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Japanese Garden: What Kinds of Rocks and Gravel Can You Use?

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With all the stress of the modern world, many of us want to create an oasis of peace in and around our homes. A Japanese garden might be just the thing you’d like to add to your outdoor area in order to achieve a space for peaceful contemplation and meditation.

Let’s explore the Japanese rock garden, different elements of Japanese gardens, and the types of rocks and gravel you can use in your garden below.     

Japanese Garden: What Kinds of Rocks and Gravel Can You Use?

What is a Japanese Rock Garden? 

A Japanese rock garden, often referred to as a Zen garden or Zen rock garden, has an ancient history in Japan. It was and is considered a sacred place for Zen monks to carry out deep meditation and contemplation. 

In rock gardens, rocks are arranged to symbolize objects such as trees, mountains, animals and other elements of the natural world. The gravel (also referred to as sand) used in a rock garden can also have symbolic significance. It is especially useful for representing some sort of movement you would see occurring in nature. 

To create a Japanese rock garden, you’ll need:

  • rocks
  • gravel or sand
  • perhaps bricks
  • A wooden rake
  • Optional small shrubs and moss.

Many people also like to add a bench to a Japanese rock garden to make it more hospitable and better facilitate sitting, relaxing, and thinking

While it’s a common belief that a rock garden needs to be completely dry (in other words, not have plants), the truth is that many rock gardens make plants (such as shrubs) an important feature. Use your creativity and don’t feel hemmed in by convention if you don’t want to. 

Different type of rocks in Japanese garden design

What are Trump Stones?

Trump Stones (yaku-ishi) are used to call attention to some of the most important features of the garden. The first trump stone seen in the garden is generally positioned near the entrance through which guests come in. 

Remember, you must tap into your creative and intuitive senses when designing and choosing all the specific elements of your garden. Spend time in the space where your garden will be, picturing things and trying to see the garden from the perspective of a visitor. This will help you decide on the trump stones and other elements of the design. 

What are Japanese Paths (roji)?

The origin of the word ‘Roji’ is found in the Lotus sutra. The Lotus Sutra is among the most significant Buddhist texts. The roji (or paths) of Japanese gardens were often traditionally used to lead visitors to the garden’s ceremonial teahouse. The paths of a Japanese garden are meant to make people enjoying and visiting the garden have a transcendent feeling as if they are experiencing and making contact with a spiritual world. 

The ‘Roji’ will generally always be accompanied by an arrangement using water basins.

The paths in a Japanese garden are most often comprised of stepping stones, but certain parts of the garden may feature more unified paths, as well. 

Stepping Stones (tob-ishi) and Kinds of Paths

Stepping stones (tob-ishi) comprise the garden path. Approximately half of the stepping stones in a garden should be chosen for practical reasons and the other half for an aesthetic effect.

Imagine yourself as a visitor to your garden, and decide on what you feel the most harmonious yet also functional arrangement would be. 

The ways in which stepping stones are arranged determine the directions someone takes through the garden and impacts the pace at which they do so.

For obvious reasons, horizontal stones are the type of stones used for walking on them threw a Japanese garden. Horizontal stones have a top that has a definite horizontal shape, making them safe and stable for stepping on. 

What is Nobedan Path?

A Nobedan path is a type of Japanese garden path that is very different from the stepping stone variety. It is a path made of stones that are paved over, bringing together the smaller stones. The Nobedan path has a large and rectangular look.

In a way, the Nobedan path has a more utilitarian purpose than the stepping stones we’ll read about later. It isn’t meant to draw the visitor’s specific attention, but rather is simply there for him or her to walk on.

It’s a smart idea to put a Nobedan path in a place where you’d especially like the visitor to stop and enjoy the view from that specific point. 

Stone Settings (ishigumi) 

The different ways in which decorative stones can be arranged in a Japanese garden are called Ishigumi.

An extremely popular stone triad is called Sanzon-ishigumi. It is a specifically religious sort of stone triad sometimes seen in Japanese gardens.

Sanzon-ishigumi includes a middle stone that is considered a deity-stone, and this stone has two stones on either side as its supporters.

