Japanese Furuya Stones
Furuya stones are one of the more important types collected and appreciated by Japanese stone connoisseurs because this is one of a few stone types deeply rooted in the history and culture of their native region where they occur. These stones are valued for their dramatic yet subtle features that define outstanding suiseki and because they fit so well to the Japanese aesthetic. The book Densho-seki or Historical Stones contain illustrations and descriptions of 23 Furuya stones. These are just a few of the many stones loved by famous painters, poets, and historical figures. The oldest Furuya stone is named “Hongan Reiseki” which is reported to have found by the Buddhist monk Shinnan about 800 years ago. Aside from this special stone, the general appreciation of Furuya in Japan has been since the 18th century when they were described in two Edo period books.
Most Furuya stones represent a wide range of different landscape scenes. Yet good figure and structure stones also are found among the many Furuya stones harvested in Wakayama prefecture over the last two centuries. The name Furuya originated from an area known in earlier days as Furuya Valley. The stones are found in different areas of the mountains and valleys which result in different types of Furuya stones. These stones are produced in mineral veins in shale running east to west according to Tanimoto. Stones originating in Furuya and Uridani, two small areas within the mountain range, are described as having hard quality, wrinkled surface, and shiny green color. At the beginning of the Meiji, stones found in Uridani were referred to as Uridani stones, but later they were included under the broader name Furuya. Furuya stones found in Akitsudani, another small area, are described as having fine wrinkles, and more light blue in color according to Hekisai. The more recent writings of Sen-En-Kyo used more modern names for these areas. He wrote that these stones are “found in the upper reaches of the Iwashirogawa and the Nambugawa Rivers and also in mountains surrounding the Houyougawa and Akitsugawa Rivers.”
Furuya stones range in size from tiny bean-size to medium-size stones approaching 40 cm wide or more. Sen-En-Eyo considers them to be calcitic mudstone or marlite that is found in sedimentary deposits in the Furuya mountain range. Stones were harvested mainly from Murou, but are also found in Uridani and Akitsudani counties. The stones are dug from the earth and are covered with orangish-brown fine soil that has to be removed to expose the beauty of the Furuya stones. The covering soil is scraped off with a fine wire brush and needles are used to clean the crevices. After cleaning, they are often treated with a natural wax to give them an attractive patina.
The interesting formations found in Furuya result from a long exposure to the elements, particularly to water flowing through the marlite rock formation. Softer portions of the stones are eroded leaving the harder elements that result in complex formations. Most Furuya stones are composed of two distinct layers—a flattened basal portion and the larger eroded section that forms the landscape or figure scenes. The basal portion is natural and is referred to in Japan as “kutsu” or “shoe”. There are like the Italian Ligurian stones in that the flattened section is on top toward the sun and the eroded portions of the stones are facing downward into the soil. When they are displayed in exhibition, they are shown in an upside down position, opposite to the way they actually occur in nature.
Furuya stones often have more elaborate bases than are seen with most other types of suiseki. The reason for this is unknown. The low, more detailed feet and walls of many of the bases complement the more complex features of most Furuya stones. Among the great Furuya stone base makers were the late Miyawaki and Tanimoto; Hotomi is still making beautiful detailed bases for these stones.
The Kishu clan, one of the three branches of the Tokugawa shogunate, maintained control of this region and restricted the harvest of Furuya stones through the Edo period until 1871 when the feudal system was abolished by the new Meiji government. Prior to this, villagers who found a Furuya stone were required to turn it over to the clan. According to Sen-En-Eyo, a special office/officer was assigned to manage Furuya stones for the ruling clan. The Kishu clan used Furuya stones as special gifts to the shogunate and other feudal clans. Members of the literati were the only people allowed to own Furuya stones.
Mera Hekisai was among the first people to search in the mountains for Furuya stones soon after the ban against commoners collecting Furuya stones ended in 1871. Hekisai, a medical doctor, began collecting these stones at the age of 46 and continued until late in his life. He assembled approximately 1,000 of these stones. Hekisai obtained a copy of the Chinese stone catalog, Jimei Shipu, produced by the Chinese artist Wang Jimei that was first published in Osaka, Japan. Impressed with Wang’s catalog, Hekisai began to work on his own stone catalog. Hekisai asked Wang Jimei to write a preface or title to his new book. In 1894, the Hekisai Stone Catalog was published and became then, and remains today, an important reference in Japanese suiseki stone culture
Furuya stones as important suiseki obtained another important boost with the publication of Tanimoto and Murata’s book Furuya Famous Stones in 1969. Tanimoto lived in Tanabe in Wakayama and became well known as a highly skilled base carver and dealer in Furuya stones. To date, Furuya Famous Stones is still the leading reference for these stones. Beautiful and impressive Furuya stones are displayed in every major exhibition of stones held in Tokyo, including Meihinten and the newer All Japan Suiseki Exhibition.
For more information on Furuya stones: Suiseki-II, An Art Created by Nature by Sen-En-Kyo, 2007; Furuya Famous Stones, Comprehensive Illustrations by Tanimoto & Murata, 1969; and Hekisai Stone Catalog by Mera Hekisai (1894).