The Stone Merchant: Sato Teiseki ten

If you go for a drive in rural Japan you’ll occasionally come across billboards for stone dealers. Stone dealers do just what you’d think: they sell rocks. You might imagine that these people sell gravestones or maybe natural gemstones with mystical powers. Well this week we went to visit a stone dealer in Yamanashi’s Koshu City where they sell the kind of stones that are used in Japanese traditional garden landscaping and took a deeper look at the business.

Interviewed by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka

Stacked-up Koshu Kurama-ishi stones

First off, could you tell me a bit about the stones you use here?

We use stones called Koshu Kurama-ishi. Yamato-cho in Koshu City is well known as being a source of these stones since ancient times. The stones you can get here are similar to Kyoto’s famous Kurama-ishi stones, and that’s why they’re called Koshu Kurama-ishi stones.

I’ve heard of Kurama-ishi before.

Kurama-ishi are the classic Kyoto garden stones. They’re used for stone lanterns, for kutsunugi-ishi, the large stone that acts as a step up to the garden veranda in traditional homes, and generally for stepping stones in gardens and so on. The surface has a red-brown rusty quality to it, so it has a wabi-sabi effect. Koshu Kurama-ishi are, when you really get down to it, practically the same stone. It’s just that the brand isn’t as well known, so our stones sell from one-fifth to one-tenth of the price of Kyoto’s Kurama-ishi stones. (laughs)

The stones are processed, but the natural shape of the stone is taken into consideration when adding new elements

The face of Daruma carved into a stone

How do you get a hold of the stones?

The land we dig them from is community property. We get permission from the prefecture which we have to renew every three years, and we dig up each one with great care. Recently, we have to comply with various environmental protection rules as well, so following all those regulations makes it a tough job. Then, we take the rocks we’ve gotten and grind and process them before selling them. Most of the rocks we sell are used in home gardens.

I understand you also sell your stones online. It must be hard to send them through the mail!

That’s true. We sell direct through the mail, but often the freight cost winds up being more than the cost of the stone itself. (laughs) So in our case, we actually do a lot of business in cooperation with building contractors. We do get some very passionate people who come to us directly to see the stones, but most of our work comes through construction companies.

The stones may look dirty, but this patina is actually a feature of Kurama-ishi.

The stones on the left are freshly dug “young” stones. The ones on the right have developed character after years of exposure to the elements.

How long have you been in the stone business?

Yes, well, my grandfather founded the business in 1930, so it’s been about eighty years. Back then they used to call Kyoto’s Kurama-ishi “Honkura” and Koshu’s stone was called “Shinkura.” Well, there really isn’t much difference, though. Look, you dig it up like this and let it sit for a while and it gets a real character to it (points at a stone). When they’re freshly dug, they’re quite bright and young-looking. If you use one like that in your garden it really stands out.

Mr. Sato, do you also think about the layout of gardens?

Yes. But that’s the most difficult thing. I have to think about how to make the best of the stone’s natural shape. With tobi-ishi (stepping stones), I think about how to lay them so that it’s easy for people to walk, yet at the same time somehow meaningful, and how to arrange the different sized stones. I try to bring out the natural beauty of the stone. That’s really difficult.

Mr. Sato listens to the client’s general ideas and then decides the stone layout

What do you mean when you say, “Make the best of the stone’s natural shape?”

Well it’s like this. It’s the same as when you’re cooking a meal and you want to show off the ingredients. You don’t just line them up neatly; you’ve got to take so many things into account: the boldness and delicateness of each stone, the overall effect. I think about the momentum of the hidari katte (stone that will be trodden with the left foot) and the migi katte (stone that will be trodden with the right foot) when I’m laying stones.

Mr. Sato, you seem as though you’re not just a stone dealer but you’ve also got quite an eye for garden planning.

Oh no, that’s not really true. At first, I was just working as a plain old stone dealer. I started working at this job thirty years ago. I’d graduated university in Tokyo, but I was the oldest son in a stone dealing family so I took it over as the third generation. I hated every day of it and cursed those Kurama-ishi as I worked. The stones are heavy and you get covered in powder when you grind them. I felt like you’d have to be a real idiot to want to work as a stone dealer. (laughs)

The stones are processed into a variety of shapes with these giant power tools

Processed stones placed in a garden

How long did it take before you got turned on to the charm of the stones?

Oh, I was gritting my teeth as I worked for the first eight years or so. But when you spend every day looking at stones and gardens, you gradually begin to appreciate the finer elements. And one day, I suddenly began to feel, “Stones are perfectly alive.” And then, strangely enough, I began to talk about that with my customers. Up until then we’d only ever talked about stuff like the economy. It turns out that among my customers there are people who feel the same way about stones as I do.

Once you develop an eye for stones, does your aesthetic sense for other things change as well?

Well, once you get to know a bit about rocks, even if you go to a hotel you wind up checking out the stones in the garden, and you notice when stone lanterns have been manufactured overseas. “Ooh, they’re in such bad financial shape that they can’t take care of their garden” and “This lantern is of inferior quality, it must be made in such-and-such country.” And so on. But one thing that I can say applies across the board and that is that good things take the time and care of a human hand to make them what they are.

The Chuo Highway visible here in the upper left was completed in 1982. Since then the name recognition of Koshu Kurama-ishi stones grew in leaps and bounds.

Watching you look at the stones, I can really tell how much you care for them.

Yes. My hobby is my work, and I really love interacting with the stones. Up until about seven or eight years ago I was just working for the money, but now thinking about earning money just feels boring to me. But actually, once I started getting interested in the deeper aspects of stones and started to enjoy my work, it’s a funny thing but I started having an easier time making money too.

Making the best of the stone’s natural beauty

But to hear how you started out cursing the stone industry and now you’ve made it your life work is really inspiring.

Oh yes, I’m really very lucky. I’m so grateful that I was born into a stone dealer’s family. I can do what I love and make money too. What has changed since I was young? I suppose my way of thinking is the only thing that has changed. (laughs) You’ve got to believe in yourself. If you think it’s bad then it’s going to be bad. Your parents gave you life, so you’ve go to take that life and make it the best one you can. That’s what I believe.

Sato Teiseki-ten
Tsuruse 540, Yamato-cho, Koshu City, Yamanashi

Teruyuki Satoh
Born in 1955, in Yamato-cho, Koshu City, Yamanashi.


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    Reading this interview and seeing these photographs just confirm my opinion that stones -their shape, arrangement, and presentation – are an art form. How lucky Mr Satoh is that he finally fell in love with his stones!

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