You’re probably familiar with bonsai, but what exactly is its other traditional art form cousin, bonseki?

Bonsai (盆栽) (literally “tray plantings”), bonkei (盆景) (tray landscapes), bontei (盆庭) (tray gardens), bonsan (盆山) (tray mountains)…the common element in all of these traditional Japanese art forms is bon (盆), which refers to a shallow tray or tray-like pot, which in these traditional art forms is used to create miniature representations of the natural world. With the exception of bonsai, these three-dimensional depictions are composed of mostly non-living, dry materials such as rocks, pebbles, white sand, and papier-mache. They’re created in a similar manner to traditional dry landscape gardens, only within the much smaller confines of a tray.

Today, we’d like to highlight another variation of tray art known as bonseki (盆石)

(“tray rocks”), in which miniature landscapes are crafted on black lacquer trays using–you guessed it–small rocks and sand. Bonseki dates back to at least the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) of Japanese history, as depictions of them can be found on hanging picture scrolls of the time.

▼ A much later 1899 woodblock print by Yoshu Chikanobu depicting a woman making bonseki

9Wikipedia/Toyohara Chikanobu

Common bonseki scenes include mountains, seascapes, and gardens, and unlike typical bonkei, the natural depictions created are usually meant to be viewed only temporarily. In the words of one modern bonseki school in Tokyo:

“The importance of bonseki is the peaceful feeling and satisfaction you derive from creating a bonseki scene, not the result of the work.”

We’d have to agree that creating a bonseki would be an extremely relaxing way to spend an evening after a stressful day of work. In fact, see how long it takes you to fall in love with bonseki after checking out some of the following modern artistic creations below.

▼ Those sand “water” ripples are sublime.

1Hosokawa-Ryu Bonseki

2Hosokawa-Ryu Bonseki

3Hosokawa-Ryu Bonseki

4Hosokawa-Ryu Bonseki

▼ The tools used to create bonseki are miniature themselves!

5Hosokawa-Ryu Bonseki

▼ A bonseki artist hard at work


▼ A slightly more modern take with miniature skiers on a snowy mountain

the bonseki

Feeling inspired yet? Try crafting your own bonseki and let us know how it turns out!

Sources: Japaaan Magazine, Wikipedia (1, 23)
Top image: the bonseki