Viewing Stone


This page addresses the Western art of Viewing Stones, and the evolution of Viewing Stone classification from the Japanese. Although the Japanese art of Suiseki is the cornerstone for Western Viewing Stones there are many types of viewing stones in this country and throughout the world that cannot be found in Japan, and therefore have no Japanese equivalent. 

A prime example are Desert stones and the tremendous variety of these stones found in the southwestern United States, as well as other deserts in the world. There are no Japanese terms for the variety of these stones because they do not exist in Japan. Likewise, many Desert stones do not conform to strict suiseki criteria. Yet they are wonderful all the same. This rationale has helped Viewing Stones become a separate art form, with its roots in Suiseki. 

Whichever name you use, one of the key aspects of such stones remains their suggestability. True viewing stones or suiseki should "suggest" something to the viewer, not be a precise miniature representation of the object. 

In their book, The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation; Suiseki and Its Use with Bonsai, Dr. Covello and Mr. Yoshimura discuss the classical systems of grouping suiseki. Western Viewing Stones continue to use these systems as the basis for classification. In these systems stones are grouped by shape, color, surface pattern, or place of origin

The Covello-Yoshimura systems are used here as the basis for Western Viewing Stone Classification. Additionally, other types of stones or subclassifications are found in Melba L. Tucker's Suiseki & Viewing Stones, An American Perspective, and in Waiting to be Discovered, the North American Viewing Stone Society's quarterly publication, edited by Jim Hayes (that is, unfortunately, no longer in publication). The Summer 1997 issue of Waiting to be Discovered included an article by Jim Greaves, Desert View Stone Classification, portions of which are included here. In a few instances another subclassification has been included to describe a specific unique stone (e.g., three-object stone). 


When stones are classified by shape, there are two primary subclassifications. Stones may be scenic landscape stones (natural aspects of landscape) or they may be object stones (living and man-made creations).

Scenic landscape stones. Stones in this category suggest natural landscape scenes that we would find in nature.

- Mountain stones. These stones may resemble a single mountain or several mountains. Although distant and near-view mountain stones are the most important sub classification, mountains may also be identified in other ways such as by the number of peaks.

   -- Distant mountain stones. Resemble mountains as viewed from a great distance.

   -- Near-view maintain stones. These appear as mountains viewed up close.

   -- Single-peak stones. Mountains with only one peak.

   -- Double-peak stones. Appear as two mountains, or a single mountain with two peaks.

   -- Triple-peak stones. Mountains with three separate peaks.

   -- Mountain range stones. These stones represent a range of mountains rather than a single mountain with one or more separate peaks.

   -- Rugged Mountain stone. These are mountain stones which have features that make them look exceedingly rugged.

   -- Snow-covered mountain stone. Mountain stones that have snow like minerals at the peak(s) or on their sides.

   -- Desert Scenic stone. Appear to be a distant, panoramic view of desert; often including several buttes or mesas.

   -- Desert Mountain stone. These mountain stones are notable due to the pinnacles or spires that grace their peaks.

   -- Butte stone. An isolated mountain with a flat or eroded top and steep, verticle walls. The base is usually composed of rocks forming a slanted pile from the desert floor.

   --Mesa stone. Mountain-like formation having a flat, broad top and sharply verticle sides.

- Waterfall stones. These stones resemble a mountain with one or more waterfalls. The waterfall is suggested by a streak of white mineral emanating from near the top of the stone and coming down the front. If the waterfall appears on both sides of the stone it is usually not considered a good stone. There are several specific types of waterfalls that are recognized.

   -- Thread-waterfall stones. Suggested by a thin line of quartz-like material running down the front of the stone.

   -- Sheet-waterfall stones. These have broader lines of light-colored material coming down the front side of the stone.

   -- Dry waterfall stones. These are stones that have definite markings that suggest a waterfall that has dried up.

