The Ginshanada

Ginshanada or "silver sand open sea", the surface of white sand with which substantial part of "empty space" is realized.
We regard the ginshanada as an important architecture element. After the size and shape of the ginshanada is decided, the next question is: what elements and objects will we use in this nearly empty canvas ?

This photo shows the main ginshanada seen from The front garden compartment and from the street. In the center the Buddhist triad and in the back the O-karikomi.

On the right a branch of the Abies procera that stands on the Turtle Island in the front garden compartment and that symbolizes a crane, this branch being one of its wings.
This shows the main garden ginshanada in front of the O-karikomi, as seen from the back side of the house when standing on the Veranda. 1732

At the entrance of the (front) garden the path with the tobi-ishi, "floating stones", stepping stones layed in gravel, begins. It than bends to the right (in frond of the front-door) and continues into the Ginshanada, that is visible at the right of the entrance-path. The front-door step-stones also lay in gravel.
From the entrance-path, on the left next to the drive (sorry, compromise), we see Hôray, "symbol of the islands of the Blest" here represented as mountainous islands, "houraiseki", "the five Islands of immortality". These islands where thought to float in a remote sea, carried on the backs of giant turtles. This see, or ginshanada, is made of the very same gravel as we used for the entrance pathway and the (main) Ginshanada. The result of this is that when we enter the garden we get the impression that the parts are all connected and that the house is actually surrounded by it, as though the building is located on an island.
Whetter the entrance-path forms part of the Ginshanada can be disputed, it runs along the Turtle-island that definitely is. The experience is such that it connects seamless to and flows into the Ginshanada as being one, and this is what was intended. We will address the entrance-path in the front-garden compartment chapter.

The Ginshanada is regarded a structural garden element and "contains" the following objects as part of the main garden:

  • The gravel surface (Ginshanada).
  • The Roji, tobi-ishi path, or at least part of it.
  • Special purpose step-stones.
  • The Buddhist triad stone arrangement.

As part of the front garden compartment:

  • The Turtle island.
  • The entrance-path.
  • Front-door step-stones.
  • Hôray, "the five Islands of immortality".

It is the gravel surface, the Ginshanada, that we address in this chapter. The other parts are discussed briefly here and in detail in the applicable chapters. If the elaboration is available this is shown by hyperlinks.

Although sand and in particular white sand is often mentioned, many gardens do not use white sand, but rather employ varieties of gravel colors and coarseness. The requirements for and use of the gravel are determined by "the need of the garden" and its effect on people. There are over a dozen patterns of gravel raking each with a different symbolic "meaning" and some without. Not always does a gravel area represent see or water.

The ginshanada takes substantial part of section: B, C, D, E and A/G. In the sections A and G it forms a visual junction between the left side garden and the front garden, where the entrance to the premises is situated. Thanks to the visually seamless front side (A, B) and main-garden connection it accomplishes an impression as though the house is surrounded by the ginshanada. The main garden gravel area is about 220 m2 or 262 square yard.

In our case the "silver sand" or white sand, is replaced by gravel, more precise very small pebbles, not sand and not grit.
The use of coarse, light-and-dark mottled gravel as foreground for whole of the main-garden reduces the unavoidable contrast created between stone and plant formations and the visual ground. Both, the stones and ground covers have a similarly mottled appearance. The contrast between objects and ground would be much greater if fine white or "silver" sand were used instead.

Although we knew what we wanted, we still needed to find it. At the time, the original Shirakawa (a river which flows from Mt. Hiei in the northeast of Kyoto, bringing with it a grey-white, granite sandy gravel) granite gravel or shirakawazuna (sand) (see: shirakawaishi) as e.g. used in Ryoan-ji was not available in the Netherlands as far as we know. Many alternatives are used in an outside Japan.The box shows the samples we found. Eventually we selected the one shown to the right, 2 to 8 mm (0.08" to 0.3"). We only decided on that after we had them compared in the real garden, at least what it was at the time. If you are unsure about the color, size or structure we advice to first try it out. Keep in mind the primary purpose (meditation or to better bring out the foliage on plants etc.), most used viewing positions and angle, dry or wet, time of the day, season and what ever may influence your experience.

