Ian Ropke writes:
Stones are, believe it or not, the most important feature of a Japanese garden. If the soil is its “flesh”, then the stones are its “bones”.
Garden stones fall into three basic categories: “named” stones, unimportant “unnamed” stones, and stones which already existed on the site.
The most famous named stone in Japan is called Fujito after the beach in Okayama Prefecture where it was found. It has counted among its owners Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of the most important characters in Japanese history. Wrapped in silk brocade, Fujito was moved from garden to garden to the accompaniment of music. At present it is set in the garden of Sampo-in in the Daigo-ji Temple complex in southeast Kyoto.
Do-it-yourself landscape gardening is a dangerous undertaking for an inexperienced person in Japan, as there are many taboos associated with stones. Bad fortune can come from setting upright a rock that was found lying horizontally, or from setting horizontally a stone that was found standing vertically. Setting a stone upside down releases the evil spirit in the stone resulting in a whole heap of problems.
There are five colors of stone, one for each element: red for fire, black for water, blue/green for wood, white for metal, and yellow for earth. The most extreme repercussion for messing up in this category results from making the mistake of planting a tree with red blossoms next to a red stone set in the south of a garden of a person born in a year associated with fire. This is called a combination of four fires and the result will be that the unfortunate person’s house will burn down.
To learn more about Japanese gardens, try to get a copy of Japanese Garden Design by Marc Peter Keane, or the The Art of Zen Gardens: A Guide to their Creation and Enjoyment by A. K. Davidson; this excellent how-to book is perfect if you want to create your own Japanese garden.
Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.
Readers might also be interested to know that Marc Peter Keane (a former Kyoto resident and contributing editor to Kyoto Journal), has just come out with a new book on The Japanese Tea Garden and celebrated it with a show of his Bontei garden trays at the Portland Japanese Garden, Oregon.