to it, and shows the strong influence
still exerted by that country. While the shumisen is still evident, we
see a new representation of the Buddha in the Stones of Three Gods. This
is a much more Japanese expression of the Deity, with many different names
for the grouping depending on the specific use.
Classic Japanese stone grouping
For our purposes we can break it down like this:
- Buddha stone (Mida buhtsu), the male stone
- Goddess stone (Kwannon), the female stone
- Child’s stone (Seishi).
This is the most classical stone grouping in Japanese gardening, and
one I lean on heavily in design. This is generally the stone group that
the others are centered on, often in the Guardian stone position.
Temple rock gardens
As we move into the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1186-1573 AD) we reach
what was truly the height of natural stone in the garden. The Three Gods
become much more important as temple gardens were the most prevalent type
of garden in these periods.
There was a movement towards imitating the Sung style monochrome paintings
popular at the time, and the hill and pond style of garden became more
formalized to accommodate this change. Another development of this period
was the Crane and Tortoise islands. These beasts had garnered a mythical
focus as symbols of longevity and the two together symbolize long and
happy existence. These groups must be placed in water (or a reasonable
Another feature of the temple gardens were the Buddhist Saints stones
(butsubosatsu). This is a very complex grouping that is best left to the
temple garden (as it is in Japan), but I have included it here to show
just how complicated stone setting could get. Only the highest levels
of Buddhist clergy were qualified to build and interpret these gardens.
Beyond the temple garden
The later periods did little to add to the palette of stone groups. The
Momoyama period actually ushered in the use of cut stone for bridges and
paths and an increased use of ornamentation and a move away from the natural
look of the preceding periods. While the following Edo period brought
back some of the older styles there was still a tendency to move towards
ornamentation as the central focus of the garden.
These groupings are more formalized ones and are not representative
of most stones placed in the garden, but they are often the central features
of a garden that ties the rest together. Let’s now look at the more
basic stone forms and their placement in the garden.
Five basic stone types
There are five basic stone types used in Japanese rock gardening. These
are used in a thousand different combinations, but with the understanding
of these basic types and some common usage, we can find the right ones
for our garden.
One: Soul Stone
The first we will look at is the Low Vertical stone, also known as the
Soul Stone (Reishoseki). This is a vertically oriented stone with a wide
base and a tapered top. This is a very prevalent stone in the landscape;
the Guardian stone (Shu go seki) is usually a low vertical.
Two: Body Stone
The next stone we’ll discuss is the Tall Vertical, or Body stone
(Taidoseki). This is another upright stone that often symbolic of a person
or god. The base is only slightly larger than the top. This is a stone
that must be most carefully placed; as it is the tallest stone in the
group it is principal in determining the flow of the garden. Generally,
this stone is placed to rear and NEVER in front.
Three: Heart Stone
The Flat stone, or Heart stone (Shintaiseki), is a most useful stone.
It is as the name implies a flat stone in the manner of a stepping stone.
In a complex arrangement it is generally used as the central harmonizing
element and in simpler arrangements serves a valuable purpose in harmonizing
the vertical stones with the horizontal lines of the earth or water. The
Worshiping stone or (Rei hai seki) is always a flat stone.
Four: Branching Stone
The Arching stone is often called the Branching Stone (Shigyoseki) and
corresponds to the arms. This stone is the exception to the rule with
a flat top wider than the base. This is a most difficult stone to select
correctly; if the top is too large the rock looks unsteady and the arch
imparts a sweeping energy that must be carefully balanced to work in the
garden. That said this is an extremely useful stone as it is used to tie
the two horizontal stones to the two vertical ones as well as drawing
together the stone group with the branches of trees.
Five: Ox Stone
Our final stone is the Reclining stone or Ox stone (Kikyakuseki). In height,
these vary between the flat stone and the arching stone but never as low
as the former or tall as the latter. One end of the stone is higher than
the other. This is a fine-tuning stone, placed in the foreground to unify
the other stones and should be placed with great care.
These basic stones are used in any number of combinations and are often
combined with Helping or Throwaway stones, smaller nondescript rocks that
need not fit any of our formal definitions. Two and three stone groups
are the norm and can be combined together to create larger focal points.
There are five stone groups that are usually the main focus of a garden,
often in the guardian stone position; this is a very powerful grouping
and needs careful balancing.
Keep an eye on this
We have seen the stones and combinations that we must use to develop the
true spirit of the Japanese garden. Now let’s look at the things
we must avoid to maintain an authentic look.
We must avoid the Three Bad Stones. These are
- The Diseased stone (withered or misshapen top)
- The Dead stone (a stone that is obviously a vertical used as a horizontal,
or vice versa, like propping up a dead body), and
- The Pauper Stone (one which has no relation to the other stones in
We should never place a stone so its axial line is at right angles to
any nearby buildings. This is known as “cutting the ridgepole”
and is the worst scenario in a feng shui vein. You must never set a stone
higher than the eaves of the house for much the same reason.
You must never place stones that have obviously been cut or broken. Again,
the guardian stone must be a vertical and the worshiping stone must be
flat. You must never use stones with larger tops than bases; the arching
stone is the obvious exception to the rule. Do not set large stones near
a verandah or porch (another "bad vibes" arrangement).
I have included some of the ancient stone setting laws that I feel have
some merit as design rules; many of the rules have little or no bearing
unless you believe in animism or evil spirits. If these rules do hold
some meaning for you I would suggest obtaining a copy of the Sakuteiki,
known as the Book of Garden.
In short, simply be as refined as possible when setting stones. Use the
minimum of rock to get the effect you are looking for, keeping in mind
the flow of the garden. I generally like to determine stone placement
before plants, but if I know I will be using a tree or trees in a garden
I will take that into account when setting stones.
I feel the most important rule of stone setting is the Rule of Separation.
Stones from cliffs should be set as cliffs and stones from water should
be set near water. This rule defines using a rock with a suited spirit
for its intended locale. Follow this and you’ll do well.
Stepping stones in a Japanese rock garden
When setting stepping stones they should be between one and three inches
above the soil, yet solid underfoot, as if rooted into the ground. They
can be set in straight lines, offset for left foot, right foot (known
as chidori or plover, after the tracks the shore bird leaves), or set
in groups of twos, threes, fours, or fives.
The most common combinations are the two-three arrangement, useful in
smaller spaces and the three-four. Any combinations are possible; keep
in mind the flow of the garden.
- The pathway is symbolic of the journey through life, and even specific
stones in the path may have meaning.
- A much wider stone set across the path tells us to put two feet here,
stopping to take in the view. Two foot stones are always found at entrances
and junctures in pathways.
- Formal mat stones are one of the exceptions to the rule on cut stone.
Long sections of path can be set entirely in rectangular cut stone.
I personally like two, offset side by side, comprising by themselves
a section of path. These are called Poem Card stones as they resemble
the folded poems hung in the cherry trees in spring. (Very effective
near trees for that reason).
Simply remember the flow of the garden and your other stone placements
will fall into place.
We have taken in a lot of information here. Expecting to retain all this
is probably unrealistic, and even if we should manage, the resultant landscape
would probably be staid or stilted.
I started this by stating that in following the rules we could attain
a Japanese look in the garden, and this is true. But the truly successful
garden will be the one where the designer has followed the flow of the
space and searched for the right stones to fit that garden.
As a closing I now give you my first rule of gardening: “Let the
garden be your guide.”
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