   -- Mountain waterfall stones. Such stones meet the basic requirements of Mountain stones with the added feature of one or more waterfalls appearing on their front surfaces.

   -- Mountain-stream stones. The suggestion of a mountain stream appears as though running through a gorge or valley. The effect is enhanced if there is a white mineral vein running along where the stream would be. Such stones are most ideal if the stream runs diagonally across the stone, rather than from front to back.

- Plateau stones. Plateau stones suggest a terraced hillside or a series of flat steps rising toward a cliff. A classical stone would have at least three steps, which would vary in length. The rise between each step should be vertical or nearly vertical.

- Island stones. As the name implies, these stones resemble an island rising out of the water. They are traditionally low in height and ideally have features that suggest coves or inlets. These stones are normally displayed in a suiban or doban filled with sand or water to enhance the island image of the stone.

- Slope stones. These stones suggest the rolling hills of a plain or a slope gently rising toward a hill.

- Shore stones. Such stones are usually shallow and suggest a rocky shoreline. There are two primary subcategories.

   -- Reef stones. Rough stones suggesting a jagged reef or shoal.

   -- Sandbar stones. Smooth stones suggesting a sandbar or quiet beach.

- Cape stones.

- Waterpool stones. These stones have depressions that suggest mountain pools or ponds. Porous stone that do not allow the pool portion of the stone to be filled with water are not prized. The most highly prized pool stones are those with the pool encircled by one or more well-formed mountains.

- Pool or Lake stones. These are similar to waterpool stones except the depressions suggest lakes or deeper pools than the shallower waterpools.

- Waterpuddle stones. Similar to waterpool stones, these have very shallow depressions that hold water.

- Coastal rock stones. These stones suggest a high, wind-swept rocky coastline; a tall, roughly shaped offshore rock; or a steep cliff at the end of a peninsula. Stones with white mineral deposits at their base are especially prized, since these markings suggest waves breaking against the cliffs.

- Cave stones. The hollows and cavities in these stones resemble caves, caverns or grottos. The cave is ideally suggested by a deep and dark cavity, the end of which cannot be seen. The most admired cave stones are those where the cave slants sharply to the left or the right.

- Shelter stones. The concave shape of these stones suggest a shallow shelter or temporary refuge formed by an overhanging cliff. To be classified as a shelter stone, the floor of the shelter should be at least partly visible.

- Rain-shelter stones. These are essentially the same as shelter stones except that you can more easily imagine the shelter protecting from rain.

- Tunnel stones. The hole or holes in these stones suggest a pass-through tunnel or natural arch. Traditionally, the tunnel passes completely through the stone.

- Desert Arch, Natural bridge and Window rock stones. Stones in this category remind the viewer of one or more of these closely related desert features. An arch is continuous rock over an opening in the rock beneath it. A Natural bridge stone is similar, but flat on the top of the arch so that it more closely reminds one of a bridge. Window rock stones remind one of a window (although usually round or oval in shape) in the surrounding rock.

- Desert Hoodoo or Ventifact stone. These stones are verticle pillars of abstract form created by wind-blown sand erosion.

- Monument stones. ??

- Canyon or Coulee stones. Coulee stones remind the viewer of deep ravines or gulches that have been worn away by running water. Canyon stones are similar, but with the appearance of deep valleys having steep sides running through the stone.

- Dry lake or Playa stones. These stones resemble the dry, mud-caked flat floor of a desert basin or lake.

- Arroyo or Dry wash stones. Stones in this group are similar to Canyon stones except they are usually wider and have flat floors where water has appeared to wash them away evenly after heavy rains.

- Sand dune stones. Stones in this category have the appearance of desert sand dunes. Many variations are possible.

Object stones. Stones in this category resemble objects closely associated with nature. The finest stones do not exactly copy the object, but suggest it through a few subtle lines and forms. There are eight traditional categories under this heading.

