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Different types of Japanese garden paths & Stone meanings

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A lot of attention has been drawn to Japanese garden paths and garden design in general due to its historical functions. They are considered to be one of the most essential elements of Japanese art and culture.

Every garden type is characterized by its own form of beauty. The paths within are defined by their own historical value. The appearance of tea gardens gave birth to the existence and populace of pathways .The long distance in between tea gardens and their destination helps visitors to be able to relax and meditate.

The History of paths could be traced to the 16th and 18th century when a new system known as Sankin-kotai arose where traveling was restricted around the country and people needed to move around. Stroll gardens appeared. They were called Kaiyushiki.

Pathways became more needed at that time. The ultimate goal of Japanese garden paths is to lead a person or an object towards a particular point. You can easily miss your steps if you are not careful while walking on the rough or rounded natural stones.

The Japanese gardens are largely defined by their pathways, they serve as a medium of instruction that visitors follow towards viewing a significant object or place. They also control the progression of motion from step to step.

Garden paths in Japan are divided into the Shin, Gyo and So classification. Let’s explain them more in depth.

Laid Stone Paths

You can call them nobedan as well, which means stone carpet. As the name implies you lay the stones on the pathway which makes it possible for people to walk closely beside each other.

Shin Gyo So Systems: There are three levels of formality in Japanese aesthetics. This system is known as the Shin-Gyo-So system. We could translate this ranking sistem more or less in to formal, Semi-Formal and informal. It is not only used in Japanese aesthetics, it can also be used for other Japanese elements such as calligraphy, ceramics, tea tradition and the Japanese flower arrangement.

Shin Style Paths: Shin which can be translated as Formal could be represented by a nobedan path which are always simple and cut carefully. These style paths are often made with dressed and natural stones shaped into square and rectangle respectively. You can find them in an approach to a gate or the main hall of a temple as they are mostly laid out in straight lines.

Shin Style Paths in Japanese gardens
Via: Grackle

Gyo style Path: Gyo is translated as Ordinary or Semi-Formal. This Japanese stone garden paths should consist of simple stepping stone combined with a cut stone. The Gyo style paths are a combination of natural and dressed stones which gives the path an all-round perfect look.

So style Path: So which translated as informal would be a normal simple path of gravel or packed earth. The So style garden signifies nature in the Shin-Gyo-So system. You should design the garden paths to look as natural as possible. Different sizes and styles of unfinished stones should be used to create paths that are surrounded by trees and bush plants.

So style informal Japanese garden Paths
Via: Grackle

The Stepping Stone Paths

The tobi-ishi paths are one important makeup of the Japanese garden. You can refer to them as the Flying stones or skipping stones. Their origin can be traced to the development of the tea garden.

The introduction of the stepping stone paths came about in the 16th century. They are aesthetic embellishments used to prevent the damage of the moss in the tea garden.

This damage can be done when you accidentally step on the moss in the garden, you have to be extra careful when walking on the stepping stones so you would not accidentally miss a step. More than two people are able to walk in close proximity in a very direct manner. This leaves no room for chitchats along the garden.

While walking threw the garden, there is the possibility that your sandals and shoes may become dirty as you place your feet on the naked soil. As a result of this, Tea Masters like Sen Rikyu propagated the flying stone path.

With this kind of Japanese stone paths, It is advisable that the stones placed are more than 5cm preferably 6cm above ground level. Extra caution should be applied to various shapes used for the stone paths. Some are uneven, while others are even so as to create irregular circular and rectangular forms.

Stepping stone paths - Japanese rock garden design
Source: Pinterest

Stepping stones are located at various points. That’s why they tend to have different unusual patterns. The positioning of the stones should be accurate and exact. So you have to arrange the stones in a manner that benefits their various colour, sizes and shapes.