1777 0355

The different shade and brightness after a rain shower give a very "living" impression.

A minor disadvantage of the gravel (2-8 mm pebbles) you see here is the fact that after a heavy rain shower the raked patterns will have reduced in size to eventually disappear after a few showers.
Not only form but also the size of the pebbles determines how well patterns can be raked and kept.
Of course an important aspect is the overall color impression one gets from the average viewing distance and angle.
This should be considered in sun shine, in shadow and during the night, as well as dry and after a rain shower. A lot of glare is unpleasant to the eye on a bright sunny day. On the other hand a good white tone is very effective on a moonlit night. With only a minimum of moon light this can give a fairy like and romantic effect.

A statement of caution is in place here. Be sure the surface is flat and settled (tamp) and use a good weed control fabric (barrier cloth) as a ground-cover (in Dutch antie worteldoek = anti-root-cloth) without wrinkles. Depending on your location and soil a simple drain system, just under the barrier cloth may be required (more in The technology behind (or under) the garden). In the Maintenance section The gravel area you can see what happens after a heavy rain shower. Knowing that our soil is almost pure sea-clay it is easy to image what would happen without the drainage.
Where possible keep the gravel area away from trees (or vise versa) that drop too much leaves, twigs, sprouts or other debris, as keeping the gravel clean is not always an easy task.

Some raking pattern examples as used in the ginshanada.

0457 0458
Part of the raking between the main veranda and the edge of the raihaiseki (also reihaiseki) [1,p224] stone as seen from the veranda. Just a stone and the only statue we have, a monk sitting in contemplation at sun set.

Instructions on how to make Sand and gravel rakes are discussed as part of the Tooling section.

Why not use regular sand ?

If you cannot get the suitable gravel (like our 2-8 mm) have a look for grit. Grit of the right size and colour (also compare dry v/s wet) would even be better suited, as raked patterns will remain longer and can be raked deeper giving better visual effects. The latter is more like the original Shirakawa gravel which looks and feels like lumpy sand.

If you have a problem to find the right gravel or grit then special sand may be a solution rather then using regular sand. The following are the major reasons to not use sand as a gravel replacement.
  • Any raked pattern will disappear after the first rain shower. Even in our gravel it does so after a number of firm showers.
  • It will be hard if not impossible to keep it free of weeds even with barrier-cloth underneath.
  • The colour is probably too light giving too high a contrast.
  • Regarding the flat surface, that is without patterns raked in it, you can never walk on it without leaving impressions. This is possible on gravel when compacted well.
We would advice to use sand only if the area is rather small, say a few square meters. Still the overall colour impression is very important.
This is our homemade so called "Desktop Zen Garden". Many Internet shops sell this as the ultimate Zen Garden. Although it may give people the wrong impression we do like it to release our ad-hoc creativity and develop our sense of (Zen) balance.

What is however more interesting is the sand we have used. This sand looks like a miniature version of our gravel regarding the colour and mix. The grains are very large, for sand that is, something like 1 to 3 millimetres. It is sand that is often used to fill the joints in a brick roads, pathways etc.

Raked patterns

The choice not to rake patterns (samon, ripples and other patterns) in the whole of the ginshanada surface is purely pragmatic. If we did rake patterns in the whole gravel surface we would probably have to do that every day or so. We have lots of unwanted visitors, or trespassers on the premise. The area without patterns must be flat, this to requires frequent raking but is far more easy to do.

This is done so because it would not be feasible to rake the whole gravel area that is used as a freeway by half a dozen of trespassing cats on a daily basis, less frequently foxes and rabbits and by occasion a dog and by exception, but still, children or even adults. on a daily basis. This is one of the major disadvantages of an "open" garden.
Only recently blackbirds found out they can dig in the gravel and they then do that until we get open (black) spots, showing the weed control fabric underneath the gravel.

Hence patterns we rake only around or next to stones.

The act of raking the gravel into a pattern recalling waves or rippling water has an aesthetic function. Zen priests practice this raking also to help them focus their concentration. Achieving perfection of lines is not easy.
In Tsubo-en the rakes are according to the patterns of ridges as desired and limited to some of the stone objects situated within the gravel area. Nonetheless in Tsubo-en the patterns are not static. Developing variations in patterns is a creative and inspiring challenge. The remainder of the gravel area of about 220 m2 (262 square yard) is kept flat, which in itself is challenging enough.

