The Power of Stone in the Seattle Japanese Garden

BY CORINNE KENNEDY

A very large, nearly vertical stone – a powerful focal point as we enter the Seattle Japanese Garden. (photo: Corinne Kennedy)

A very large, nearly vertical stone – a powerful focal point as we enter the Seattle Japanese Garden. (photo: Corinne Kennedy)

Stone in the Gardens of Japan

Stone is essential to Japanese gardens – according to many authorities, more important than any other garden element.  Shinto, Japan’s earliest religion, saw gods (kami) in all of nature – residing in stones as well as plants and animals.  Similarly, visitors to the Seattle Japanese Garden experience the dynamic relationships among all its elements, including stone.  This unlike Western gardens, which tend to elevate plants above all else.

In the 11th-century Sakuteiki, the oldest Japanese gardening manual to survive, garden making is called the art of setting stones (ishi wo taten koto).  Masters of the art believed that the placement of stones established a garden’s essential skeleton.  Yet stones contribute much more than structure and a sense of stability or permanence; they are also dynamic elements, bringing power and energy to the garden.  Change, however, is slow and subtle.  The delicate patterns of moss and lichen and the beauty of weathering develop only over many years.

Careful stone selection is essential to bringing harmony and balance to the garden.  Stone-setting artisans pay close attention to how each stone relates to the site and the other stones placed there as well as to the stone’s own characteristics.

Various systems of classification have been developed.  The 15th-century book, Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes, lists 48 types of stone, all with evocative names – for example, “Hovering Mist Rock.”  A much simpler classification includes just five types, generally given names such as tall vertical, low vertical, inclining (diagonal), reclining, and horizontal.  Large stones were especially valued for the power and vitality they would bring to the garden, and were chosen carefully according to size, shape, color, grain and weathering.  To achieve an impression of naturalness, it was considered best to be consistent, using the same rock type for the garden’s largest stones.

Both ancient and newer texts discuss in detail how stones are to be placed.  They should appear stable and as if set by natural forces.  In addition, they should be buried deeply in the ground and oriented as they occurred in nature.  At least one third of each stone, and sometimes as much as two thirds, should be below ground.  In most cases, the widest point should be at ground level, not above it.

Traditionally, space was to be organized according to one or more scalene triangles (triangles consisting of unequal sides).  Stones would be placed at the corner points, most often grouped in odd numbers (three, five, seven, etc.).  According to directions in the 15th century manual mentioned above, “…first set the largest rock, and then set each succeeding rock in proportion to it.”  The largest and most imposing would generally be a tall upright stone, with smaller stones on either side.  This arrangement “provides stability and movement and embodies the three directional forces of vertical, horizontal and diagonal.  Culturally, these correspond to heaven, earth and man.”[1] 

The above is a brief summary of the practices our garden’s visitors are most likely to find relevant or interesting.  Ancient manuals, however, discuss stone-setting practices and taboos in elaborate detail.  Contemporary practitioners are likely to depart from many of these traditional requirements.

[1] Maggie Oster, Reflections of the Spirit:  Japanese Gardens in America, 1993.

The Seattle Japanese Garden is a stroll garden, with a central pond and a gravel path that winds around it. (photo: 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

The Seattle Japanese Garden is a stroll garden, with a central pond and a gravel path that winds around it. (photo: 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

With the development of stroll gardens, beginning in the late 16th century, paths became an essential garden element.  Most featured a central pond surrounded by a winding gravel path, and included a smaller tea garden (roji), with narrower, stepping-stone paths.  Unlike some earlier styles, which were experienced visually, from a stationary position – stroll gardens are experienced spatially as well as visually, as we move within them.

Stone in our own Stroll Garden

Here, in the Seattle Japanese Garden, the main gravel paths take us on a journey through the varied landscapes of Japan – open woodland, pond & water’s edge, village, cherry orchard, tea garden and mountain.  Stones are an integral part of this journey, beginning with the cut stone paving of the entry village that’s repeated in the fishing village at the garden’s northern end.  The main paths, however, are more informal and naturalistic in appearance – and more important in directing our journey.

The teahouse garden ( roji ), where stepping-stones wind through both inner and outer garden areas. (photo: Corinne Kennedy)

The teahouse garden (roji), where stepping-stones wind through both inner and outer garden areas. (photo: Corinne Kennedy)

At various important points along the way – crossing streams, walking within the teahouse garden (roji), ascending the mountain area to its waterfall – the gravel paths transition to stepping-stones.  These vary in size, from the very large stones that cross the streams feeding the pond to the much smaller stones within the roji, but all sizes cause us to walk more slowly.  Stepping carefully from stone to stone, our consciousness is altered:  we become more mindful of our surroundings and how we are experiencing the garden.

The stones that form the mountain area’s waterfall, including its largest & most important 8 ½ ton stone. With time, they have developed traceries of moss. Also visible, in the upper left corner, is an 11-story stone pagoda. (photo: Corinne Kennedy)

The stones that form the mountain area’s waterfall, including its largest & most important 8 ½ ton stone. With time, they have developed traceries of moss. Also visible, in the upper left corner, is an 11-story stone pagoda. (photo: Corinne Kennedy)

But the garden’s largest stones – not part of any path and with a fascinating history – are even more dynamic and powerful.  Juki Iida, the renowned landscape designer who oversaw our garden’s 1960 creation, had visited several residential Japanese-style gardens the previous year.  He concluded that their stones were too small and too pretty to be appropriate for a public garden that aspired to authenticity.  Fortunately, he was taken to private property in the Cascade Mountains, where he purchased 800 tons of Bandera Mountain granite.  The stones varied in size from ½ ton to 8 ½ tons.  The largest became the main stone of our waterfall, located in the garden’s mountain area, south of the pond.

