Introduction to Japanese Suiseki
The ability of a stone taken from nature and displayed in such a manner that it evokes feelings or suggests something other than itself is the basis for Japanese suiseki. Most Japanese stone specialists agree that Chinese stone appreciation influenced the development of Japanese suiseki. Some stones were brought to Japan by Chinese Buddhist monks, while others were brought to Japan later by scholars interested in Chinese culture. Just as in other aspects of Japanese culture that had their origins in China, the Japanese adopted these practices and modified and refined them to fit their own needs, resulting in the evolution of a nearly distinct form of stone appreciation in Japan.
A stone appreciation culture developed gradually in Japan, initially associated with the ruling elite and literati, but expanding in modern times to include the general population, and then diminishing in the most recent past. In the mid-Edo period (1700s) native stones were collected for use in bonseki from various locations, but not specifically from one location according to Keiji Murata (Encyclopedia of the Hobby of Suiseki (1969). Bonseki was the term used for indoor stones until the Meiji when the term suiseki began to be used. By the mid-Meiji (1885-1895), Furuya stones were collected and valued as evident from Mera Hekisai’s book Hekisai Stone Catalog published in 1894 (Meiji 29). Numerous Furuya stones were illustrated and described in this volume. Later in Meiji 44 (1909) nice suiseki were being collected from the Kamo River and its tributaries, as well as from the Ibi River and other places. Stones from the Kamo River and its tributaries were among the most popular ones collected from the mid Meiji to the mid-Tashio (1885 to 1918). Kyoto and the Kamo River system appear to have been the center of stone appreciation in Japan at this time. During the early Showa period (1926-1940), several new stone types were introduced including Sado-Akadana and Kamuikotan according to Murata (1969). After 1955 (Showa 30), Japanese suiseki experienced approximately three decades of great prosperity and an expansion of stones from many other rivers in Japan. Following that period, Japanese suiseki experienced a slow but steady decline in the number of hobbyists and dealers. Previously there were several thousand hobbyists, while today there are a few hundred hobbyists and a small number of full-time vendors.
Currently, the most commonly used system of classification of stones in Japan is by source of the origin of the stones, with a few exceptions. This is based primarily on the site where the stones are found. For example, a stone collected in the Kamo River in or near Kyoto is called a Kamo River Stone or Kamogawa ishi (gawa = river and ishi = rock or stone). Similarly, stones found in the Ibi River and the Seta River are referred to in Japan as Ibigawa ishi and Setagawa ishi in Japan. Matsuura identified ten main sources of suiseki in Japan and described 56 minor sources, mainly smaller rivers in his popular Suiseki Introduction Manual (2003). Some of the major sources of stone in Japan are the Kamo River and its tributaries, the Seta, Saji, Ibi, and Abe Rivers. The few exceptions include the popular Furuya and many of the chrysanthemum flower stones that are mined from the earth and are referred to by their names Furuya and Kikka-ishii (kikka = chrysanthemum flower). The Sado-Akadama name for a particularly type of stone refers to a combination of a geographical area (i.e., Sado island) and the type of stone (akadama, a red chert). The use of a geographical basis for the stones’ origin is a convenient and easy way to classify stones; thus, it is not surprising that it is widely used throughout Japan. The Japanese stones illustrated in the Gallery section of this web site will follow a geographical method of identity for the different stones.
A second classification system is used that places stones into artificial categories based upon the appearance created in the mind of an observer. For example, a stone that suggests a figure, human, mythological creature or animal, would be placed in the category of a figure stone. A mountain-shaped stone might suggest near or distant mountains or even an island. Other stones may resemble a plateau, sea coast, pinnacle, cave or tunnel, or a shelter stone, and would then be placed in a category for each of those different types of naturally occurring features. Some stones may be colorful or even have an abstract shape. There are many variations on this system of classification. This will be discussed in more detail in a following article.
A set of criteria was developed to determine if a stone was worthy of being designated as a suiseki. These features or criteria are the shape, composition or material, color, surface texture, and age or the ability to convey a feeling of oldness. Many collectors of Japanese stones or Japanese-like stones from other countries have a preference for ones that resemble an aspect of the natural landscape or figure. Darker and subdued colors are preferred over lighter and brighter colored stones. Soft stones that can be easily broken are avoided in favor of harder minerals and rocks. Surface patterns and textures can be highly variable and depend upon the message or feeling they create in the mind of the viewer. The provenance of a stone, particularly if owned by a prominent person, can add value to the stone if accurate records are kept.
Follow future articles to learn more about Japanese suiseki on www.vsana.org. Additional information is added each month. This information is largely based upon the Japanese language literature and information supplied by informed Japanese suiseki specialists.