The gravel rake (kumade) is home-made. If you want instructions on how to make your own have a look at Sand and gravel rakes.

Gravel and raking examples

This section shows a selection of fine authentic examples that all originate from Japan. These examples show how design principles and rules are applied and interpreted and how and what materials are used in genuine Japanese gardens. These examples should be of help and inspiration during realization of your own Japanese garden.

Part of these photos is from our own trips others have been collected from different sources, including but not limited to the Internet. New examples will be frequently added.
Note: The examples will only display correctly after the page has fully loaded !
It is not an exact-science to draw the line between garden-elements to distinguish between elements such as tsukiyama, ginshanada, (O-) karikomi, hako-zukuri, stone-settings, islands, borrowed-scenery and so on. Under each subject, or better subject-area, we try to show examples with focus on the main subject. Often an example will be in a context with other elements.
A Temple in Dazaifu   Komyozen-ji, Fukuoka   Komyozen-ji, Fukuoka   Daisen-in, Kyoto   Eikando Zenrin-ji, Kyoto   Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto   Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto   Rengejo-in Temple on Mount Koya   Dokuzatei (Zen garden)in Zuiho-in, Kyoto   Shisendo is a little temple in the northern part of the Higashi-yama mountains, Kyoto   Unknown origin but so beautiful.   Tofuku-ji temple, Kyoto. "Checkerboard"  (Mirei Shigemori)   Tofuku-ji temple, Kyoto (Mirei Shigemori).   Tofuku-ji temple gravel rakings composition, Kyoto (Mirei Shigemori)   Ryogin-an, one of Tofuku-ji sub-temples, Kyoto (Mirei Shigemori).   The gardens of these samurai houses, in the town of Chiran in Satsuma province, were built during Edo times according to classical principles. A half-dozen or so of these gardens are on view in the town of Chiran; their associated houses are still inhabited. Rather exceptional is the fact that there is no raked gravel "sea" but just sand and clay soil.   The temple Eikan-do in Kyoto   The shrine Kamigamo Jinja in Kyoto   The temple Kennen-ji in Kyoto   The subtemple Konchi-in in Nanzen-ji in Kyoto

The "land" is closely related to the "sea", "ocean" or other (dry) "water" surfaces hence these should be viewed within that context. Also see: Tsukiyama examples.

Want to give (dry) raking a try ? Try this Raking training.

Other objects and elements placed in the Ginshanada

The Roji, tobi-ishi path

One third of the path that encircles the house crosses, or actually "floats" (that is what tobi means) in the ginshanada. The path is composed of tobi-ishi, floating stones and gravel. About half or one-third of it is part of the Ginshanada.
See The main garden Roji for details.

0587 Just one example, a part of the Ginshanada tobi-ishi path.

Special purpose step-stones

The tobi-ishi path ends at the veranda in front of our "shoin". Here a number of Yaku-ishi, special purpose and "step" stones have got a place.
See: Special purpose step-stones.

1788 Our "broken contemplation stone" the Raihaiseki or haiseki.
This is really a broken stone. Being a perfectionist I wanted the stone to lay absolutely level. Just before it lay just right, we heard a snapping sound, never to forget, when the stone broke in two pieces. The first reaction was to glue it. Then I realized that this must have been a message from the kami and no longer felt the urge to hide the crack. Even more so, we decided to make it "part of the east tics". And that is what you see here.

Photo taken at sun set, hence the colours.

Buddhist triad stone arrangement

One of few stone arrangements, ishigumi, in Tsubo-en is the Buddhist Triad or trinity [2, page 29] Sanzonseki-gumi or sanzon iwagumi. The triad is used as an archetypal aesthetic principle symbolizing the relationship between (from left to right on the photos: jin, ten, and chi (man, heaven and earth). The gravel here is raked in a wave pattern (stone in water).