- House-shaped stones. These stones suggest various types of rustic houses. The emphasis here is on "rustic". A stone that resembles a typical American home, although potentially interesting, would not be regarded as a viewing stone. Or certainly not one of value.

   -- Thatched-hut stones. Thatched-hut stones form an especially important category within this group. Ideally the stone has an overhanging rounded or triangular roof and an eroded or recessed center. If the stone appears to have pillars holding up the roof, it is normally more valued.

   -- Pueblo stones. These stones resemble the adobe or stone house or group of houses of certain Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, USA.

   -- Cliff dwelling stones. Stones in this category remind the viewer of houses carved out of cliffs such as exist in the American southwest.

- Boat-shaped stones. These stones resemble different types of boats, including wooden sailing ships, rowboats, and houseboats.

- Bridge-shaped stones. As the name suggests, these stones resemble a stone or wooden bridge.

- Animal-shaped stones. Any stone which resembles an animal would fall into this category.

- Bird-shaped stones. This group of stones resemble real and mythcal birds.

- Insect-shaped stones. Most popular subjects within this category would be butterflies, dragonflies, crickets and grasshoppers.

- Fish-shaped stones. Although all fish belong in this category, koi and goldfish are especially prized by collectors.

- Human-shaped stones. The most popular subjects for these stones include fishermen, farmers, maidens, Buddha, and Buddhist monks. Stones that suggest parts of the human body are also included in this grouping.

- Three objects stones. These stones suggest three different objects when viewed from different angles.


In this system viewing stontes are classified by their color. They are set aside from other stones by their deep, subdued, and excellent color. The stone is appreciated both for its color and what the color suggests (dawn, dusk, night, spring, sunsets). Color stones must still remain aesthetic and suggestive.

Black stones

Jet-black stones

Red stones

Blue stones

Purple stones

Golden-yellow stones

Yellow-red stones

Five-color stones. Traditionally these stones are a mixture of red, yellow, and green together with either gray, blue, purple, white or black.


In this system viewing stones are classified by their surface patterns. Pattern stones are set aside from other viewing stones by the striking surface patterns formed by the stone's textures, colors, lines, embedded minerals, and other features. Most collectors have traditionally preferred patterns closely associated with nature.

-Plant-pattern stones. Literally, tree-pattern stones. The surface patterns on these stones resemble a tree, plant or parts of a plant.

   --Forest-pattern stones. These have surface patterns that resemble numerous trees, as a forest.

   --Bonsai-pattern stones. These stones have a surface pattern that resembles a bonsai tree and pot.

   --Flower-pattern stones. Patterns on these stones suggest types of flowers. Two categories of Flower-patterns are especially prized throughout the world.

      ---Chrysanthemum-pattern stones. The patterns on these stones suggest the radial design of the chrysanthemum flower. The chrysanthemum is a traditional Oriental symbol of immortality.

      ---Japanese plum-blossom-pattern stones. These stones have patterns that resemble Japanese plum blossoms.

      ---Wild rose-pattern stones. These stones have surface patterns that suggest wild roses.

   --Fruit-pattern stones. The surface patterns on these stones suggest different types of fruit.

   --Leaf-pattern stones. The surface patterns of these stones suggest different types of tree or flower foliage.

   --Grass-pattern stones. These have patterns that suggest different types of grasses, including bamboo and pampas grass. 

  -Celestial-pattern stones. These stones suggest different objects in the day or night sky.

   --Moon-pattern stones. These stones have inclusions or embedded minerals which resemble the moon.

   --Sun-pattern stones. These have markings or embedded minerals which remind one of some aspect of the sun; setting, rising, or fully displayed.

   --Star-pattern stones. The surface patters of these stones remind one of stars in the sky. 

  -Weather-pattern stones. Stones in this subcategory remind one of various weather related phenomenon. The three identified below are the most common, but others are possible.

   --Rain-pattern stones. These stones have inclusions or patterns that remind one of driving rain, usually coming down at an angle.

