Sukiya Living Magazine (JOJG)
Garden Stepping Stones
Some JOJG readers have mailed in questions such as "How do you position garden stepping stones?" The following article was released as an introduction to the subject of garden stepping stones. The article appeared in Issue #41 of Sukiya Living Magazine (JOJG) under the title "10 Hints for Better Tobi-ishi Paths." The article included multiple photos and diagrams to illustrate various points in the text. It was published in September 2004.
Stepping-stone paths should be easy to walk on. Despite
the overwhelming logic of this statement, myth-ridden
books and poorly-written brochures continue to imply that stepping stone
paths try to slow people down by being difficult to walk on or even
dangerous (see JOJG #28). Before attacking that stubborn myth, JOJG has
decided to outline some of the traits of good stepping stone paths - the
kind that are safe, beautiful, and a joy to experience. Here are 10 key
points for building high-quality tobi-ishi paths.
To this add
beautiful surroundings and quality craftsmanship, and you have a delightful
All of the stones in a given path should look like they came from the same
family, with similar texture and color. The ideal stepping stone is likely
to be gray or speckled gray in color. Some stones might have a blue tint or
patches of black. Avoid stones that are yellow, orange, red, and especially
muddy brown. While moss and lichen-covered garden stones are attractive, it
is inappropriate to use them as walking surfaces. Some people might imagine
that it looks quaint, but in fact it is hazardous and completely
inappropriate to allow slippery moss or any other plant to grow on stepping
The edges of the walking surface are particularly important. They should be weather-worn and rounded to avoid snagging on heels or shoe soles. You must be concerned, not only with hazards that could cause someone to fall, but also with what they would fall ON if they did trip. The shoulders of garden stepping stones must be slightly rounded. It is also wise to avoid jagged or sharp rocks anywhere in the vicinity of the path, even if they aren’t part of the path itself.
Rocks that are perfect in every other way can sometimes be machined or
chiselled to smooth out the edges and corners. Likewise, a perfect rock can
be installed, only to become cracked or chipped and become a hazard.
Obviously, it would need to be removed or repaired.
When initially installed, concave stepping stones are easy to walk on. In fact, they are actually comfortable because their shape allows you to feel settled into a stable positon. The problem is that same concave surface also causes mud and water to settle on the surface of the stone. At first the stone will just remain wet longer than the others. But after a few months or years, slime will develop in the concave area, and the stone will become slippery, even deadly.
The situation becomes even worse in the winter, when ice forms in the pool.
If a light snow then falls on top of the ice, you have the scary situation
of hidden ice smack in the middle of the very surface you aim for. Avoiding
these problems is simple. When building stepping stone paths, do not employ
any stone that has a concave walking surface.
There’s a good reason for using rocks that are actually larger than the
coin-shaped slab that is exposed on the surface. Stepping stones must be
100% sturdy and wobble-free. It is a mistake to use rocks that are too small
or too thin. Such rocks inevitably shift, crack off, or become loose. Slate
and flagstone, for example, are easy to intall, but even when installed in
mortar it is just a matter of time before those thin slabs become broken or
loose. And a loose stepping stone is usually worse than no stepping stone at
all. The skilled garden builder will consider using chunkier rocks that are
sunk down in the ground. It requires more effort and more skill to set that
kind of “deep” tobi-ishi, but the added stability makes it worthwhile.
At a minimum, each stepping-stone path should have large yaku-ishi positioned at the beginning and end of the path. If the path starts at the house, a kutsu-nugi-ishi, or “shoe removal stone,” should be the first stone at the house end of the path. If the path terminates at a spot for overlooking the garden, an “overlook stone” should be positioned at that end of the path.
Yaku-ishi can also be used at various points along a path. If a path
proceeds under a garden gate, a “threshold stone” can be positioned directly
under the gate. Large “junction stones” where paths merge are another type
of yaku-ishi. So are large garden stepping stones positioned at key spots to allow
people on the path to pass each other. If you want to have a stepping stone
path that is beautiful, charming, and entirely human in feel, the
incorporation of yaku-ishi is a key point.
For example, extra-large stones can sometimes be used as “two foot” stones, whereby the user takes two steps on the same stone (see illustration). Another situation is the use of slightly smaller stones that are more difficult to walk on. They might need to be placed somewhat closer together.
Nowadays people are growing taller, and a slightly more ample stride
interval might be justified. For straight line paths using large stones, it
is reasonable to anticipate a stride interval of 55-60cm. The key is to
repeatedly “test walk” every path as it is being constructed. The actual
feel of a path is, of course, more important than textbook measurments.
To compensate for these variables, it is appropriate to use fairly large
garden stepping stones with gaps of less than 10cm between them. The key to
avoiding large gaps is to place the stones so that edges of adjacent stones
are parallel to each other. This allows the garden builder to fit large
stepping stones very close to, and even directly against, each other. When
possible the gap should only be about 10cm wide.
Get it right. Stepping stones should be elevated 3-6 cm above the ground. If
you position tobi-ishi higher than this you create an unnecessary hazard.
Position them lower than 3cm and they will likely become covered with weeds
or dirt, making them slippery, messy, and difficult to see.
This point can not be emphasized enough. If you lay on your back on a well-done stepping stone path, it would almost feel like you were lying on the floor. Each and every stone would be perfectly level, without any angles or jutting protrusions whatsoever. In this respect, all good paths are the same; they may look varied from above, but when viewed from the side they are identical.
Public JN gardens in the West have a history of being negligent in
maintaining their stepping-stone paths. It stems from a general disregard
for maintenance. It also reflects an unwillingness to adjust or change what
a craftsman created long ago. Make no mistake about this: Of Course the
stones shift and need to be adjusted! Instead of posting “caution” signs, a
decent public garden should be adjusting its stepping stones each and every
Creating beautiful stepping-stone paths is clearly a goal, especially when the path can be seen from inside the house (see photo, above). It is more important, however, to create paths that are ergonomically safe and a pleasure to walk on. After all, stepping-stone paths are first and foremost a walking surface. No truly skilled gardener in Japan would ever intentionally create a path that is difficult to walk on. Quite the opposite is true. If you want guests to be able to enjoy your beautiful garden, first give them safe and secure footing. Allow them the luxury of walking in a relaxed, leisurely fashion. Only then will they feel comfortable enough to lift up their heads and look around.