Japanese Art in Miniature Landscapes - Bookshelf Memories

Japanese Art in Miniature Landscapes

You don’t need a book nook kit to take advantage of the benefits of 3D puzzles. You can build your own with living materials including plants, grasses, and miniature trees. Or build completely artificial dioramas of a miniature landscape. Japanese art in miniature landscapes have a few different types. Bonseki, bonkei, bontei, and saikei. Each has its distinctions and traditional methods of building these types of 3D art displays.

The Different Types of Japanese Miniature Landscapes 


Classic bonseki - a black tray with white sand

Globetrotter19, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bonseki could be considered the Japanese equivalent of sand sculpting. Translated, it means tray rocks. White sand is used to mimic the water, and pebbles and small rocks are used to add dramatic landscapes. These can be rocky mountains or shorelines. Traditionally, these are created on a black lacquer tray or ceramic tray with low sides/rims or flat rectangle trays. Naturally, containing sand on a tray with raised edges is easier.

To manipulate the sand to make it look like waves and ripples in the water, sand sculpting tools are used, such as small flax brooms, wedges, spoons, and feathers. If you want to add more interest to the art, miniature arches, bridges, shrines, and even a temple can be added. To stay with the tradition of bonseki, miniature structures are painted copper. The result is a classic black, white, and copper display.

The art is intended to be short-lived, typically lasting a few days, then another is created – that’s the hobby part. If you want to preserve it by applying a coating of clear adhesive over it to hold it in place, that’s called a Bonga, meaning a brush-stroke picture. A bonga is an interesting bookshelf decorating idea for a more formal setting using monotone rather than numerous bright colors.  


Illustration of a bonkei - clay moulding of a rock mountain

By lezumbalaberenjena (FlickR) | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bonkei means tray landscape. Rather than only working with sand and rocks, bonkei has much more going on in the miniature landscape and interestingly, it’s completely artificial. If you wanted to include trees, plants, or grass in a bonkei, it would be artificial plants. No living plants are used like they are in saikei. Instead, a bonkei is made with clay, cement, papier mache, sand, and similar materials. Miniature structures, models, and figurines can be added to make it a more realistic diorama.


Bontei - a Japanese art form of a miniature zen like garden of sand and rocks in a tray

Bontei means tray garden in Japanese. In Japanese garden design, there are four elements considered essential. Those are rocks, water, plants, and an ornament. There are also 5 design principles to consider. Those are asymmetry, borrowed scenery, an enclosure, balance, and symbolism. Quite a lot to fit into a tray, and that’s the challenge. The simplest of these are zen garden kits consisting of sand to replicate the sea and rocks that can symbolize mountains.

A miniature temple could be added and succulent plants can be placed on the rocks, or small trees if you wanted to incorporate bonsai. Seki-joju is the term used to describe a bonsai growing on a rock, and Ishisuki is the term used to describe a bonsai growing out of the crevices of a rock. Essentially, the tree is rooted inside the rock. These are ideal for making little islands on a tray.


Image of a salkei made with Brush Cherry and Kingsville Boxwood

By |Sage Ross (FlickR) | CC BY-SA 2.0

Saikei means planted landscape and it differs from bonkei by using live plants. In a saikei, you’re working with soil, sand, stones, moss, plants, and trees on a tray. Unlike bonsai, which has one type of tree on a tray, a saikei can have more than  tree species, not necessarily bonsai, and succulents are added as accent plants. A core component of saikei is scale. The aim is to build a replica of a scene in nature.

How saikei differs from bonsai

Bonsai has fewer components than saikei. It consists of a tray, rocks (stones/pebble/gravel), and miniature trees. In saikei, much more is used to make a more interesting landscape design in miniature form. Moreover, it’s a living landscape. Multiple species of trees can be used, and instead of a gravel or moss base, the ground coverings consist of living plant materials including succulent plants and grasses.

In modern-day saikei creations, the landscape is the living material, and they can include miniature figurines, ornamentals, and similar miniature items. This is part of what’s making saikei a popular of the many Japanese art forms and styles. The objective of saikei is to replicate an area, such as one of the many islands in Japan, you could stray into creating something more unique with your own creative touches, such as making a saikei with a  fantasy theme like a miniature fairy garden complete with mini gnomes, a troll, or a goblin under a bridge.

Tips for maintaining a saikei

As saikies contain living plants and trees, they do need some ongoing care and attention, mainly to keep their size in check. Trees will continue to grow, the trunks will thicken, and certain succulents can bloom given the right conditions. Occasional watering and pruning will be required.

For trees, they can outgrow the saikei. Generally, 6 inches is the height limit. Once they reach that height, growing any taller will impact the scale of the rest of the design. When that happens, best practice is to either remove the tree or trim it down. By the time they reach the stage of needing replacing in a saikei, the trunk will have developed in thickness that will be ideal to train as a bonsai. For the plants, succulents have different lifespans. Some last a year, and others can last for decades.