   --Snow-pattern stones. Stones in this group resemble various patterns of snow falling.

   --Lightening-pattern stones. Usually dark stones with white mineral deposits that resemble lightning bolts striking across the sky. 

  -Abstract-pattern stones. Although patterns in this category are abstract, they often suggest a subject closely associated with nature.

   --Tiger-stripe-pattern stones. Stones with alternating strips of color, suggesting the stripes of a tiger.

   --Tangled-net-pattern stones. The crisscrossing lines on the surface of these stones often suggest a tangled fishing net.

   --Pit-mark-pattern stones. These stones are pockmarked with tiny pits or depressions. The pit looks as if they were formed by small needles or by the action of particles of sand grinding into the stone.

   --Snake-pattern stones. These stones have curving and winding patterns on the surface that suggest the writhing movements of a snake.

   --Embedded stones. These stones have abstract patterns embedded in their surface that are pleasing but do not suggest specific objects. 

  -Desert-pattern stones. These patterns are all associated with the desert.

   -- Cracked Mud Flat-pattern stones. Stones in this category resemble the floors of dried mud flats where interesting patterns are created by the quickly drying clay.

   -- Windrows-pattern stones. ??

   -- Indian blanket-pattern stones. Patterns on these stones remind one of the bright patterns on American Indian blankets.

   -- Petroglyph-pattern stones. These patterns remind one of prehistoric drawings and carvings. 


An increasing number of Viewing Stone collectors include classification by place of origin. Some stones are referred to using only this system. Although most of this current list are of locations in Japan, stay tuned for updates. A growing number of international sites are becoming recognized and as I learn of them they will be added.

Locations in Japan that are especially famous as viewing stone collecting sites.

Kamogawa river stones. Jet black Distant mountain or Slope stones found in the Kamogawa river in Kyoto prefecture.

   --Kurama stones. Brown granite Island, Distant mountain, or Object stones found around the Kamogawa river, Kyoto prefecture. Also gray or brown limestone Tangled-net pattern stones.

   --Kibune stones. Dark gray or reddish-purple Mountain, Waterfall, or Mountain-stream stones found around the Kamgawa river.

Setagawa river stones. Black Mountain, Slope or Tiger-stripe pattern stones from around the Setagawa river in Shiga and Kyoto prefectures.

Nachiguro stones. Jet-black Mountain or Plateau stones from the mountains of Mie prefecture.

Kamuikotan stones. Black or blue-green Mountain, Slope, or Plateau stones from the rivers and streams of Hokkaido prefecture.

Sado red stones. Red Mountain or Island stones from the mountains of Niigata prefecture.

Ibigawa river stones. Black, bluish-black, or gray Coastal, Island, Waterpool, Shelter, or Waterfall stones from the rivers and streams of Gifu prefecture.

Sajigawa river stones. Black, bluish-black, or gray Coastal, Island, Waterpool, Shelter, or Waterfall stones from the rivers and streams of Tottori prefecture.

Furuya stones. Black or gray-black Mountain, Waterfall, Mountain-stream, or Coastal stones from the mountains of Wakayama prefecture.

Seigaku stones. Black or gray-black Mountain, Waterfall, Mountain-stream, or Coastal stones from the mountains of Shizuoka prefecture.

Neodani stones. Several stone types including Chrysanthemum-pattern stones of Gifu prefecture. 

  Some locations in the United States especially famous as viewing stone collecting sites.

Mojave Desert stones, California, USA

Murphys stones, Murphys California, USA 

  Some locations in Italy especially famous as viewing stone collecting sites.

Ligurian stones, Ligurian Alps, Italy. Hard limestone. Similar geological composition to Furuya-ishi. In Italian such stones are referred to as 'Palombini' because of their blue-gray color similar to a pigeon (palombo).
NOTE: As a side note, viewing stones are called 'living stones' (le pietre vive) in Italy. - Marco Favero 


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