Learn the Japanese art of landscaping with stones


Every 6-year-old who has put pebbles from the beach in his pocket and then started a rock collection in a shoebox confirms this fact: humans have always been fascinated by rocks and stones.

Stones are a key element of Japanese garden design that originated in China some 1,400 years ago. Arranging stones in the garden is called “ishigumi” and it is rooted in Zen Buddhism: the very energy of life, the spark of creation, the lifecycle, impermanence of humans, infirmity, and ultimately death.

Stone embodies being, solidity, and strength. Stone both contains and reflects divine energy, whether it was created by lava oozing from the Earth’s crust (igneous rock), created by silt in rivers and lakes (sedimentary rock), or transformed by unbelievable pressure into another kind of rock (metamorphic rock). The energy in stone is shaped and transformed by nature alone. Japanese garden designers pay careful attention to this energy and harness it to best advantage in the garden.

Quite large stones form the “bones” of a Japanese garden. They generate energy within the garden and define its space: is it a peaceful, hilly landscape? A dramatic ocean cliff landscape? Or a series of secluded islands scattered in a lagoon?

In Japan, garden designers are revered as artists and “ishigumi” is considered a highly developed art. Essentially, the garden designer is creating a miniature landscape to evoke a certain feeling using only stones. But first, the garden designer must have a design in mind for the garden landscape. It is not as simple as going to the stone yard and ordering a truckload of stone. All stones in a composition are carefully selected. A painter paints with paint; the Japanese garden designer works with hand-picked stones. Your project’s budget will govern stone size and availability from a local quarry; shipping and handling of large stones will also need to be factored in.

How to create a landscape with stone

In Japanese garden design, stones are divided into five categories:

  1. Tall Vertical - A tall vertical is often the main stone of a landscape arrangement. It forms the focal point of the arrangement. Tall vertical stones are typically more than 1 metre high and are set on their end. The tall vertical stone is often positioned first in the garden design landscape; all other stones are placed in respect to the tall vertical.

  2. Low Vertical – These are less than 1 metre high so as not to compete with the tall vertical.

  3. Thrusting – Thrusting stones are those placed on a diagonal, or stones which have pronounced diagonal markings or striations? Thrusting stones provide energy and movement in the landscape arrangement, either right to left or left to right.

  4. Reclining – Reclining stones are large, horizontal stones. They ‘ground’ the garden landscape arrangement.

  5. Flat – Flat stones are used as stepping stones, bridges, or arches.

The best garden designers develop a feeling for stone and take advantage of each stone’s qualities, features, and attributes. The garden designer will evaluate all faces or sides of a stone and select one particular one to face the viewer, based on the overall mood of the composition. The garden designer may position the best face of a stone on a diagonal rather than head-on, for greater dramatic effect.

A composition needs dramatic tension. This means you should select stones that complement each other. If you select stones that are either identical or very similar in feeling, your stone composition will lack creative tension. You’ll end up with a boring composition.

Many Japanese stone landscapes use just three stone, symbolic of Heaven, Earth and Man. Some landscape arrangements use just two stones, to evoke the duality of Yin-Yang. Groups of five stones and seven stones are also popular; using an even number of stones is too symmetrical and therefore uninteresting.

Stones in a Japanese landscape arrangement need to be partially buried. This is called “rooting” the stones. This is important for two reasons: 1) for safety and 2) aesthetics. The overall landscape arrangement should look as if it has been there for hundreds of years.

5 Qualities to look for in selecting stones

  1. Shape – Does the shape remind you of a natural rock formation? Are all the stone’s faces balanced?

  2. Matter – Does the rock have calming or exciting qualities? Does it have natural indentations that can hold water after a rain?

  3. Color – Japanese garden landscapes prefer the black, blue-black, and grey colour palette. Stone such as white or pink quartz or pink sandstone are not considered Japanese. Above all, the stones should look natural and evoke a natural feeling. In fact, white stones are generally considered taboo in Japanese landscapes.

  4. Temperament – The temperament of a stone refers to its surface. The surface of a stone could contain folds, wrinkles, small holes or indentations or pock marks, quartz crystals, or be well weathered. A tall vertical stone, for example, will look even more spectacular with vertical striations.

  5. Ancient Look – The Japanese concept of “yoseki” or ancient look of a stone makes it most prized. An ancient stone has a deep colour, a fine shape, has rounded edges, and looks like a serious stone. Stones that have sharp or cut edges (either machine cut or hand-chiseled) are not considered “yoseki.”

​ On a much smaller scale, many Japanese enjoy “suiseki”: collecting miniature stones that look like miniature islands, mountains, waterfalls, or famous Japanese landmarks. Suiseki is understanding and appreciating nature through stone. For diehard aficionados of suiseki who meet up with others to go rock hunting in well-known areas, here is a list of 150 specific terms that describe a rock’s features, qualities, and attributes that collectors look for.

Both suiseki and ishigumi are used in Buddhist meditation and contemplation as a means of spiritual refinement, inner awareness, and enlightenment.

#JapaneseGardens #StoneintheGarden

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