Tuesday 3 June 2014

Stepping Stones in the Japanese Garden


Adachi Museum, Matsue
Stepping stones are a feature of many Japanese gardens; we often think of stepping stones being synonymous with such gardens, yet they did not really begin to appear in literature until the mid to late 16th century. Stepping stones or tobi ishi ( literally 'flying stones) begin to be found in Japanese garden with the development of the tea garden or roji (路地) which occurred around that time. There is an apocryphal story that stepping stones were first used by a hermit called Dõtei who noticed that the attendants of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) laid down a number of objects over a muddy path when the Shogun came to visit him at his hermitage. (Much like Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have done for Queen Elizabeth I, by spreading his cape over a muddy puddle.) Before this time paths in gardens would have been spread with gravel, or be composed of flat stone laid in a formal pavement style, or be simply bare earth.

Path leafing to a 'Shoe Leaving Stone', Koto-in
There are two principal aspects to the layout of stepping stones; the practical and the aesthetic. The stones used should be flat topped with an even surface, the size of the top section varies considerably. Often one will find quite small stones used approx 30-40cm, though this will vary according to the relative status of the garden, It is important though that the stones be large enough to accommodate a footfall comfortably. There are several schools of thought in respect of the height of the top surface above the finished ground surface. As a general rule the top will project at least 25-30mm above the ground, though during the Edo period (1603-1867) when social conventions became more rigidly codified, it was laid down in garden manuals that differing ranks of society were reflected in the height of stepping stones. The more elevated your position the higher were your stepping stones! A path that leads the viewer to a building will often lead to a much deeper larger stone known as kutsunugi ishi (literally a shoe leaving stone), from which one steps up into the building. Kutsunugi ishi can be of considerable proportions, and may even be paired when the building is set well above ground level. In a tea garden this is also known as fuji ishi, or the entry stone, which is placed by the small entrance to the tea room.The distance apart that the stones are set will vary, a rule of thumb is that is should be an easy pace from centre to centre, so the gap between the stones will be about a generous width of a man's fist.

Path with garan ishi, Namikawa residence, Kyoto
Of considerable practical importance in setting a stepping stone path is to ensure that the stones are stable in the ground and will nor rock when walked over. If the stone is thick then a fair proportion of the stone will be buried underground and the soil back fill can be tamped in hard to ensure it does not move. Thin stones of less than 150mm depth are more likely to rock and are more difficult to bed in securely. If only this type of stone is available than it may be necessary to pack the stone with concrete, but it is most important to ensure that no concrete is showing above the finished ground surface. Choosing the correct stones in the first instance is very important. In Japanese rock yards, there is usually a section of the yard dedicated to stepping stones, Outside of Japan this is rarely the case, so it is a matter of searching out suitable material. It is not necessary that the stones be on the same geological origin, a variety of type of stone will add variation to the path. Where paths cross a large stone is placed, sometimes this takes the form of a garan ishi (a foundation stone for a pillar of a temple), these 'crossing point' stones are referred to as norikoe ishi. Norikoe ishi also provide the function of being a place where the viewer may momentarily pause to take in a garden view before proceeding along the path.
Katsura Rikyu, the straight line path is to the left
The actual disposition of stepping stones is very much a matter of aesthetic judgement. For the tea master Sen No Rikyu function overruled aesthetics in the setting out of a path. A later tea master Furuta Oribe, observed the matter from the opposite perspective. Stepping stones are generally not laid in a straight line from start to the end. The stones are usually laid in a slight zig-zag line that will often curve gently. At Katsura Rikyu Palace, where stepping stones are used in many parts of the garden, there is one section where a stepping stone path is laid in a straight line, its novelty is in its unusualness. Mostly the stones will fall right and left so that they naturally fall under the feet of a gentle forward stride pattern. Such a path is intended to direct the attention of the viewer towards the ground, to heighten the attention paid to the act of walking itself. It brings mindfulness to an activity we tend to take for granted. Also in the context of the garden it acts to slow down the pace of viewer, it is difficult, if not recklessly foolhardy, to rush along a stepping stone path. The path directs your attention towards being mindful. The path brings us back to ourselves, even though we are moving forwards we never leave where we are.
Stepping stone in a stream, Sanzen-in

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