An extremely popular stone triad is called Sanzon-ishigumi | rocks in Japanese gardens

Another type of stone arrangement is called Yodomari. These types of arrangements are made by situating rocks in a pond in a line arrangement before an island. In this arrangement, the stones symbolize anchored ships that await the treasures that can be found on the island. 

How well you design and arrange the ishigumi in your Japanese garden will help to show your skill and vision.

This is traditionally one of the ways by which Japanese gardens are evaluated. There are a number of different kinds of stone types found in Japanese gardens. These include tall vertical, low vertical, inclining, reclining, and horizontal. 

Use of Boulders in a Japanese Garden

Boulders are another important component of the Japanese garden. You’ll need to take your time (and probably consult with a professional designer) to decide what sizes and shapes of boulders would do best with the stones and other elements you choose for your garden. 

The types of boulders used in Japanese gardens are often sourced from watercourses. This means that they tend to have a rounded shape and be gray in color.

An alternative is a boulder with some lichen and moss and iron stains. This type of boulder has usually been in one location for an extended period of time.

Big boulder in Japanese garden

11 tips to keep in mind when choosing boulders for your Japanese garden

  1. when you choose your boulders, keep in mind the type of small stones, gravel, and other elements you’ll use in your garden. You want to keep things coherent, to foster a tranquil state of mind for you and visitors to the garden. 
  2. boulders are extremely heavy. It’s common for homeowners not to understand just how heavy they can be
  3. Transport can be really expensive
  4. Positioning boulders on the right place (and potentially re-positioning) can be hard.
  5. They can make a lot of damage to other parts of their property if they’re not handled with care. 
  6. When deciding on a company to deliver your small rocks, look into whether they can deliver your boulders, as well. This will likely save you money.
  7. Even though large boulders can be expensive to obtain and have delivered (cranes will often need to be used), don’t fall into the trap of choosing smaller ones just in the effort to save money. This is because if the smaller boulders don’t fit into your garden’s existing elements and aesthetic, you won’t be satisfied with them and you’ll want to replace them anyway, leading to an even greater cost. 
  8. If you cannot obtain or cannot afford large boulders and their delivery and placement, you can consider choosing smaller ones and placing them in clusters, if you’re comfortable with that look. This can be quite attractive, as long as it’s done with an artistic eye. It’s interesting to know that when boulders are seen in the natural world, they often appear in clusters with a variety of sizes and shapes. 
  9. The larger the boulders you’re getting, the most careful you need to be to ensure that the contractor you choose is properly insured and very experienced.
  10. Remember that boulders need to be planted into the ground instead of just placed upon it. 
  11. You’ll likely want to nesting your boulders, too. Nesting is when you plant some vegetation around the boulder, so it appears as it would in nature. 

Shaped Shrubs (Karikomi)

Shaped shrubs are an extremely popular component of Japanese gardens. They are used to bring to mind images of natural landscapes, such as hills and boulders covered in moss. The Japanese word karikomi refers to the idea of shearing something back.

japanese garden Shaped Shrubs (Karikomi)

With shaped shrubs for a Japanese garden, you’ll have to carefully shear and shape the shrubs into forms and meticulously maintain these shapes. You can find amazing book on Amazon about pruning shrubs here.

When planning your karikomi, you’ll want to think carefully about the overall aesthetic of your garden and how you want to experience it. Consider the spaces between and relationships between components of the garden and picture the overall composition.

Karikomi can help to make your Japanese garden seem an entirely separate space from the outside world, contributing to the ability to contemplate and meditate for you and your guests. 

If you’d prefer, you can choose to have more informally shaped karikomi instead of the more traditional precise variety. Such shrubs will have more of an organic and laidback look.

