Professor Elliot Mitchnick has provided several articles guiding us through the tea garden and formal tea ceremony. Although he is not a Japanese gardener, we asked him to share his thoughts on pathways in the tea garden. Here is what he shared.

As a tea professional, the Japanese garden is close to my heart and an important element of the tea ceremony.  In the following text, I share some thoughts on the pathways in a tea garden. As I am a tea student, not a gardener, any feedback is most appreciated and will help me become a better gardener. Professor Elliot Mitchnick

Natural stepping stones set for stability and comfortable stroll. See more pathway photos

Pathways help define the Japanese garden, guiding a visitor to important viewing points or features, and are often designed to control the pace of movement or cadence within the garden. This and many other factors create the need for several different forms of pathway design and construction.

In Japan, most ideals are generally divided into the Shin, Gyo and So classification, and garden paths are no exception.   Shin can be translated as formal, Gyo as ordinary, and So as informal. By example, a Shin path could be represented by a nobedan path with its cut and carefully fitted pavers, a Gyo path might be simple stepping stones combined with cut stone, and So would be an ordinary basic path of gravel or packed earth.  Later will see that these classifications are not always a hard fact.   A good overview can be found in the book Japanese Gardens by Ito et al. and published by Yale University Press.  The text is limited, but the photos of rocks and path patterns are very helpful in visualizing a future garden and path.


The Basic Path

We can start with the basic trail that allows a relaxing walk through the garden. These paths can be as simple as a tamped dirt surface that helps define the garden and landscape. These have the disadvantage of becoming muddy in rain and dusty when very dry.  Such a path allows one to regulate the pace with the width of the path – wider making for a slower pace as viewers tend enjoy the garden more. To build this type of path you should plan to tamp and dig the soil down three to four inches, removing any rocks and weeds. When making this path, try  to build it with curves to add interest and so the viewer cannot see the destination and is inspired to find what is just around the bend.  (This basic concept is known as miegakure and is an important feature of the Japanese tea garden called the Roji). Although the curved path is most useful for more narrow paths, this idea should be considered for all forms of paths.

A step up from packed earth would be a path dressed with pine needles, gravel, saw dust, or crushed rock.  This helps the path look clean but may increase maintenance in order to keep the weeds controlled and the surface orderly.  Gravel paths provide a pleasant sound when walked upon.  The type of gravel should not be rounded, but angular and not so deep as one starts to sink into it. It will will become firm underfoot as it ages, but it’s a good idea to test the path as you are building it.

For pathways on slopes, logs or wooden timbers can be used to create level steps of all widths.  It’s a bit more work but it makes it easier and more comfortable for guests to walk and provides a more interesting view of the garden.   You can control puddles by contouring the path.  Check for puddles after your first rain.


Stepping Stones

For me, the stepping stone path is the most interesting design, but I am biased by my love for the tea garden!   You can lay out your stepping stones before you the dig them in to create the pattern and cadence you wish.  Use thick stones that can be dug in so they are even and very sable. Unstable stones make the viewer become afraid, and it becomes a visit they will not enjoy. Generally the stones are placed about 4” apart – closer if over water. They can be placed further apart to encourage viewers to hurry along the path, but not so far apart that the visitor feels unstable or the stones become dangerous when wet.

Stepping stone paths with natural stones set carefully and close together may be considered ‘Gyo’. The fewer stones, the more likely the design is considered  ‘Gyo-So’ or even ‘So’. Another book several stone path ideas is A Japanese Touch for the Garden by Seike et al.  The aesthetic codifications and terminology set forth in Seike’s book may be difficult to grasp for Western minds, but is something to strive for.


Finding stones can be a trying task, involving many hours visiting quarries and stone yards.  You may be looking through many pallets of stones if the quarry will allow it. A friend who built a roji path (tea garden path) spent almost two weeks with the landscaper picking rock and still was not happy with the picks. This is one of the problems of not being able to visit a stone shop in Japan where they would know what you want!

There are other things that may be used as stepping stones other than stone. I prefer simple and rustic objects such as timber rounds, but I find they return to nature quicker than I would like. Perhaps a coat of varnish or other preservative might extend their useful life.   Millstones may also be used in the path, but for me they seem too formal for a small garden and are better for larger scroll gardens and temples than in an intimate garden or a tea garden. Keep in mind that objects used for stepping stones must be easy to stabilize and offer an even surface.


Paving Stone Paths

Shin Gyo

Pathways employing cut stones, or combining cut and natural stones, are generally known as nobedan.  This style allows one to create a completely unique design, as in Japan they are all different. The paving stone path can be considered Gyo or Shin, depending on stone placement and materials used.  The arrangement of artificially cut and/or natural stones with a bit of space between stones is Gyo.  Stones close together and artificially cut are considered Shin.

There is a good article in Journal of Japanese Gardening (Sukiya Living) No. 52.  This short article discusses the use of cut or natural granite, or even the use of slate.

I hope this article sparks an interest in the Japanese styles of garden paths and gives you a few ideas you can use in your garden.

– Elliot Mitchnick, Junkyoju (Associate Professorship) of Urasenke


Elliot Mitchnick holds the tea license rank of Junkyoju. His tea name (chamei) is Soei.

A gallery showing dozens of pathway photos can be seen here.