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 for Use of Stones in a Japanese Garden

The rules for setting stone in the garden are ancient and many. There are many subtleties to what is 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…

Nara Era

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.

Heian Era

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:

  1. Buddha stone (Mida buhtsu), the male stone
  2. Goddess stone (Kwannon), the female stone
  3. 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.

Japanese 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 facsimile).

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

How to Achieve an Authentic Japanese Rock Garden Look

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:

  1. The Diseased stone (withered or misshapen top)
  2. The Dead stone (a stone that is obviously a vertical used as a horizontal, or vice versa, like propping up a dead body), and
  3. The Pauper Stone (one which has no relation to the other stones in the garden).

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.”