6 Things you need to know about maintaining Karikomi

  1. In other to maintain any kind of karikomi, shearing on a regular basis (more often for more formal shapes and probably less often for some more organic shapes) is needed.
  2. You’ll need to do a lot of pruning and thinning
  3. Make sure that you choose the correct kind of plant material for your shaped shrubs. It will need to be an evergreen variety, able to create new growth below the leaf tissue that is active, and have foliage of a finer type.
  4. The most traditional type of plant material used in Japan for this purpose is small-leaved evergreen azaleas. You could alternatively use boxwoods or dwarf Japanese Holly. These plants are also popular in Japan. 
  5. You’ll probably need to do your shearing in late spring or early summer. This will make sure that there will be time for flower bud development for the following season. It will also help to avoid regrowth that is excessively rapid. After this, you’ll have to do light trimming in order to keep things in the desired shape. 
  6. Remember that the longest branches should always be the lowest ones and that branches above should be progressively shorter as the shrub moves upwards.

As you can see, having karikomi as a part of your Japanese garden is a significant commitment. Many people enjoy the work, however, as it helps to promote mindfulness and provides a sense of accomplishment. 

If you don’t have much experience in growing and maintaining shrubs in general, you should do some research and perhaps ask gardening-enthusiast friends for tips.

What Kind of Gravel Do You use in a Japanese Garden?

The type of gravel you use will depend on your specific preferences and the ways you in which you want to use the garden.

Tips for using right Gravel in your Japanese garden:

  1. The most common type of Gravel used by many Japanese rock garden creators is crushed fine gravel. It provides great ease when it comes to using a rake to create patterns mimicking some of the movements of nature (such as water, for example). 
  2. You could also use rounded pebbles of very tiny size, instead. This can be an especially good choice if you think you’d like to walk in this area of the garden with bare feet. You could even find that this will give the bottom of your feet a bit of a soothing massage. If you’d like to walk on this part of the garden with bare feet, crushed gravel will really be out of the question. 
  3. Yet another option for the gravel components of your Japanese garden is poultry grit. If you want the patterns you put into the grave with a rake to last a very long time, this might be a good choice. It’s also possible that poultry grit will be less expensive than other options, meaning it could be more budget-friendly. 
  4. Use a color of gravel that will harmonize with the other components of your Japanese garden. When planning your garden and choosing its elements, always keep this in mind.
Tips for using right Gravel in your Japanese garden

The purpose of a Japanese garden is to provide a space of wonderful tranquility that encourages a completive and meditative mindset. 

I found amazing miniature desk Zen garden on Amazon where you can rest your eyes on. You can check it here.

Type of Rocks You Can Use in a Japanese Garden 

There is a plethora of different rock types in North America. The choice you make will depend on our preferences, specific garden and landscape, and even the characteristics of your house. You should ask a designer or garden professionals for their opinions on what will work best for you. 

There are many kinds of Rocks (in terms of mineral and geological composition) that can be used in Japanese gardens. The ones you choose depend on what you find to be available and within budget, as well as your own artistic sense. 

Traditionally, many creators of Japanese gardens have tried to find rocks that once belonged to someone of a covetable status. Choosing forms of stone that have eccentricities of some sort is also a popular decision. 

As we discussed earlier in the article but did not delve into in-depth, there are several general shapes of stone you can consider using in your Japanese garden.

  1. Tall vertical stones are stones that are taller than they are wide. They are able to stand upright and it’s very common to see them used as the focal component of a group arrangement.
  2. Low vertical stones are similar to tall upright but are shorter. Inclining stones are stones that have a visible diagonal shape. These may either incline from the right to the left or the other way around. These stones tend to be very useful as support stones in triadic group arrangements.
  3. Reclining stones are stones that appear to have an arched shape as they come from the ground. They do this in a rather symmetrical way. 


As we’ve seen here, a Japanese garden can be a charming addition to almost any home. The specific elements and the minutiae of design are all up to you, giving you the chance to use your creativity and artistic eye. It’s best to consult with a designer, too, and you’ll need to do your research on suitable contractors for garden elements such as boulders and stone placement. 

Once your Japanese garden is complete, you’ll be pleased that you made all the effort. You’ll have a space to escape from the hectic everyday world in this spiritual retreat. Perhaps you’ll enjoy sipping a cup of tea while you contemplate the meaning and significance of the world and the next steps you should take to create the life you desire. 

Learn more about minimalistic Japanese interior design and get even more inspired.