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  Japanese Garden - Stones

Moving Mountains


This article describes the stone setting process demonstrated in an Atlanta workshop by Mike Yamakami in 2003. Due to the inherently dangerous nature of moving large boulders, I do not recommend using the following information as a practical guide for the ambitious beginner. Instead, this account is simply intended to describe one of the traditional methods of moving and setting stones in a Japanese garden - Christian Martini


Sanzon Arrangement
A Sanzon Arrangement

We all met in the morning at the site of a garden which is being constructed for an Atlanta area church. The design for this garden called for a sanzon arrangement of stones, which consists of one large, vertical stone complimented by two smaller, horizontal stones. This is a very traditional stone arrangement (often symbolizing a spiritual trinity) which has historically been used in many Japanese gardens. Mike Yamakami (Yama-san) had previously selected each stone from a local stone yard specifically for this design. These stones ranged in size from about 1-2 tons (900 to 1800 kg). Yama-san explained to us that weathered Crab Orchard stone was the best type of stone in our area for its subtle color, attractive texture, and strong shapes. The stones had been delivered as closely as possible to the site with the help of a forklift and were located about 20 feet away from their final destination. We all gathered to admire the stones and visualize their arrangement before we began the project.

The primary tool we used for moving the stones was a large wooden tripod which supported a two-ton capacity chain hoist (a.k.a. block and tackle). For those unfamiliar with a chain hoist, it consists of system of pulleys arranged to significantly reduce the effort required to lift a heavy object. The three legs of the tripod were made from hickory trunks (16 feet long and 6 inches in diameter) which had been felled and cured by Yama-san. He explained that hickory is one of the strongest woods available, and that it is especially practical for carrying heavy loads, since if it breaks, it does so very slowly and loudly giving you enough time to move to safety. An additional advantage of hickory is that it will rebound from the stress of the weight unlike steel or other metals.

Raising the tripod

Yama-san assembled the tripod by aligning the bottom of the poles and then binding the tops together with (25 feet of 1/4") vinyl coated, steel cable woven tightly between the poles and then tied and safely secured.

tripod knots
Yamakami-san tying knots

After this was done, we each grabbed a leg and hoisted the tripod into position. Then Yama-san climbed atop his trusty tripod ladder and fastened the chain hoist to a steel cable looped over the top. This prepared the tripod, and we were ready to begin moving stone.

Hanging the hoist

Yama-san explained that when lifting a stone, it must always remain within the perimeter of the tripod in order to maintain its stability. He also insisted that we move each leg of the tripod individually while facing inwards, so that we could monitor the tripod's overall stability as we adjusted its position. Understanding these rules, we began by setting one leg of the tripod directly behind the first stone and then set the other two an equal distance apart facing our destination. Since we were working on soft dirt, the legs usually anchored themselves securely, but when they seemed precarious, a small indention was dug into the ground for the bottom of the leg to rest in, and a shovel was sunk in directly behind it.

tripod setup
Tripod setup

Once the tripod was in position, a steel cable was looped beneath the stone, cinched tightly, and hooked up to the block and tackle. Padding was added between the cable and the stone at contact points in order to prevent any scarring. Once everything was secure, we began to slowly pull the chain while tightening the cable around the stone by hitting it with a wooden mallet. As we lifted the stone, it slowly began to move forward until it finally hung completely suspended from the center of the tripod. While the stone was still in the air, we manually pushed it forward beyond the tripod's center point and then carefully lowered it, gaining an extra couple of feet. Using this method, we were able to achieve about 6-8 feet of travel per lift.

Lifting the stone




After the stone was lowered and the cable was detached, we repositioned the tripod for the next lift. Each leg of the tripod was moved individually in short increments until the center of the tripod was once again in a position ahead of the stone in the direction we were moving. We followed the same procedure of lifting the stone, pushing it forward, and then lowering it until we had finally reached our destination.

Yama and Buddha
Yama and "Buddha"

Before we made the final lift to set the stone into position, we carefully examined the surface and the shape of the stone to determine its most attractive side. Each stone seemed to have one side which complimented the design more than the others, so making this decision was relatively simple. Next we determined the precise location for the stone and then positioned the tripod so that the chain was hanging down directly above that spot. Yama-san then skillfully repositioned the cable around the stone in order to orient the face of the stone towards the viewer as it was being lifted. We then proceeded to lift the stone.

lower stone
Lowering the stone

Once the stone was suspended above its final location, we were able to easily manipulate it with only the touch of a finger. When we were satisfied with its orientation, we dug a hole proportionate to the stone's shape and bottom contour for it to rest in. The reason for doing this is because a stone tends to look more stable and permanent when buried up to its widest point or at least 1/5th deep. Once the hole was dug, we lowered the stone until it was seated correctly in the hole, and then we began to backfill using hickory sticks (4' long by 1-2" diameter) to pack dirt beneath the stone. Yama-san explained that we were using small diameter sticks because they create more force per inch than large diameter ones, so the dirt is packed more firmly and will resist settling under the weight of the stone. He instructed us to leave the area surrounding the cable unpacked so it would be easier to remove.

packing dirt
Packing the dirt at the base

Once enough dirt was packed beneath the stone to hold it securely in place, we detached it from the tripod and attempted to maunally pull the cable from beneath the stone. When the cable got stuck, Yama-san anchored it to the chain hoist, and we were able to pull it through with ease. We finished by backfilling the space where the cable had been, and then by repacking using a mallet and a short wooden 2x2 to really force the dirt beneath the stone. When this was finished, the stone was set very solidly, and it was practically impossible to move the stone manually.

remove cable
Removing the cable

Each of the other stones was moved in an identical manner using the tripod. Once we became comfortable with the tools and familiar with the procedure, things began to move very efficiently under Yama-san's direction. By mid-afternoon we had finished setting each of the stones, and we were able to relax and enjoy the arrangement after a hard, but rewarding, day of work.

Sanzon Arrangement

The tripod proved to be a very safe and effective tool for moving and setting large stones. Using it, we were able to transport and maneuver very large boulders over uneven terrain without exhausting ourselves or putting ourselves in a dangerous situation. The tripod's simple and adaptable design makes it a smart choice for moving and setting stones in a garden without destroying the existing landscape, and its affordability and ease of construction makes it available for anyone with the knowledge to use it.

In addition to the tripod instruction, Yama-san described some of the cultural and historical significances behind using stones in Japanese gardens, and he explained a few of the symbolic meanings associated with different types of stone arrangements. He also went into some detail about how the shape and placement of stones can stimulate specific psychological responses in people, making them feel either nervous or peaceful within the garden. And finally, Yama-san explained how plants could be used to compliment a stone arrangement. By using light and airy plants like ferns, the visual weight of a stone can be diminished, while using dark and dense plants will add to the stone's visual weight. This technique can be useful since you may not always find the perfect stone for the arrangement.

As always, it was a wonderful experience to learn this rare knowledge from such a generous and patient teacher as Mike Yamakami. Thank you sincerely Yama-san. Thanks as well to Bruce and Richard for their photo contributions and to everyone involved for their cooperative effort and spirit of comradery.

- Christian Martini, 2009.All rights reserved.


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