In the garden book Sakuteiki 5 "Creating a garden" is expressed as "setting stones", ishi wo taten koto; literally, the "act of setting stones upright." At the time the Sakuteiki was written, the placement of stones was perceived as the primary act of gardening. Similar expressions are also used in the text, however, to mean literally "setting garden stones" rather than "creating gardens".
Make sure that all the stones, right down to the front of the arrangement, are placed with their best sides showing. If a stone has an ugly-looking top you should place it so as to give prominence to its side. Even if this means it has to lean at a considerable angle, no one will notice. There should always be more horizontal than vertical stones. If there are "running away" stones there must be "chasing" stones. If there are "leaning" stones, there must be "supporting" stones.
We hand-picked the stone to have the right qualities. Structure, color, size and form are of utmost importance here. We used comparable stone formations as an example.
This freestanding Buddhist Trinity stone arrangement is called sanzon butsu no ishi in the Sakuteiki, and these are common in gardens today, starting from the medieval period. In general they are called sanzon seki gumi these days.
There where (are ?) many taboo's, hando, in particular related to the placement of stones. Although not directly mentioned in the Sakuteiki, there are many implied.
Do not arrange a Buddhist Trinity so that it faces directly toward the main residence. Have it face slightly to the side. Violating this taboo is terribly unlucky.

However, if a Buddhist Trinity is placed in the southwest, there will be no curse, neither will devils be able to enter.

Sakuteiki page 186.
I am afraid that we have violated guidelines (rules ?) and taboo's. This is however in line with the direction that we have set in Determine the vision and strategy where it was stated that the symbolism and superstitious beliefs mean little to us and that we only take these rules into account if there is a direct impact on the aesthetics of a garden. Hence we decided to take symbolism into account and bring it into the garden if and when it in our eyes, enhances the appearance and appreciation.

0465 Note that this is a view visitors will never see. It is the Triad as seen from behind, at the left side. So here: man, heaven, earth are seen from bottom to top.

An alternative triad can be based on a standing "fierce deity" stone and doujiseki, two guardian boy's stones.
The Triad seen from the path that runs through the Ginshanada, gravel area.
Man, heaven, earth from left to right.

This is the Buddhist Triad seen from the Tsukiyama. Although an unusuall view it gives a good impression of the balance that is independent of the view point. 0462

Buddhist triad examples

This section shows a selection of fine authentic examples that all originate from Japan. These examples show how design principles and rules are applied and interpreted and how and what materials are used in genuine Japanese gardens. These examples should be of help and inspiration during realization of your own Japanese garden.

Part of these photos is from our own trips others have been collected from different sources, including but not limited to the Internet. New examples will be frequently added.

The Buddhist triad stone setting in Daisen-in a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji, Kyoto.   A Buddhist triad stone setting in the tsubo-niwa in Ryogenin.   TBuddhist triad positioning alternatives.   Buddhist triad stone setting in Komyozen-ji, Fukuoka.   A triad setting in the subtemple Ryogen-in in Daitoku-ji in Kyoto.   The temple Kennen-ji in Kyoto   The subtemple Hojo-in in Nanzen-ji in Kyoto   The subtemple Hojo-in in Nanzen-ji in Kyoto  

Objects and elements not to be placed in or close to the Ginshanada

Keeping the gravel clean and having last the raked patterns as long as possible requires careful consideration. That means that we need to keep deciduous plants away from the Ginshanada. And not only those as eventually all shrubs and trees let go of their leaves. In some cases we will however not be able to do so or because of specific aesthetic properties we want to have we need to compromise this principle. As long as the consequences are well considered that is fine.
In Tsubo-en the Notofagus antarctica in section A/G forms a canopy over a portion of the gravel. And so do the Pinus densiflora in section E and the Abies procera "Glauca" on the Turtle island ( section A). The O-karikomi, section D is very close to a canopy and needs special attention when getting clipped. The latter is even more true for the "the five Islands of immortality" that stand in the middle of their own small Ginshanada extension.

The entrance-path, the front-door step-stones and the "Turtle island" and "Hôray", "the five Islands of immortality" (to the left of the front entrance, beside the drive) are discussed in the front compartment chapter.

Most relevant related construction chapters

These are the most relevant related construction and build chapters.

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