When I first came to Japan, I somehow hallucinated that since buildings are generally of wood, there's no traditional stone building technique. In a region subject to frequent earthquakes, there is an obvious advantage in not making houses by piling things on top of each other and relying on weight for stability. But while the superstructure of buildings (including castles) is generally of wood, of course stone has always been used for foundations, retaining walls, and things like that.

Once this had finally dawned on me, I started noticing some interesting features. I grew up in Painswick, a stone-built village in the Cotswold Hills of South-West England, surrounded by fields edged with dry-stone walls, so I thought I knew how walls worked, but it turns out that the techniques used in the two places have almost nothing in common.

(Click for larger images)

At any rate, the stones aren't arranged in horizontal layers. For retaining walls, whether watercourses or castle foundations, the basic strategy seems to be to go for strength by diagonally interlocking the stones. The walls above are all dry (i.e. without mortar), but the diagonal pattern also appears frequently in mortared retaining walls, and in walls made of concrete blocks.

Mortared blocks

(Left) Wall built from natural stone blocks. (See this as a tiling background.)

(Right) Standard modern retaining wall pattern, made from interlocking concrete blocks; it's not moulded in situ.

Not moulded!

Another striking feature is the way in which almost all walls are multi-tiered. No simple slab of bricks rising from the ground. Here are a couple of nice examples

Blocks on cobbles
At least on the surface, a base of angled cobbles, then a thin layer, one thicker course, then the wall.

Fake diagonals
Here the base is simply cement rendered, but the fake pattern is diagonal!

Corner mess Anyway, you can see in the left photo above that some walls are simply built with the conventional "brick-wall" pattern of horizontal blocks, so why the fuss about diagonals? Isn't it just a free choice? Anyone who has ever played with children's building blocks knows that using standard "bricks" whose length is twice the width, it's trivially easy to go around a 90-degree corner. And odd angles - acute or obtuse - can be managed if you trim the ends of the block appropriately. But with diagonally laid blocks, apart from the gentlest of curves, there is simply no way to do it!

How about bluster? The photo on the right shows what happens if you pretend the problem doesn't exist. (This is an obtuse corner: about 135 degrees.)

Fastidious bend And on the left - the fastidious way! This is only a 10-degree bend in the road, and it means stopping and starting again.

Hexagons (Right) Here's something different: the side of a flyover in hexagonal blocks. And oops! again...

Finally, a nice old house I discovered, apparently deserted, completely surrounded by a neat wall-hedge combination. Since the wall is not more than three stones high - can't say "courses", can we? - almost all of them are "edge pieces", that is, it's like a jigsaw puzzle three pieces high. Click the thumbnails below to see how they manage on the corners.


E gate E corner W gate W corner Outside NW corner


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© Brian Chandler 2002
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Started early 2000 - Completed March 2002 - WDG validated