Waterfalls – common to Japan’s central mountain ranges and resonating with ancient meanings – are one of Japan’s most important garden features.  Shintoism believed that the gods (kami), are attracted to waterfalls; Buddhism viewed the path to the waterfall as the path to enlightenment (nirvana).  Here, in our waterfall, the elements of water, plants and large, moss-covered stones come together to form one of the Seattle Japanese Garden’s most powerful features.

Perhaps the second most important stone in our garden is the imposing, nearly vertical stone located just past the entry gate.  Surrounded by some of Japan’s most iconic plants – a weeping Japanese maple, a pine tree, ferns and moss – it’s a dynamic focal point.  Around it are smaller, more horizontal stones.

A large, angular stone that represents an island in the sea is located in the pond, south of its two bridges.  Visitors will sometimes see a great blue heron standing there, on the lookout for koi (a form of carp) small enough for it to swallow.  Another large stone, horizontal and organically-shaped, is embedded in the cut stone courtyard just outside the entry gate.  It tells us that we’re passing over a threshold – leaving the everyday world behind and entering a special place.

The imposing rock wall that forms a background edge to the fishing village at the northern end of the pond. (photo: Aurora Santiago)

The imposing rock wall that forms a background edge to the fishing village at the northern end of the pond. (photo: Aurora Santiago)

Very large stones were also used to construct the rock wall behind the fishing village at the northern end of the pond.  This wall represents the foothills of the mountains, but its stones also contribute to the garden’s structure, creating an important edge within the garden.  Edging stones of various sizes are repeated throughout, particularly along the sides of the pond – and are important aesthetically as well as functionally.  According to Marc Peter Keane, “Everything of the whole is expressed at the edge.  Along a path, something as simple as the treatment of the edges makes a difference in the whole design… creating an overall pattern and rhythmic flow.”[1]


[1] Marc Peter Keane, Japanese Garden Notes:  A Visual Guide to Elements and Design, 2017.

2019 reconstruction of the pond edges in the Seattle Japanese Garden. Bandera granite stones were obtained – the same type used in 1960 to create the garden. (photo: David Rosen/Slickpix Photography)

2019 reconstruction of the pond edges in the Seattle Japanese Garden. Bandera granite stones were obtained – the same type used in 1960 to create the garden. (photo: David Rosen/Slickpix Photography)

Unfortunately, winter rains erode the pond’s edges, displacing its edging stones.  Just this past winter, a major renovation project involved draining the northern half of the pond, removing sediment, and rebuilding its edges.  We are fortunate that Bandera Mountain granite, used to build the garden in 1960, was still available.  Nearly 12 tons was purchased – including some very large stones.  All were painstakingly set by hand to re-create the edging, with its subtle patterns and dynamic rhythm.[1]

Much smaller rounded stones were used to create two features in the southern portion of the garden – the rocky cape (suhama) that projects into the pond and the dry stream bed (karesansui) just past the entry gate.  Both are references to Japanese garden history:  the former is modeled after a feature in the earliest known stroll garden, Katsura Imperial Villa; the latter represents the austere stone gardens, sometimes called Zen gardens, that predated the creation of the stroll garden style.

Stone was also used to create various garden ornaments and structures – including lanterns, the roji’s water basin, the stairs that lead to the top of the rock wall, an “island” in the pond, the 11-story mountain pagoda, and the stone bridge that was built during the Depression, decades before our garden’s creation.  It’s clearly not a Japanese-style bridge, but Juki Iida decided that it could remain.  It contributes to our experience of the garden as “rooted in place,” belonging to this unique place on our planet.


[1] See senior gardener Peter Putnicki’s blog article about the renovation process:  https://www.seattlejapanesegarden.org/blog/2019/3/21/behind-the-closed-gates-major-renovation-projects-are-happening-at-seattle-japanese-garden

One of the garden’s stone lanterns, covered in moss. (photo: David Rosen/SlickPix Photography)

One of the garden’s stone lanterns, covered in moss. (photo: David Rosen/SlickPix Photography)

As we’ve seen, stone has been used in the Seattle Japanese Garden for both symbolic and practical purposes.  Stones represent mountains, waterfalls, streams, islands and other elements of nature.  Important garden ornaments are made of stone.  More significantly, stones are essential to the garden’s construction, maintenance and renovation.   Used to create paths and stairs, they also hold back the soil at the edges of the pond and behind the fishing village’s rock wall.  Varying in size, shape, color, texture and use, stones are nevertheless a unifying aesthetic element connecting water, plants, animals, ornaments and structures.

The photo above shows a moss-covered lantern overlooking the pond.  Together with the stone it rests upon, it brings together water, plant and stone.  Yet even this small detail, like the monumental waterfall, embodies the beauty and power we experience as we move through our special garden, listening to its stones.

Corinne Kennedy is a Garden Guide, frequent contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog, and retired garden designer.

Corinne Kennedy