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Goin’ Japanesque!

Bonseki: A Transient and Beautiful Japanese Art Using Sand and Rock

Today, we want to share a little about the Japanese art of Bonseki. Bonseki is an old and traditional Japanese art that is little known even among Japanese. People in the old days would enjoy drawing things like Mount Fuji and Miyajima, now known to be world heritage sites, on small “bon” or trays.


The Bonseki


It is a type of miniature art that uses a small tray painted in black; and expresses scenery of Japan such as mountains and rivers with white sand and rock. There is a similar culture in China, but similar to sado (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arrangement) and bonsai, the bonseki had its independent course of development in a Japanese style. When we say development in a Japanese style, for example, it became a custom to use as a display-piece placed on the floor with the spread of a “took-no-ma (alcove)” in the Japanese style room (it is a place to display ikebana and bonsai). It can be said that this form of art is similar to the modern art of sand art.


The History of Bonseki

The exact history is unknown but there is evidence of people working on bonseki in ukiyo-e art so it could be said that it had been well spread amongst the common people by the Edo Period (1603-1867). According to specialists, bonseki was already in existence during the Asuka period (538-794) and by the Muromachi period (1336-1573), specific styles were established.


Tools of Bonseki

Bonseki uses specialized tools to highlight the dark and light to express dramatic scenes from nature such as the sea, river, waterfall, mountain, moon and clouds. Sometime, it uses replicas of things like torii gates to enhance the realism.


Amazing Masterpieces



What’s particularly beautiful of the bonseki technique is the expression of flowing water using white sand. Can you see that it expresses a three-dimensional appearance?

Kyo no Niwa (Kyo Garden) 京の庭,

At times colors area added and real moss is used.

Hana Fubuki (Blowing Petals) 花ふぶき

Vividly expresses petals from the cherry trees that dance under moon light. You can feel the expression of the moving wind on the tray.


Unlike other forms of art, once complete the bonseki can easily be wiped clean. The transience of the art form as well as the sentiment to feel beauty in imperfection is the aesthetic of “wabisabi” which is very specific to Japanese culture. It can be said that the bonseki, which fully expresses this wabisabi, is the art that represents Japanese culture.

Related: Ancient Aesthetics of Japan: Wabi-sabi

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