Different Smaller Garden Paths

Choku-uchi path: Choku-uchi is translated as straight hit or direct strike. A Choku-uchi path consists of straight line of single stepping stones. You may not find stretches of long lines in the tea garden, but it is possible you find short ones,

Omagari: Omagari which is translated as Great Bend. In large gardens stepping stones are arranged in curves, which causes the scenery of the garden to be out of sight but gives you glimpse of the garden as you keep going.  Omagiri can be found in the secret garden of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. The garden has several old tea houses collected from all over Japan.

Omagari Japanese stone path
Source: Pinterest

Chidori-gake: The name given to this garden can be traced to the little Chidori bird (plover, sanderling). Chidori birds walk in a zigzag pattern so stepping stone having similar patterns are named after them. You can find a short Chidori-gake stone path in the Century old garden of the Shinto priest house Nishimura-ke.

Fumiwake-ishi: This is a stone path which divides a path into two, if a stepping stone path splits into two separate paths, a bigger stone is placed at the intersection. As you move in this garden, you can wait as you think on the path to follow. Fumiwake-ishi is said to belong to the Trump stones. It is not wise to let the path split into three branches however if it occurs it is advisable to have two separate forks. This stone path is located at the Small inner garden in the Zen temple.

Garan-ishi: Garan-ishi refers to Temple stones. They are very old stones which serve as foundation of the temples. You can often use them in the tea gardens as Fumiwake-ishi. (Path dividing stones). Today, a lot of Garan-ishi stones are produced to be mainly used for gardens.. The Nezu Museum of Art has three tea houses which consists of a waiting hut for guests. The garan-ishi is placed in front of these waiting huts.

Gan-uchi: The literal translation of the Gan-uchi stone path is flying geese strike. This path is similar to long zigzag pattern which mirrors geese in flight.

Kutsunugi-ishi: This is a Japanese stone path that refers to the stone in front of a house that are used to take off shoes. It can also be called a shoe leaving stone.

Kyaku-ishi: Another name you can call the Kyaku-ishi stones are Heavy Guest stones. These are the stones that you can find front of an inner gate in a tea garden. You place your feet as you meet the host who opens the gate from the inside while he stands on the host stone.

Fumi-ishi: These are the very first and last stones that you happen to find in a tea garden. At times, there are two or three stones which form stairs, You can call the first one Hatsu-no-ishi(first stone), the second one is Ochi-ishi(falling stone), and the third one is Nori-ishi which means the mounting stone.

Fumi-ishi - stepping stones in Japanese tea garden
A: Hatsu-no-ishi, B: ochi- ishi, C: Nori-ishi ( source)

Ita-ishi: These are long and rectangular stones which you can also call Board stones. They interrupt the rhythm and piques the visual interest of the visitor.

Sute-ishi: Sute-ishi are also known as thrown-away stones. These are stones that are not easily noticeable. They appear as if scattered in a random manner. Another name you can call the sute-ishi is mamemaki-ishi which means scattered beans method which suggests that the stones are made to look as if they had been thrown down carelessly.

Rikudatsi-ishi: You can also refer to this stone as Sandal stone. It is used to leave your sandals behind before setting foot on the balcony.

Yaku-ishi: Yaku-ishi is also referred to as Trump stone, these stones are used to point out the significant aspects of the garden scenery. They are not only used for adding aesthetics to the garden, they serve as a form of prevention of damage to the moss in case people step on them.

Raihaiseki(haiseki): This is known as a special purpose stone. You can also refer to it as the contemplation stone. If you want to pay reverence to a rock group, you stand on this stone as you do so.

Fuji-ishi: This is also known as the entry stone. It is mainly placed by the small entrance to the tea room.

Conclusively, Japanese gardening has undergone a lot of changes over the years, yet the beauty of the gardens never depreciates instead it appreciates as time goes on. You can say Japanese garden paths have a role to play in the beauty aesthetics and also preservation of the overall Japanese culture.

You may be interested in to Japanese Interior design as well. Read its features and get inspired.

1 thought on “Different types of Japanese garden paths & Stone meanings”

  1. Interesting post! I’m curious to know what the stone meanings are.

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