Tobi-ishi (Stepping Stones in Japanese Gardens)

The garden of Fushin-an tea house. Image source: Omote-Senke Official Website

If you visit temples and Japanese-cuisine restaurants during the trip to Japan, you will most likely experience walking over tobi-ishi (飛石), or stepping stones on the passage to somewhere. It is one of the standard design elements in Japanese gardens. One of the oldest surviving examples is the garden of Fushin-an (不審庵) tea house (pictured above), originally built in the 17th century.

I have long wondered why on earth we need stepping stones even though there’s no stream of water to walk across.

The original purpose of a particular style of design tends to be lost after it has been copied many times for the sake of style. To rediscover the meaning of stepping stones, I need an experience of walking over them in one of the original tea house gardens built in those days. This is not easy because almost all of the oldest tea house gardens, including Fushin-an, are closed to the public.

Today, I had a rare opportunity to visit the garden of Hansho-an (半床庵) tea house, built in the late 17th century with the design that closely follows that of Fushin-an.

It was one of the most intense experiences of walking in a garden that I have ever had.

Moss-covered ground

The garden is narrow and short. Stepping stones on the moss-covered ground (just like the picture at the top of this article) lead the way to the tea house entrance.

The lush green moss on the ground impressed me deeply. A lot of care must have been taken to keep the moss thriving: moss can easily turn into brown due to the lack of moisture on the ground.

The green color was vivid enough to remind me of a cup of matcha tea of high quality:

A cup of matcha green tea. Serving matcha with a crescent-shaped “pond” in the midst of foam is the style of Fushin-an tea ceremony. Image source: Oregon Sports News

Someone told me that the moss-covered ground in a Buddhist temple’s garden represents where Buddha lived.

Here in a tea house garden — I speculate — the moss green is meant to make us expectant of the cup of tea that we will have in the tea house or, if we are leaving, to remind us of the beautiful cup of tea we had in the tea house.

Walking over stepping stones

The beauty of the moss-covered ground forced me to be very careful not to stamp on the moss by slipping over the stepping stones. I had to look down on the ground to make sure that my foot would land right on each of the stepping stones.

The surface of each stepping stone was different from each other. Some were rocky and others were flatter. The sole of my foot vividly feels these different touches of each stepping stone.

All these experiences reminded me of walking on a mountain path, where I would have to find a little flat spot of the terrain to land my foot. Sometimes I would manage to find one, but occasionally I would have to deal with a rugged patch under my foot.

Footpath to a mountain cottage in the middle of a city

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, a tea house was supposed to be sichu-no-sankyo (市中の山居) or “a mountain cottage in the middle of a city”. A tea house was a place where merchants and samurai warriors would have a cosy time in the midst of their hectic life without leaving the city of their residence. The pathway to the tea house, therefore, had to simulate the experience of climbing up the mountains.

The garden of Shoko-ken (松向軒) tea house at Koto-in zen temple. Photographed by Masa Kudamatsu (the author of this article) on 29 July, 2016.

Even though a garden in an urban residence would be very small — and indeed the garden of Hansho-an Tea House was very narrow and short — the journey to the tea house can feel like a long one if each foot step involves an intense sense of touch on the foot sole.

My own physical experience of today has convinced me that the stepping stones on the moss-covered ground must have been a design device to turn a passage to the tea house into a difficult-to-walk footpath to a mountain cottage.

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