If bonsai is the Japanese art of growing miniature trees, bonseki is another Japanese art form that creates miniature items.

Bonseki is an ancient art form that recreates natural landscapes out of sand and rocks.

Over many years, there was a noticeable decline in bonseki but thanks to groups that would like to revive this art form, there are now more people taking classes and loving bonseki art.

If you have never heard of bonseki before or would like to find out more about it, let this guide tell you all you need to know.

Materials used in Bonseki

Bonseki is creating or recreating natural landscapes out of sand, rocks, pebbles and even bonsai trees. The materials used to make bonseki art are delicate tools like feathers, small brooms, spoons, wooden wedges, and sifters.

Image Source: The Art of Bonseki

All bonseki art is set on a black lacquer tray. The tray may be oval or rectangular and are all flat.

The scenes depicted in bonseki are usually natural landscapes such as mountains, seashores, gardens, waterfalls, islands and so many more.

Rocks are mostly used to represent mountains and large land masses. Very fine sand is usually used to create water and may be in the form of waves, falling water or clouds.

After the bonseki artist is finished, his work may be preserved for a long time using a form of ancient preservation technique. But usually the final work is displayed for a few days and then the materials are recycled to make new bonseki art.

When bonseki art has been preserved, this is called Bonga or tray picture You may find bonseki art with miniature structures such as temples, arches, houses, bridges, and shrines. These are usually made of painted copper.

History of Bonseki

Before bonseki was considered an art form, it was used simply to describe various land formations found nearby.

The 40th emperor of Japan Emperor Tenmu who reigned from 631 to 696 used bonseki so that his subjects can describe to him his kingdom.

Image Source: Revolvy

It is also believed that several enchanting gardens in Kyoto were designed using bonseki. Kyoto has impressive gardens all over the city and it is not impossible that some of these may have been created using this art form.

It was in the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1443 to 1490 that bonseki has reached its peak of popularity. The art form has become very popular among Japanese aristocrats during this time.

Sen no Rikyu in 1522 to 1591 has the greatest influence in the practice of bonseki. He was so influential and his works so moving that one of his pupils put up a school to teach the art of bonseki.

During the Edo period, bonseki became more popular. Schools were set up especially for women of the Shogunate court in Tokyo. The ladies showed so much interest in creating bonseki that a special school was set up for them.

Image Source: Oh My News

How Bonseki is done

Bonseki is one of the most impressive ways to support the culture of Japan. There are groups that are working on reviving this technique. The Hosokawa School teaches bonseki and the students here are looking for ways to improve the Hosokawa technique for bonseki.

Bonseki is a lovely cultural tradition that should be passed on to younger generations. You can make your own bonseki art at home or in class.

Image Source: Traditional Kyoto

Materials you will need

  • Large black lacquer tray (rectangular or oval will do
  • A few pieces of rocks
  • Pebbles, small stones or small rock particles
  • Fine sand
  • Bonsai plant (optional)
  • Tools like small fine brushes, feathers, wooden plants, tweezers, pebbles (white or any color)
  • Miniature structures (optional)


  1. Sketch the landscape you wish to create or recreate.
  2. Select the rocks, pebbles, and sand you will use for every section of your sketch.
  3. Brush the large rocks until these are clean. You may use water and a brush to clean the rock. You may also clean the small pebbles.
  4. Sift the fine sand clean and set aside.
  5. Clean the black lacquer tray with water and soap. Rinse and then wipe dry. Wait till the lacquer tray is completely dry before proceeding with the bonseki design.
    Tip: Place the small rocks, pebbles, and large sand bits too small compartments or containers. This will make it easier to choose the pebble or rock size.
  6. You may now use the black lacquer tray. Place this on a flat surface like a table where you can work with ease.
  7. Place the largest components first such as the large rocks. Arrange these accordingly.
  8. Add the largest-size pebbles. Scatter these all around the landscape. Use the pebble components from the biggest –size pebbles to the smallest and finest. Use tweezers and spoons to place this flawlessly in position.
  9. Place the sand on the lacquer tray. If you wish to make waves, use small wooden planks and a very light brush to arrange the sand as waves.
  10. If you need to clean or remove any bits of sand, use a small feather or brush.

After you’re done, place your work on a secure surface so people can admire your bonseki-making talent. 

Using bonsai in bonseki

Image Source: We Share Interests

Bonsai in bonseki is based on natural green land formations like mountainsides, beaches, and forests.

You may follow the seki-joju bonsai technique where bonsai is grown in rock. But for easy and simple arrangements, simply add a bonsai tree in the landscape and work your way from using large rocks to the very finest bits of sand.

If you plan to preserve your bonseki art with bonsai, make sure to water your bonsai daily. You may still perform basic bonsai care tasks like pruning but be very careful not to disturb the bonseki art.

Bonsai is planted on shallow pots but still is heavy to lift. And combined with the black lacquer tray the entire piece could be very heavy so be very careful.

Bonseki black lacquer trays and different kinds of stones, pebbles and fine sand are also available online.